Cultivating Metta. What Works Best?

I was wondering if people might be willing to suggest some of the things they have read that they think contain particularly insightful discussions of the cultivation of metta. I am especially interested in discussions that deal with the following problem:

A standard, traditional practice for countering attachment to one’s own body, and for countering lust and other forms of sensual craving, is to think of the bodies of both oneself and other people as bags of skin filled with foul and unattractive substances. But how does one think of one’s own body, and the bodies of other people, as bags of skin filled with foul and unattractive substances, without that attitude turning into powerful aversion toward the human beings who possess those bodies and something like the opposite of metta?

One might try to make a mental separation between the minds of people and their bodies, and try to regard the bodies as foul and attractive while regarding the minds as lovable. But minds are also filled with foul, unwholesome and unattractive mental states, and understanding this is part of the technique for countering attachment to one’s own mind and the minds of other people. So the same problem re-emerges: How does one think of one’s own mind, and the minds of other people, as conditioned processes constituted in large part by unwholesome and unattractive mental states, without that attitude turning into powerful aversion and something close to the opposite of metta?

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I never came across that method for cultivating metta and it seems odd. Do you have a link,a reference?

Personally, I think mindfulness is an important and very helpful factor in cultivating metta.

Hi Leon,

It’s not a technique for cultivating metta, but a technique for countering craving and attachment. The practice is called patikulamanasikara, usually translated as “Reflection on the 32 Parts”. Here’s the Amaravati version (see page 60):

Here’s the Wikipedia account of the background:

And here’s one essay that refers to the practice. (Read the version longue):

The teachings here are reminiscent of the Magandiya Sutta in the Atthakavagga. According to the background narrative, Magandiya was a Kuru country Brahmin who offered the Buddha his beautiful daughter. The Buddha’s reply is basically “I didn’t even go for the daughters of Mara. What would I want with this bag of piss and shit?”

Somewhat along related lines, although not entirely the same, are the cemetery training techniques. Here’s a great (and somewhat funny) talk by Ajahn Chah, describing his experience with that practice:

Hello DKervick,

I am acquainted with this, but it seemed you wanted to use this technique to cultivate metta. I guess I was mislead a bit by the topic title.
Now I understand.

I think you can keep feelings of metta by realising that not only the body of others is of this nature, but your own body, too.

Yes, perhaps, but the problem is that sometimes I seem to end of with only universal aversion - to both myself and others. In addition to the reflections on what is repulsive, it seems necessary to cultivate also an additional attitude of good will. But what is the object of such an attitude, if both the bodies and minds of oneself and others are filled with unwholesome and repulsive elements?

I think that is right.

You yourself already answered that one: “countering craving and attachment”.

But maybe here I miss something because English is not my mother tongue and you might use “object” in another sense unknown to me.

This meditation ‘foulness of the body’ (asubha bhavana) is used to counteract ignorance in the form of thinking all bodies are pleasant, when it is not. It is to retract a distorted view of the body.

Sensual craving leads to ignorance (as well) and it dresses up the body to be something it is not in reality. So to get at a more normal view, being aware what is centimetres beneath the skin is beneficial. This should be a change of view (wisdom related), rather than an emotional shift.

It is not necessary to fall into aversion, though some might do so. Some would argue that to counteract strong craving for the body, aversion is useful. The Buddha even said that aversion and neutrality are the two effects of this contemplation, suggesting that aversion (possibly transient and leaving a mental trace of sorts) is preferable to constantly craving for the body. Some people find this meditation leading to a lot of peace, and it seems to affect other cravings globally as well. It also leads to a lot of letting go and therefore is used as a precursor meditation to mindfulness of breath, traditionally.

I think true metta is applicable despite someone being unattractive. We are all full of foul substances, we all have our problems, and we are united in this. That is exactly why we must have metta towards everyone!

with metta

Mat

ps- the monks, it struck me. who committed suicide after receiving instructions for this meditation from the Buddha must have not believed in rebirth (as if they did, suicide would not have been a meaningful option).

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I have practiced with seeing all bodies as skeletons and I find it brings up a beautiful sweet sense of connection with everyone - very much in the Metta-Karuna field. You know, something like: Since we are both dying, what can I do for you now, as we may never have this moment again?

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By “object” in this context, I mean the mental object of a psychological attitude - what your mind is directed toward. In this case, what I have in mind specifically is that in a situation in which you are supposed to be experiencing good will, love or friendliness directed toward a “person”, but are at the same time regarding that person’s body as repulsive, what exactly is the aspect of the person toward which you are experiencing the good will?

Yes, I have had such experiences too, although I sometimes wonder whether the experience I am having is closer to pity, or a kind of universal sadness for humanity, rather than what (I take it) should be a more joyful state of universal love and good will.

For me it is an incredibly sweet mind state. Oddly enough it sometimes comes up when I see road-kill. No one warned me how weird the Buddhist path was going to make me.:open_mouth:

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Bhikkhu Anālayo, in one of his encyclopaedic compendiums, lists several strategies for the removal of passion/lust. Besides the theme of the unattractive nature of the body, there is:

additional counter strategies include developing restraint of the senses, contentment with food, wakefulness and mindfulness together with clear comprehension (an8.9)

https://dhammabooks.online/viewer/web/viewer.html?file=https://dhammabooks.online/books/Bhikkhu-Analayo/from-craving.pdf#page=37

From among the four divine abodes, brahmavihāra, the meditative development of equanimity as a liberation of the mind, upekkhā cetovimutti, stands out as an “escape”, nissaraṇa, from passion (DN III 249).

https://dhammabooks.online/viewer/web/viewer.html?file=https://dhammabooks.online/books/Bhikkhu-Analayo/from-craving.pdf#page=37

This gets more directly at your question as it relates to brahmavihāra practice. I’ve heard recently an interesting point on BV practice, that the upekkhā cultivation acts as a balance to the other 3. Obviously, development of mettā with some underlying passion/lust might be difficult or confusing, which is why tempering with equanimity/impartiality might be helpful. There’s a lot of dhamma out there on cultivating upekkhā.

I think it’s fair to say, the opposite of passion is dispassion; and that passion is a kind of excitement/stirring-up/movement. So dhamma practices related to cultivating dispassion as Ven. Anālayo explains would include samatha (stilling/calming) methods and cultivating impartiality/equanimity, overlooking with wisdom, to effect an unwavering mind.

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Formally speaking, isn’t the mental object the “bags of skin filled with foul and unattractive substances” ?
That is what your mind is directed toward, isn’t it?

I think one does metta meditation for developing loving kindness.
This particular reflection on the 32 parts is more intended as an antidote against desire and lust.

Though one can/should be careful to experience metta, also while doing this reflection, metta is not the first thing you are aiming for with the recollection on the 32 parts, as I understand it.

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Yes I know. I don’t seem to be having much success in explaining the problem. To repeat it: the Buddha enjoined us to experience unbounded metta for all beings at all times. But how can you experience a person as loveable while you are at the same time regarding them as a bag of disgusting substances? The mind naturally recoils from what it sees as disgusting.

That might be more my fault than yours :slight_smile:

It makes you recoil from lust and desire, not necessarily -if you practice metta the right way- from the person.
Compare: We should try to experiece metta even for our enemies. Also here, our mind might want to recoil (or get attached, both is possible), but the Buddha instructs us to develop metta to all being, whether they are loveable or not.

The confusion might be in trying to develop two different meditations at the same time.

The perception of the unattractiveness of the body, as a technique, is intended to overcome the perception of the attractiveness of the body. The asubha practices though are more recommended for monastics, a layman might look into other methods as outlined above.

The cultivation of mettā, in part, is to overcome ill-will/anger.

Two different techniques for two different defilements.

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Yes. So what is “the person”? And what does it actually mean to experience metta toward them? Isn’t a person just a process consisting of impermanent and conditioned mental and physical constructions?

But isn’t the state of unbounded metta a state we are supposed to strive to be in at all times?

This is a bit beyond my capacity as a generally uninstructed worldling layman, nonetheless I’ll try to answer from my limited intellectual understanding.

Unbounded/boundless mettā as I understand it is a more a resultant state, until the time of such a liberative state we are only cultivating mettā (trying to increase it). Mettā is a wish for beings to be happy, to be well (self and others). It is primarily a cultivation of the “heart”, an emotive development. As such, it doesn’t have to do with the perception of attractiveness/unattractiveness; instead, it says “may you be happy, may you be well” — irrespective of form.

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The person can be seen at two levels: the everyday level, the way we see a person usually.
And the more “spiritual” (though I don’t like that word much) level: The person as a process consisting of impermanent and conditioned mental and physical constructions.
No matter how you look at a person -whether in the conventional way or as the Buddha explained, or both - for all this we experience metta.

And what it means to experience metta to them? In the first place it means calming our own mind.