The Buddha taught that the primary purpose of a human life is to cultivate love, and that this love would create the conditions for peace and happiness in ourselves and in the world. In a famous quote, the Buddha explained the paramount importance of love. “Thus, friends, the essentials of the holy life do not consist in the profits of gain, honor, and good name; nor even in the profits of observing moral rules; nor even in the profits of knowledge and insight, but the sure heart’s release, friends – that, friends, is the meaning, that is the essence, that is the goal of living the holy life.” The “sure heart’s release” means the release of the heart into love, its true nature.
Because a loving heart is the very nature of every human being, to cultivate love does not mean to fabricate something that is not already present. Rather, it means to identify and gradually remove the many obstacles that block access to our loving heart. The primary obstacles are greed, hatred, and delusion, which give rise to many afflictive emotions and mind states such as anger, fear, jealousy and confusion. These mind states, and the behaviors they create, make it difficult for us to know and express our love, and give rise to the many problems that plague our troubled world. Since afflictive emotions are many and varied, and grave problems in our world so prevalent, we may doubt that the true nature of every human heart is love. It can seem impossible that the potential of every person is to speak and act from this place of great and natural love. The Buddha reassures us, “O Nobly Born, remember your own loving heart. Trust it, honor it, follow it. It will bring you peace.”
One of the best-known Buddhist practices for connecting with our loving nature is metta, or loving-kindness meditation. Loving-kindness is the first of the four Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abodes, followed by compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Compassion is love that arises in response to pain or suffering. Sympathetic joy is the capacity to feel happiness for the good fortune and happiness of others. Equanimity is the ability to stay balanced in the midst of the many changing circumstances of our lives. These Four Divine Abodes are considered the most beautiful and powerful states that a human being can experience. It is said that when a person practices these meditations consistently over time, he or she establishes love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity as their true home.
The Pali word metta, most often translated into English as loving-kindness, is sometimes translated as “loving friendliness,” or simply, “kind heart.” Joseph Goldstein describes metta as “a basic openness of heart that lets the world in.” The word metta is a composite of two root words that mean “gentle” and “friend.” Gentle is likened to a soft rain that falls upon the earth. It does not pick and choose where to fall, it falls everywhere equally and without discrimination. A true friend, as described by the Buddha, is someone who is there for us in times of happiness and times of difficulty, who will never forsake us in times of adversity nor rejoice in our misfortune. A true friend will help us when we need assistance, protect us when we cannot care for ourselves, and provide refuge to us when we are lonely or frightened. Although this description of a friend supposes a relationship between two people, it is equally important that we be a true friend to ourselves. Metta, or loving-kindness meditation, when done for oneself, can help strengthen this intrapersonal friendship.
The traditional phrases of metta meditation cover four areas: physical safety, mental happiness, physical health, and general peace or well-being. There are a variety of English translations of metta phrases. The ones I most often use are: “May I live in safety. May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be peaceful.”
We can choose a certain length of time for formal metta practice and say these phrases over and over silently to ourselves. Or we can repeat the phrases a few times at the beginning and end of our usual breathing meditation practice. As we repeat these phrases, the words themselves become the object of our attention, and we return to the words, and the meaning beneath the words, each time we find ourselves bored, sleepy, or distracted by other things. We can also insert these phrases into any moment of the day, saying them silently to ourselves as we walk outside, drive a car, prepare dinner, stand in line, or wait for an appointment.
In traditional metta meditation there are six directions, or categories of people to whom we offer our love, and there is a specific order. We begin with ourselves and then send metta to a benefactor, a dear friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and finally, to all beings everywhere. We start with ourselves because in the time of the Buddha it was assumed that this would be the least difficult person to whom we offer our good wishes. However, because many people find it quite challenging to send metta to themselves, we can change the order as we wish, taking on greater challenges as our skills grow. We can decide whether to work with one direction of metta practice for weeks or months before moving on to another, or choose any combination as our metta practice for a period of time.
Although we may vary the order of people for whom we do metta practice, it is essential that we do not leave ourselves out. The Buddha said, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of our love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” Our relationship with ourself is also important because it is considered the foundation for all other relationships. The ability to be a true friend to oneself, to love and respect oneself, to offer heartfelt wishes for one’s own safety, health, happiness and peace, will determine the authenticity and ease with which we offer metta to others. We cannot neglect this part of metta practice. We must delve into it with complete sincerity. Inevitably, we come up against our resistance, our opinions and judgments about ourselves, all the ways we resent our mistakes and imperfections, and many examples of how we repeatedly fall short of our own expectations. We also encounter doubt about the value of dedicating time and effort to loving-kindness meditation. Love for ourselves is not just for the personal traits and characteristics that we feel good about, the self we present to the world. Our task is to make love for ourselves complete, which means including all the things we don’t like so much about ourselves. As Oscar Wilde said, “It is not the perfect but the imperfect that is most in need of our love.”
In sharing Buddhist teachings and meditation practices with others, I am often asked to explain the difference between love and compassion. As I understand it, there is essentially no difference. The distinction is in the circumstance that triggers the love or compassion to arise. I think of metta as being the generic, all-purpose opening of the heart to oneself or another, whereas compassion is opening the heart in direct response to pain or suffering. The Pali word “karuna,” which translates into English as compassion, literally means “the trembling or quivering of the heart in response to a being’s pain.” I appreciate this definition, because it is a constant reminder that I am a “being,” and just as with metta, we must include ourselves in our circle of compassion.
Like loving-kindness, compassion can be practiced as a formal meditation, repeating traditional phrases such as “May I be free of pain and sorrow. May I live in happiness and peace.” We offer these wishes of our heart to ourselves and in each of the other directions, as we do with metta practice. We can also bring these phrases to mind in any moment of daily life, especially as we become aware of pain or suffering in ourselves or others.
Suffering, as described by the Buddha, means physical pain or illness, death and the fear of death, aging, and all painful states of mind and heart that afflict us from within and manifest in our relationships and in the world. When I’m experiencing physical pain or fatigue, when I’m jealous or angry, feeling separate or confused, I am suffering. The Buddha taught that genuine happiness is inner peace. In considering this deeply, I realize that I am suffering, to one degree or another, in any moment of my life that inner peace is absent. Whether I am experiencing a minor physical discomfort or an inner emotional torment, in that moment I am in need of my own compassion. I use the same criteria when I observe others. An angry or exhausted family member, an aggressive colleague, a jealous friend, a hateful political leader, an ill or injured person or animal; all are in need of my love, and when I feel it within me in response to the suffering I see, this is compassion. As clear or simple as the explanation might appear, the practice is often challenging. More prevalent responses to the presence of suffering in ourselves or in the world are denial, aversion, withdrawal, fear, or pity. All these responses are based on separation, whereas loving-kindness and compassion are based on connection. Metta and karuna practices strengthen each other, and both strengthen the human heart.
Like all parents I know, I deeply value the expression of love and compassion in the context of family life, and one of my greatest hopes for my children is that they are loving human beings. As metta and karuna practices have become part of my daily life over the years, I have looked for ways to adapt variations of these meditations with my children. When Emilio and Claudia were very young, we accidentally discovered a very simple way to include this spirit of love in daily life. It became part of my children’s bedtime routine.
There is a well-known rhyme that mothers throughout Latin America recite to comfort their children’s minor hurts: the skinned knees, scraped elbows, cut fingers and everyday fears of childhood. Similar to how a mother in this country might gently rub her hand on her young child’s sore or ache while saying, “There, there,” the Latin American mother gently strokes her child’s hurt and says, “Sana, sana, colita de rana, si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana.” The verb “sanar” means to get better, to recover, to heal. It may require a stretch of the imagination for a non-Spanish speaker to feel the maternal affection and reassurance in the literal English translation, “Get better, get better, little frog’s tail, if you don’t get better today, you’ll get better tomorrow.” Yet for nearly every native Spanish speaker I know, this little rhyme rings with maternal love and fond childhood memories.
I was a teenager when I first learned this short rhyme. Many years later when I became a mother to Spanish-speaking children adopted as toddlers from Bolivia, this rhyme returned to me. It was transformed into a song, and it became the final of four short songs that I sang to each of my children every night for more than a decade. To be more precise, this short rhyme became the chorus that we repeated at the beginning and the end of a sequence of made-up stanzas of an ever-expanding song. Looking back, I cannot remember exactly how this began. I imagine that I got the idea from my familiarity with the directions of metta and karuna meditation, where we begin with ourself and then open out to include a series of other individuals and finally to all beings everywhere.
In our nighttime routine, after the bath and pajamas, the stories and conversations, I would turn out the lights, and take a small hand in mine. I would then sing the same four short songs, always in the same order and always in the same untrained, off-key voice known only to my children and my dogs. In preparation for the final song, I would ask, “Qué hay para sana sana”? This literally means, “What is there for sana sana,?” However, as we grew to understand it, I was asking Emilio or Claudia to pause for a moment, to reflect upon their day, and to name something within themselves that was in need of healing. It could be a physical hurt, and many times it was – a scraped knee, a cut finger, a skinned elbow, a stubbed toe, a stomachache, feeling chilled from the rain or uncomfortably hot in the summer sun. But more often than not, it was a small emotional hurt resulting from an experience of the day. In these cases, Emilio or Claudia might name the emotion, such as frightened, angry, or sad. Alternately, they might relate the incident that occurred, and I would listen carefully to extract the primary painful emotion. The list of possibilities is endless, and naming emotions in this way helps develop clarity, precision, and tolerance for our difficult states. The most common ones were frustration, anger, fear, sadness, confusion, betrayal, loneliness, and shame. I’d check that I interpreted their experience correctly, and then, after singing the chorus, I would insert this physical or emotional pain into the first stanza of our song. For example, “Sana, sana, rodilla de Emilio, si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana.” (Get better, get better, Emilio’s knee, if you don’t get better today, get better tomorrow.)
The next direction of our song was to another family member, and my child would name what physical or emotional hurt needed healing in their sibling, parent, or either of our dogs. Thus we’d have the next stanza: “Mommy’s frustration,” “Daddy’s sore back,” “Emilio’s hurt feelings,” “Claudia’s head lice,” “Neeka’s paw,” “Luna’s rash.” There were a of course a myriad of possibilities, many of them occurring repeatedly over the years.
We then moved to someone outside of our immediate family who my child knew personally, someone who needed a loving wish that day. It might be a classmate, a teacher, a grandparent, a neighbor or a friend. Emilio or Claudia would name the person and what needed healing, and I’d sing it as the third stanza of our song.
The forth and final stanza named a person, a group of people, or a place not personally known to my children, but to whom some misfortune had occurred that day. This was something we’d heard about from others, read in the newspaper, or seen on the TV news. It might be a family who lost their possessions when their house burned down, passengers who died in an airplane crash, people and animals killed or injured in war, or marine life damaged by an oil spill in a far away sea. I sang our wish of healing in this direction. We ended our song with a final repetition of the chorus.
I can no longer remember all the physical hurts, episodic illnesses, emotional pains, personal misfortunes, unexpected accidents, violence and wars, prison suicides, political injustices, natural disasters and environmental destructions we sang for at bedtime all those years. My children are older now. “Sana sana” is no longer a bedtime song, although we fondly continue to offer this little rhyme in response to a twisted ankle in soccer or a disappointing grade on an exam. But what does stand out in my mind was a turning point when this well-worn bedtime song was transformed into a meaningful healing ritual.
Emilio had just entered forth grade when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred. As with many American citizens, Emilio’s perception of the world, and of the potential threat to his own safety, dramatically shifted. Although attempts were made at home and at school to limit and guide his understanding of the barrage of media information about these events, I could tell he was struggling to make sense of the altered world presented to him daily. One day he asked me, ‘Mommy, is it true that Osama bin Laden wants to kill all Americans, even children?” I replied that I really didn’t know, that I hoped not, and that I was very concerned about the escalation of hatred in the world and how much suffering it causes to the perpetrators and victims alike. After a pensive moment Emilio replied, “Well, I don’t think Osama bin Laden wants to kill me, because I was born in Bolivia.” I had nothing to add to his pronouncement, but felt a moment of gratitude for whatever benefits psychological defense mechanisms might offer my son during this time of need.
The aftermath of September 11 and the ongoing events of the war in Afghanistan figured prominently in Emilio’s bedtime routine for many months. We sang “Sana sana” for his personal aches, pains, and fears, and for those of family members and friends. When we reached the part of the song directed toward the world and people unknown to him, we sang for the human and animal victims of the 9/11 attacks, for their bereaved family members, for the perpetrators who died and the grief of their surviving family members, and for all those whose minds and hearts were filled with confusion, fear and hatred. As the war in Afghanistan continued, Emilio asked that we offer “Sana sana” to the growing list of U.S. soldiers and their unnamed Afghan counterparts who died in combat, for unknown Afghan civilians killed and displaced by the war, and for animals and plants and areas of the earth itself destroyed or damaged by the ongoing violence.
Sadly, we know that an outbreak of war in one part of the world does not stop pre-existing conflicts, nor does it prevent the eruption of ethnic and regional violence elsewhere. Accidents and natural disasters of all kinds continue as well. It soon became increasingly difficult for Emilio to decide which people or places to sing for on any given night. I became concerned that bringing to mind small hurts and great suffering at bedtime might interfere with the security and comfort needed for a good night’s sleep. I hoped that ending our song with the nursery rhyme chorus, and following this with a few hugs and kisses, would offset whatever potential discomfort this part of our bedtime routine might cause. When I finally expressed my concern to Emilio, he reassured me, saying he did not want to eliminate any part of the “Sana sana” song. He said he almost always fell asleep easily afterwards. He explained that because we did this ritual together, and because it afforded him the opportunity to name the tragedies that concerned him and offer wishes of healing in response, he was able to more easily release the day and rest peacefully at night.
In February of 2002 huge thunderstorms hit northern Bolivia, resulting in flash floods, mudslides, and destruction. The list of dead, disappeared, and displaced adults and children was read on the nightly Bolivian news broadcasts we watched on satellite TV. The flooding in Emilio’s native land seemed to tip the scales of his ability to face the suffering of unknown beings around the world. One night during that week when I asked, “What needs healing in the world?” he replied that the list was now too long and he truly didn’t know what to name. It was a painful dilemma; how to choose one war, conflict or natural disaster over another, and whether to give preference to the suffering of unknown people who live in the country of your birth, look like you and speak your language, over unknown people in lands you search for on the map, who look less like you and whose languages you do cannot understand.
After a few nights of contemplating how to best resolve this difficulty, one of us, (I no longer remember who), came up with a solution. Emilio would silently or aloud name a few different things that were calling for healing in the world, but he no longer named anything specific to insert into the final stanza of our song. Instead, we changed the words of our song to be all-inclusive: “Sana, sana, planeta tierra, si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana.” (Get better, get better, planet earth, if you don’t get better today, you will get better tomorrow.) Emilio told me that “planet earth” meant everyone and everything. It included children and adults everywhere, all species of animals large and small, trees and plants and flowers, rivers, lakes, oceans, mountains, forests, deserts, cities and towns, the earth itself, the air we breathe, and even outer space. He was satisfied. This version of our song soon spread from his bedroom to his younger sister Claudia’s, as she too decided to make her “Sana sana” song less complicated.
Looking back, I now see that our bedtime song was a compassion practice. My children were training their hearts and minds to recognize their own pain, connect with the suffering of others, and offer wishes of love and healing in response. Although I have no evidence that our little song changed the people or the world we sang for, I trust the Buddha’s assertion that all our actions have results. And as the Buddha taught, the most certain result of loving-kindness and compassion practices is the strengthening of the heart of the person doing the practice. Thus I have reason to hope that our adaptation of wishing healing for a little frog’s tail has helped my children keep faith with their own and every other being’s noble heart.
Beth Roth is a nurse practitioner who teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction and vipassana meditation in Connecticut. She has published descriptive and research articles about meditation in various professional journals. She also writes about parenting and adoption issues for Adoptive Families Magazine, and Nuestros Niños Bonitos. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website. Image © Rhienna Cutler and iStockphoto.