It’s often said that Buddhism is built on two core principles – wisdom and compassion. On intensive meditation retreats, I spend most of my time engaged in wisdom-based practice, with mindfulness at the root. But it is metta, the Pali term for loving-kindness, that imbues the long, silent days with a fundamental heartfulness.
Metta can be cultivated through a variety of techniques. One basic approach begins at the easiest point of entry, offering metta to ourselves and to a “benefactor” — a person towards whom the heart is naturally inclined with gratitude. Once gaining some stability there, next comes metta for a “neutral person” — someone familiar to us, a passing acquaintance perhaps, who elicits neither malice nor specific good will.
Then it gets interesting. And harder: Metta for the “difficult person” or “enemy.” Here, we extend loving-kindness to someone who has harmed or wronged us. Towards whom we feel anger, even hatred. This is not meant to exonerate or condone unethical behaviors; instead, it is a recognition that feeding resentment or nurturing a vendetta serves no benefit. Obviously, this catapults the practice to a new level.
Other than transient annoyances and grievances, I have few candidates with whom I easily slot the “difficult person” position (we’re talking personal relationships, not politicians). I am grateful for this. But there are two applicants who regularly vie for the vote. One was a dear friend who abruptly ended our relationship a few years back and ignored numerous attempts to bridge the breach. The second is a colleague who has long held me in a negative light, for reasons I’ve never understood. I’ll call them Aaron and Vincent (well, Adolph and Osama make such clunky pseudonyms).
While on retreat, thoughts of Aaron or Vincent will occasionally enter my awareness. These appearances take many flavors: I’ll catch myself in mental battle, scripting imaginary conversations, arguments, or rebuttals; I’ll be seized by anger, resentment, or shame; I’ll re-analyze, for the umpteenth time, what went wrong, whose fault it was, or how to heal the breach. At times, I will offer metta to them. Other times I will offer metta to myself, for the pain of carrying wounds that have yet to be assuaged. Or, I may envision, with dark pleasure, their public humiliation.
In the silence I can go days, even weeks, without Vincent or Aaron popping up. I have also gone long stretches feeling genuine metta for them, indeed for all of us as we muddle through the messy thicket of human relatedness. But then the fire or ice of my resentment will reappear, and at moments come to dominate the landscape.
I believe in this practice. I believe there is benefit in navigating one’s psyche towards kindness, even for those we perceive as having wronged us personally or who cause harm in the world. I have experienced, repeatedly, that when I actually open my heart in this manner I touch a deep happiness and humanity, certainly more so than when I indulge fantasies of revenge or nurse my grievances, which taste sweet in the moment but invariably leave a toxic aftertaste.
Still, no surprise here: these beliefs don’t make the journey towards kind-heartedness any less circuitous.
One afternoon deep into the retreat, walking back to my dorm room after lunch, I stopped to gaze out the windows of the narrow second floor hallway. It was a bright winter’s day. The sunlight blazed through a long line of windows.
My interest gravitated to a row of icicles hanging off a nearby roof. Slowly, I watched the early afternoon sun inch diagonally across the roof. At first, the dozen or so icicles, of various lengths and thicknesses, were all shaded. But I arrived just in time to see the sun gradually reach one icicle after another. Exposed to the first direct sun of the day, each icicle started glistening, and then melting.
How fun! I started predicting: how soon after meeting the sun’s heat would the icicle start dripping, and then dislodge completely from the roof’s edge? It was the perfect day for this impromptu entertainment — warm enough to send several icicles, one after another, plummeting down to the ground, each dropping like a dagger disengaged from its sheath.
Towards the end of the row, at the corner of the roof, the icicles were thicker and longer. This was evidently the spot where icicles were most apt to form, and to linger the longest when they did. These icicles also dripped, but more slowly than the others. Their mass was too entrenched to fall or melt completely away, at least that afternoon. They weren’t permanent – this is New England, and spring would eventually come – but for the foreseeable future these icicles would remain affixed to the roofline.
And so I thought of Victor and Aaron. My most jagged interpersonal wounds are like stubborn icicles. I can go for days, or seasons, with no ice in my heart. But when I start ruminating on who has wronged me, on my “difficult” person, it’s the Victor and Aaron icicles that form in the least sunny corner, drip away the slowest, and most resist melting for good into a soft puddle of water.
(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This twice-monthly blog explores how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).