Feelings and Emotions and the Metta Bhavana: Sometimes we use the words ‘feeling’ and ‘emotion’ as if they meant the same thing. But there is a difference. ‘Feeling’ refers to a basic, almost instinctive like or dislike of something. Depending on whether we like, or dislike, or neither like nor dislike something, we develop pleasant (like), unpleasant (dislike) or neutral (neither like nor dislike) feelings. These responses are almost automatic and we have little control over them.
‘Emotion’ refers to the active responses that we make on the basis of our feelings. For example, we may meet someone we hardly know and for whom we have neither like nor dislike. (The so-called ‘neutral’ person who appears in the third stage of the metta bhavana meditation). In response to the neutral feeling on meeting this person, we may generate an emotion or attitude of disinterest. Being disinterested in someone, or not caring about them, is an active emotion. Or, we may meet someone who we dislike, (the so-called ‘difficult’ person in the fourth stage of the metta bhavana), and that gives rise to an unpleasant feeling. In response to this unpleasant feeling we may give rise to ill-will towards that person in our mind. Ill-will is an active emotion.
When we are not being mindful or aware of what is happening in our mind, these emotions can arise almost without our noticing the process. But when we have developed mindfulness we can begin to see the process taking place, and we can learn to exercise choice on how to respond to our feelings.
In the metta bhavana meditation we learn that by maintaining awareness, we can choose not to respond to unpleasant feelings by generating ill-will when we meet someone we dislike. Instead, at the same time as experiencing the unpleasant feeling we can choose to wish the person well. Similarly, we can experience neutral feelings when we meet someone we neither like nor dislike and, at the same time, wish them well.
Stage One (Self)
If you have problems with wishing yourself well, please consider this is very commong among practitioners in the West, while for meditators in the East this stage is quite easy. Just remember that you simply want the best for yourself, that you want to be happy and well. After all, why did you come to a meditation class, if it was not hopefully to find something that would help make for a better, more fulfilled life?
Stage Two (Good Friend)
It’s usually best to choose someone of a roughly similar age, to whom you’re not sexually attracted, who’s alive, and who is the same sex as yourself.
Stage Three (Neutral Person)
Here you could choose someone you see regularly but know little about, such as a person who often catches the same bus as you on the way to work or college. Or, you could choose someone who you know better but who you neither particularly dislike nor like.
Stage Four (Someone with whom you’re having difficulty – the Difficult Person)
When starting to learn the metta bhavana it’s best not to choose someone with whom you’re very angry, or for whom you feel a very strong dislike, as this could prove too much to take on too early. But at the same time it is important to be honest with yourself and to recognise how you feel about whoever you put in this stage. Remember, you are not trying to make yourself like this person. You are simply trying to develop an attitude of wishing them well.
Stage Five (All Living Beings)
At the beginning of this stage, first focus your mind on an image of yourself and the other three people together, and try to direct your well-wishing, your metta, equally to all four people. Then, gradually direct your well-wishing outwards to more and more beings. You could do this by imagining your metta as a beam from your heart which you first direct to the north and then to other directions around the world.
Or you could let imagined scenes from around the world come into your mind, maybe of friends who are in another country, or of people from around the globe who you’ve seen on television, and through these gateways into different parts of the world, spread your metta outwards.
Or, you could imagine your well-wishing going out as beams of light to all the people you’ve ever met or known, and then each of those people in turn beaming out lights of metta to all the people they’ve ever met or known, and so on, until every being is connected by beams of light. And don’t forget animals and other beings!
Using the Phrases
When you use the phrases — ‘May you be well’, ‘May you be happy and content’, ‘May you be free from pain and suffering’, ‘May you make progress in your life’ — you may find it helpful to sometimes give the phrases a more specific meaning. For example, instead of ‘May you be well’ you might say ‘May you recover from your cold’, or, instead of ‘May you be happy and content’ you might say ‘May you be happy in your new relationship’. In this way you might make the phrases more personalised and find it easier to develop well-wishing in the first four stages.
Choosing The Persons
To begin with it’s best to take a few moments before you start meditating to decide who you are going to put in the second, third and fourth stages. Don’t take too long over this. If someone comes to mind then choose them, and don’t worry whether they’re exactly the right person or not for that stage. Otherwise you could spend a lot of the meditation simply deciding who to choose!