Practice of metta and the English Problem, by John Aske

ConkersThe Venerable Anuruddha had a problem. The tried and tested methods of teaching the metta (loving-kindness) practice did not seem to work with the English. There had to be a solution. The Venerable Anuruddha sat down and went over the facts.

The metta practice rests on the basis of loving oneself, or at least liking oneself. Without this step, no further progress is possible, either in the metta practice or in the practice of any of the Brahma Viharas (the Divine Abidings, that are — apart from anything else — the mortar of the holy life). And with the English — the men at least — this first step was proving very difficult, if not impossible.

For the English, the idea of an exercise which begins with ‘loving themselves’, or even ‘liking themselves’ for that matter, is almost anathema. We are heirs to a terrible affliction, unable to give our affection to anything but dogs, cats, budgerigars and back gardens. There is a deep, deep resistance against liking oneself. It’s the veritable dustbin of emotion. The average Yorkshireman would commit hara-kiri rather than even speak of it. Anyone who would admit to a thing like that has reached the final appallingness. Narcissus did it, and you know what happened to him. It’s the most awful indulgence known to the average Englishman — almost as bad (as the mayor of Bradford once memorably said) as kicking a dog.

I once attended a metta retreat run by a venerable bhikkhu, who by halfway through, had begun to address most of his remarks to the ladies on the retreat. When asked why this was so, he said, ‘The men are just not responding to anything I say.’ He was unaware that he had committed the unpardonable sin of telling a bunch of Englishmen to tell themselves ‘I love you.’ Most of them turned pale and one told me later that he found himself ‘hating everyone horribly.’ His mood was apparently not improved by Tiger — the monastery cat — who proceeded to dump a still living mouse in the midst of his meditation patch, kill it and then eat it.

The problem seemed insuperable, but the Venerable Anuruddha had been a master builder in Ceylon, and discovered then that ‘Nothing is all that impossible if you give it a little time and space.’ He proved his theory by rigging up a pulley in the chimney of Biddulph Old Hall, where we were staying, to haul the massive iron top off the Aga. This weighed several hundredweight, and I had deemed it impossible. But it rose up the chimney like a bird. Later he repaired a broken broom so flawlessly that I marvelled at the almost invisible seam. Clearly a man so ingenious and painstaking would not rest until he found a solution to the English problem. And he did. ‘In Ceylon we must do more wisdom practice, but here we need more metta,’ he said.

‘The practice assumes a little liking, but it is usually directed towards the self. Since you are unhappy with yourselves, we must start somewhere else.’ It was years later that I ran across the words of a Greek philosopher, who said, ‘It is very hard to love ourselves. We should start simply with a cloud or a stone.’

Devon streamWe were instructed to compile a list of all the little things for which we felt affection and regard. ‘This may be hard,’ he told us. It was, for me at least. It took me two days to present him with a comparatively simple list without feeling a little embarrassed, like a bank manager being forced to confess he still sleeps with his teddy. But at last it was done. How strange that it should have been so difficult. All my list had on it were things like ‘summer evenings in the woods, kittens playing, the river on a spring morning’, and so on. Such innocent things that I wonder they should have been so difficult to put down: perhaps because they were so personal and private, and the English are a very private people, if nothing else. I showed him my list and was told to go away and run all those things through my mind all day, and add to the list if I wished.

‘How’s it going?’ he asked me later. ‘A slight feeling of gold,’ I said. ‘Good, it’s going well.’

Then we had to reflect that all the feelings and memories were already in our minds — part of them. And that the warmth and emotion they evoked were already present and did not need to be brought in from outside. They were already in us.

It was hard work, but never anything but natural. There was no being appalled or cringing before unacceptable emotional demands. I never forgot the lesson, or the skill of the teacher. For me it will always be one of the best examples of upaya — skill in means.

Clouds over Devon.Years later, after too many reverses, I suffered severe depression, and friends advised me to look up a psychiatrist. I told them that most of the psychiatrists I had met looked more depressed than I was. There had to be another solution. When I examined my mental state, I found most of the problem was having blamed myself for everything that had happened, and a huge armament of self-dislike picked up in the process. If only there were some way to reverse the process. Psychiatrists didn’t seem to know of one anyway.

At that point, I remembered the venerable bhikkhu from Ceylon. (And he always called it Ceylon.) I set aside a special fortnight for practice.

I made out the list — little changed over the years — bought a couple of favourite plants, and went to Kew Gardens nearly every day. Within a fortnight, the gloom was dispelled and I felt wonderful. One morning at the end of the fairly intensive practice, I went into a coffee shop. It was an early summer morning and the café was full of sun, although it was too early for other customers to have arrived. Then two girls came in. I expected them to obey the immemorial English custom and sit as far away from everyone else as possible. But they sat at the next table to mine. I suppose it was the most comfortable place!

More articles by John Aske here.

First published in the August 1992 Buddhism Now.

5 Responses

  1. It’s true we’re not supposed to show our feelings. Maybe it’s the remnants of two world wars one after the other. Men were supposed to be men, and not showing emotion was a prerequisite if you called yourself a “real” Englishman. (stiff upper lip and all that)
    Having said that I think I love myself as much as is healthy!

  2. This from “Mindfulness, The Path to the Deathless” by Ajahn Sumedho:

    Sometimes there are things one doesn’t like about oneself, but metta means not being caught up in the thoughts we have, the attitudes, the problems, the thoughts and feelings of the mind. So it becomes an immediate practice of being very mindful. To be mindful means to have metta towards the fear in your mind, or the anger, or the jealousy. metta means not creating problems around existing conditions, allowing them to fade away, to cease. For example, when fear comes up in your mind, you can have metta for the fear – meaning that you don’t build up aversion to it, you can just accept its presence and allow it to cease. You can also minimise the fear by recognising that it is the same kind of fear that everyone has, that animals have. It’s not my fear, it’s not a person’s, it’s an impersonal fear. We begin to have compassion for other beings when we understand the suffering involved in reacting to fear in our own lives – the pain, the physical pain of being kicked, when somebody kicks you. That kind of pain is exactly the same kind of pain that a dog feels when he’s being kicked, so you can have metta for the pain, meaning a kindness and a patience of not dwelling in aversion. We can work with metta internally, with all our emotional problems: you think, ‘I want to get rid of it, it’s terrible.’ That’s a lack of metta for yourself, isn’t it? Recognise the desire-to-get-rid-of! Don’t dwell in aversion on existing emotional conditions. You don’t have to pretend to feel approval towards your faults. You don’t think, ‘I like my faults.’ Some people are foolish enough to say, ‘My faults make me interesting. I’m a fascinating personality because of my weaknesses.’ metta is not conditioning yourself to believe that you like something that you don’t like at all, it is just not dwelling in aversion. It’s easy to feel metta towards something you like – pretty little children, good looking people, pleasant mannered people, little puppies, beautiful flowers – we can feel metta for ourselves when we’re feeling good: ‘I am feeling happy with myself now.’ When things are going well it’s easy to feel kind towards that which is good and pretty and beautiful. At this point we can get lost. metta isn’t just good wishes, lovely sentiments, high-minded thoughts, it’s always very practical.

  3. John Aske is always so helpful with his writings and experiences and this article is true to form. It is not only English men who are heirs to such a terrible affliction, that makes one unable to give our affection to anything but dogs, cats, budgerigars and back gardens. There is a deep, deep resistance against liking oneself from other places as well. and i t’s the veritable dustbin of emotion. This was the case certainly in my family as I was growing up. I was born at a time when parenting often involved a culture of no touching or display of affection for male babies, infants or toddlers. This was the reason given along with –“well it’s a part of your grandparent’s European culture.” when one questioned the lack of expressing emotion. So yes, the idea of an exercise which begins with ‘loving themselves’, or even ‘liking themselves’ for that matter, for me was an enigma. If one can’t appreciate or like themselves- metta for one’s enemy’s, or unlikable people makes little sense.
    The Greek philosopher, who said, ‘It is very hard to love ourselves. We should start simply with a cloud or a stone’ makes sense along with helpful insights from John and the venerable bhikkhu from Ceylon in his article.
    Thank you for posting this important piece for one who loves my cat and dog so much…
    P.S. I always forget- the pictures are in the articles posted are very important also. They always seem to be appropriate for just that piece.

  4. I had tears in my eyes when I read the article. Being an Englishman myself I do understand the need for metta practice on a daily basis – all other meditation practices can come later. But the initial motivation to recognise this condition as a kind of lack of self-worth is the hardest part which can only come in an atmosphere of gentleness. So the small things – ‘summer evenings in the woods, kittens playing, the river on a spring morning’ etc are really important.

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