I recently did a workshop on this theme of maitri as it is in Sanskrit, or metta as it is referred to in Pali, which is translated as lovingkindness, and I wanted to share parts of it here. It’s such an important practice for all of us, now more than ever.
Lovingkindness sounds really good, but it is kind of generic sounding in a way. Many religions teach about love and kindness and it is a good thing. Even people who don’t have religious interests can see the benefit in many different points of view and cultures and perspectives. That is a given, I think, for many people.
When Buddhism became more prominent, being transmitted in North America and the modern western world, there was a moment in the late 1980s where His Holiness the Dalai Lama had a gathering with teachers, western Buddhist teachers like Ani Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg and others came together and as the story goes they all described how their western students really did not like themselves. What is most interesting is His Holiness was shocked, he didn’t believe it. That in itself was really an important moment.
He said to emphasize the teachings of maitri, which actually didn’t initially focus on the individual caring for themselves. Maitri or metta just means lovingkindness to all, it doesn’t mean to the individual per se. But he said to emphasize it for the individual.
I think that was a beautiful testament to how His Holiness The Dalai Lama is a very fearless and innovative soul. He likes growth, he knows that the teachings of meditation will change as they come to new cultures, he has embraced that, and I think that is among the many reasons why he is beloved by so many people. He is very openminded, very nondogmatic.
I think we all need that, we need that in this world so much. That in itself is a form of lovingkindness, to not have such a tight fixed view that we cannot dialogue, that we’re afraid of hearing different viewpoints or we’re afraid of how we feel when we hear different things. If that is the case then lovingkindness could be very helpful.
I’ve devoted by life to these teachings for the last couple of decades, and over the years, I’ve been amazed at how difficult it is for all of us, myself included, to embrace ourselves with love and care, and it’s not for a lack of getting the basic instruction around that.
Many of us have entered into meditation hearing that it is partly a practice of making friends with ourselves, partly a practice of gentleness. It is also about being present, synchronizing mind and body, being in the present moment, so that we can experience the benefits of being fully available to ourselves and the people we love and to the world.
Of course, there have been countless studies on the benefits of mindfulness and awareness and compassion and how much it helps, yet, there is a level of challenge that many of us face in understanding loving kindness for ourselves in this time.
Many of the texts on this have been translated from one language to another but they haven’t necessarily been culturally translated. One of the big differences I see, and what I hope to convey here, is the distinction between individualist cultural conditioning and collectivist cultural conditioning.
The difference is so significant that one of my colleagues, a teacher and professor, Sarah Lewis, who is now at University of Boulder, Colorado, she used to be at Wellesley, wrote a book about the difference in the way Tibetans responded to trauma. In peer reviewed studies they actually respond to it in a different way. Part of it is cultural and part of it is conditioning from a young age in their culture and their sense of identity.
Being in a collectivist culture you identify with the group, you identify with being in relationship. It is true that in North America, even though it is a deeply polarized place with great inequities, there are many different cultures and different ethnic groups and some are more in the spectrum towards a collectivist culture than others.
So it is not true that there is just one way that way that we’re conditioned in North America or Europe, however, the predominant power structures and the predominant psychology of the institutions and the things that have the most influence on us are coming from and have come out of strong individualist culturally conditioned psychology. So that is very interesting.
This blog post is part of an ongoing series. Stay tuned for Part 2!