Metta in Difficult Situations

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by Bhante Mahinda

Every time we encounter unfriendly people, we are presented with an opportunity to develop our metta practice further. It is quite easy to cultivate thoughts of loving-kindness in an environment where everyone around us is friendly and responds positively towards us. But unless we are challenged by people who are unfriendly or disturb us, how will we know if our practice is progressing?

When practising metta towards people whom we find difficult, we need to use our wisdom. With wisdom, we can change our perception. Firstly, we need to understand the factors conditioning people’s behaviour towards us. It may be due to some kind of stress which that person is experiencing, and they have not learned how to respond to the situation in a better way. If we understand what they are going through, we can arouse compassion for them. We cannot change that person’s habitual tendencies of speech and behaviour, but we can change our perception of the situation and respond with as much loving-kindness and compassion as possible on our part.

However, when dealing with difficult people, we also have to assess our own limitations, how far we have cultivated loving-kindness. If our foundation in metta is not strong, and we lack understanding and wisdom, whenever we think of or associate with such people, it tends to aggravate our negative emotions. In which case, it would be best to avoid such situations for the time being.

That is why we start with a graduated practice of metta: beginning with ourselves, then extending to our loved ones and so on. It is only when we can truly have good thoughts towards those unknown to us, that we are ready to extend loving-kindness to those who are unfriendly towards us. If we don’t have the foundation in metta towards those friendly or indifferent to us, we won’t be able to sincerely extend metta to unfriendly people.

At times we may need to consider avoiding the company of people with whom we have a difficult relationship, even moving to a completely different environment, to allow ourselves the space to build up greater loving-kindness so that we have greater resilience to meet these challenges. However, we should bear in mind that if our difficulties are due to our karmic relationship from the past, we will need to confront them at some time in the future if we do not confront and overcome them now. That’s when you need to accelerate your practice – for example, by going for a metta meditation retreat.

We often meet with these challenges due to our karma, the actions we have created in the past. This is especially true when we have recurring problems in certain situations, or with particular people, when other people have no difficulties. However, when we practise metta and build up a strong aura of compassionate love around us, conditions can change. It is due to the anger inside us, which we may be unaware of, that we attract anger. When our own minds are angry, we often perceive others as being angry. So we need to re-examine our actions and acknowledge our own shortcomings and imperfections before we blame others.

In difficult situations, we need to arouse our determination to overcome our own negative emotions, and cultivate loving-kindness and compassion for all, not excluding those who cause us trouble. We need to pray for blessings and protection, and if we are truly practising metta, there will always be guidance and help in one way or another.

“Hatred never ceases through hatred in this world, through love alone they cease… “ – the Buddha

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