5 | Psychology of Mettā


5. The Psychology of Mettā

The Pali commentaries explain:

One loves all beings:

a. by the non-harassment of all beings and thus avoids harassment;

b. by being inoffensive (to all beings) and thus avoids offensiveness;

c. by not torturing (all beings) and thus avoids torturing;

d. by the non-destruction (of all life) and thus avoids destructiveness;

e. by being non-vexing (to all beings) and thus avoids vexing;

f. by projecting the thought, “May all beings be friendly and not hostile”;

g. by projecting the thought,” May all beings be happy and not unhappy”;

h. by projecting the thought, “May all beings enjoy well-being and not be distressed.”

In these 8 ways one loves all beings; therefore, it is called universal love.

And since one conceives (within) this quality (of love), it is of the mind.

And since this mind is free from all thoughts of ill will, the aggregate of love, mind and freedom is defined as universal love leading to freedom of mind.

From the above passage it will be seen that mettā implies the “outgrowing” of negative traits by actively putting into practice the correlative positive virtues.

It is only when one actively practises non-harassment towards all beings that one can outgrow the tendency to harass others.

Similarly, it is with the other qualities of inoffensiveness, non-tormenting, non-destroying and non-vexing in deed, word and thought that one can outgrow the negative traits of being offensive, of tormenting others, of destructiveness and of vexation.

Over and above such positive conduct and principled way of life, one further cultivates the mind through that specific technique of meditation called mettā-bhāvanā,

which generates powerful thoughts of spiritualized love that grow boundless, making consciousness itself infinite and universal.

Thoughts, that wish all beings to be friendly and never hostile, happy and never unhappy, to enjoy well-being and never be distressed,

imply not only sublimity and boundlessness, but also utter freedom of mind; Hence, the appropriateness of the expression “universal love leading to freedom of mind.”

As for the meanings of the 5 aspects opposed by mettā:

1. Harassment is the desire to oppress or damage;

2. Offensiveness is the tendency to hurt or injure;

3. Torturing is a synonym of the sadistic tendency to torment, subjecting others to pain or misery;

4. Destructiveness is to put an end to or to finish, the trait of the extremist and the iconoclast;

5. Vexing is to tax, trouble or cause others worry and strain.

Each of these tendencies is rooted in antipathy and malevolence, and provides a contrast with mettā, both as a mode of conduct and as a psychological state or attitude of mind.

The substitution of a negative trait by the opposed positive course implies a very developed and mature approach to life.

The ability to remain non-harassing, inoffensive, non-torturing, non-destructive and non-vexing means a very refined, beautiful and loving mode of behaviour in a world where interaction between human beings creates so much tension and misery.

According to the Viśuddhimagga, mettā is a “solvent” that “melts” not only one’s own psychic pollutants of anger, resentment and offensiveness, but also those of others. Since it takes the approach of friendship, even the hostile one turns into a friend.

Mettā is characterised as that which “promotes welfare.”
 Its function is to “prefer well-being” rather than ill.

It manifests as a force that “removes annoyance” and its proximate cause is the tendency to see the good side of things and beings and never the faults.

Mettā succeeds when it loves, and it fails when it degenerates into worldly affection.

It will be clear from this analysis that only when one tends to see the good in people, and prefers the welfare of others, and accordingly is inoffensive (to remove any annoyance or hurt) and actively promotes well-being, does mettā function as a solvent.

It is said that the ultimate purpose of mettā is to attain transcendental insight, and if that is not possible, it will at least effect a rebirth in the sublime sphere of the Brahma world, apart from bringing inner peace and a healthy state of mind here and now.

Hence the Buddha’s assurance in the Mettā Sutta:

Holding no more to wrong beliefs,
With virtue and vision of the ultimate,
And having overcome all sensual desire,
Never in a womb is he born again.

Love wards off ill will, which is the most damaging of emotions. Hence it is said:

For this is the escape from ill will, friends, that is to say, the freedom of mind wrought by universal love” (Dīgha Nikāya, III 234).

In the practice of mettā it is important to understand the emotions which nullify mettā either by being similar or being dissimilar.

The Viśuddhimagga calls them “the two enemies - the near and the remote.”

Greed, lust, worldly affection, sensuality - all these are said to be the “near enemies” because they are similar in tendencies.

The lustful also sees the “good side” or “beauty,” and therefore gets involved. Love should be protected from it lest the masquerades of these emotions deceive the meditator.

Ill will, anger and hatred, being dissimilar emotions, therefore constitute the “remote enemy.” The remote enemy can easily be distinguished so one need not be afraid of it, but one should overcome it by projecting a higher force, that of love.

But one has to be wary of the near enemy because it creates self-deception, which is the worst thing that can happen to an individual.

It is said that mettā begins only when there is zeal in the form of a desire to act.

Having commenced through earnest effort, it can be continued only when the 5 mental hindrances - sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt - are put down.

Mettā reaches consummation with the attainment of absorption (jhāna).