Metta Musings (written 2015)

02/12/2015 09:21


As babies we human beings are all feeling and reaction. Cold, we cry. Hungry, we cry. Wet, we cry. Surprised, we startle and cry. But, warm and full, dry and protected, we gurgle, coo and sleep. Gradually we sort out the boundaries, begin to notice a distinction between me and everything else. We discover our own fingers and toes. How things taste. What we like and don't like.


By the time we're toddlers we already have agendas. Locked inside the personal and private nature of experience, we're building an armor called the “self”, an idea of who we think we are, that we'll use to shoulder through the world. We lay claim and exert control. “Mine” and “no” are early tools in carving out territory and power. Parents and the other adults in our lives have to work at getting across the idea that others have “selves” too. Others have things they consider theirs, and actions they find unacceptable. It's not a concept easy to grasp and those who study developmental phases say it is impossible before a certain stage in mental development. Until then, it just doesn't make sense to us that others have feelings and rights, never mind that they should be considered.


Those early development phases might pass, but we carry mental scars. While we figure out the rules and expectations that allow us to act more appropriately in the world, that is, as if others had selves too, the internal nature of experience always leaves this in question. We can't feel what others feel. We have to take it on faith. And doing this, we begin, gradually, to broaden the sense of what me and mine mean. We let certain others in. Our parents probably. Siblings. Gramma and grampa. The dog. Our best friend. The teacher who treats us kindly.


Later we might include anyone who looks like us, who lives in our town or our province or country. People who hold the same views. Do the same kind of work. Have interests that match ours. It's a gradual thing. The armor expands but it stays in place, probably because we're not even aware that we're wearing it by the time we're all grown up. The armor itself is me and mine. And we believe it keeps “me” safe from everything other. We've created what we accept as a dependable definition of who I am. This is the mistake. The armor is only an illusion and a trap. Who we are is not something solid and bounded at all. It's the difference between the free-flow of the river and the dam that holds it back.


In English we have a prefix, meta-, that added to a base word, has the meaning of going beyond, higher, transcending (according to Webster). In the philosophy department of the university I attended, for instance, one could take a course in Meta-ethics, a study of ethics going beyond cultural boundaries and relativity of values. So I'm wondering about how we as human beings develop an understanding of something transcending, more true than, the constructed self. Something meta-. In Pali the word for loving kindness is metta. This quirky coincidence appeals to me. That the development of metta could lead the way to human values that transcend the self.


What if we take it on faith that the armor we see walking around is not who any of us are at all? Given the experiences, the good and the bad we've come up against in the world, the circumstances of our lives, this avatar has a particular shape and demeanor. Inside, the flowing river of experience, just trying to find safety and comfort, maybe joy and peace as we move through. A quirky coincidence, but maybe an insight too: metta is ultimately the door to a meta-view, where we realize the pinch of the armor is the real problem.