Generosity of the Heart
excerpted from One Dharma by Joseph Goldstein
Not only is lovingkindness an excellent example of how the path of One Dharma unites the different schools of Buddhism, it is also a key to the path itself. In this practice we can reclaim the potential for kindness – to ourselves and those around us.
This special quality of lovingkindness is the generosity and openness of heart that simply wishes all beings to be happy. Metta doesn’t seek self-benefit; it is not offered with the expectation of getting something back. And because it’s not dependent on external conditions, on people being or behaving in a certain way, it is not easily disappointed. As metta grows stronger, we feel more open to others, more open to ourselves, with benevolence and good humor. The poet W.H. Auden expressed it well: “Love your crooked neighbor with all your crooked heart.”
Sometimes as we practice sending feelings of lovingkindness to others and ourselves, we may feel we are not loving enough. Or we expect metta to be an ecstatic feeling that will carry us away on waves of bliss, only to then feel discouraged when we don’t feel particularly ecstatic. But lovingkindness can be better understood as the simple quality of friendly responsiveness to the people around us. More helpful translations of metta might be “good will” or a “kind heart.” It is a basic openness of heart that allows the world in. When we look at ourselves and our actions in this way, we may find ourselves more loving than we think.
The Buddha also emphasized the development of gratitude, one of the most beautiful and rare qualities in the world. We so easily take for granted – or forget – the kindness people show us. Yet when we feel true gratitude, whether toward particular people or toward life, metta will flow from us naturally. When we connect with another person through gratitude, the barriers that separate begin to melt. Without “us” and “them” we are left simply in the openness of the situation, living in concord, just as those park-dwelling monks did in the time of Buddha.
Learning to live in a space of friendliness and love requires patience and constancy. Very often we fall back into familiar patterns of annoyance, irritation, anger and ill will. But these states can also be a bell chime of mindfulness for us, reminds us to investigate rather than drown in them. Thomas Merton knew that going through difficult times is an essential part of the spiritual journey. He wrote, “Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone.”