June 22, 2017

Responding to Terrorism with the Buddhist Practice of Metta.

Terrorist attacks in London, coming quickly on the heels of the Manchester concert bombing and followed by attacks in Iran, have left people around the world reeling.

Whenever I hear news of a terror attack, I can’t help thinking of the victims—the people around the world who lost their lives and the families affected by the tragedy. I think of my own family and friends, and how any of us could have been there.

Feeling compassion for victims of violence probably comes easily for you too. But compassion for the perpetrators? Not so easy.

When you think of the people who have committed acts of terrorism, such as in the recent London Bridge attacks, how do you feel? Chances are, your first emotional response is not one of pure loving-kindness and Dalai Lama-like compassion.

And you know what? That’s totally fine. It means you have a strong sense of social justice and care deeply about the state of the world. But you and I both know that fueling the anger in your mind is not the way to live your life, either.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said:

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

So how can we practice love in the face of terrorism? This article is a direct response to that question.

Inclining the mind toward love.

All religions and spiritual traditions preach love and compassion. In the Buddhist tradition, this takes the form of metta, or loving-kindness meditation, which is practiced by wishing for someone’s well-being, typically by repeating a set of phrases in your mind.

When you practice metta, the goal is not to change someone else, but rather to change your own heart and mind.

By repeating these phrases of metta, you are inclining your mind toward friendliness. The Buddha himself once said: “What the mind frequently thinks and ponders upon becomes the inclination of your mind.”

This concept of training your mind in positive directions is not just some new-agey wishful thinking, but is also supported by modern neuroscience (the ability of the brain to change in response to training is called neuroplasticity). When we practice metta, we are actually rewiring our brain so we can be more loving.

How to practice metta meditation.

The phrases of metta meditation are simple, and often look something like this:

May you be happy…
May you be peaceful…
May you live with ease and well-being…

To practice metta, you would repeat these phrases while picturing someone in your mind. Traditionally, you would work with various “categories” of people sequentially: a loved one, yourself, a neutral person, a difficult person, and finally, all beings.

Working with difficult people.

As you might imagine, wishing “happiness” for difficult people is not easy (that’s why they’re called “difficult!”). For example, you might be thinking, “But I don’t want my ex to be happy…he cheated on me!” Or, “My coworker always takes credit for the work I do. There’s no way I’m wishing for her happiness.”

We all have people in our lives that we have trouble feeling kindness toward. If you have experienced trauma in the past, such as sexual assault or domestic abuse, this stage of metta practice can be particularly challenging.

Feeling anger toward people who have caused you or others harm is normal, and there’s no need to suppress those feelings.

Let me repeat that.

I am not saying you need to forgive someone before you’re ready to, or force yourself to “get over” some trauma. Metta is about beginning to cultivate more friendliness in your mind, so that you are not suffering from your own negativity. It is an act of self-care.

One of my favorite examples of this is from Nelson Mandela, who was unjustly imprisoned for 27 years by the South African government. After being freed from prison, he said:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

You can transform your mind just like Nelson Mandela, and all it takes is practice. This is the power of metta.

Understanding the causes of violence.

In Buddhist philosophy, all harmful actions arise from three fundamental impurities in the mind: greed, hatred, and delusion. This may seem to be an oversimplification, but it is a useful framework for understanding human behavior—particularly that of people whose actions are intentionally destructive. This understanding makes it possible to extend a metta practice under the most challenging of circumstances. And this, in turn, protects our own spirit.

So when you cannot wish for the happiness of a person who has caused such great harm, what can you do? Instead of trying to wish for their happiness (which may feel impossible), reframe the intention: Wish for them to be free from mental impurities.

The metta phrases would then become:

May you be free from greed…
May you be free from hatred…
Maybe you be free from delusion…

To this, I usually add on a fourth wish:

May you live peacefully…

Again, recognizing that if someone is free from greed, hatred, and delusion, they would not have done those horrible things in the first place.

Try it out!

Bring to mind someone that you have had a difficult interaction with in the past and then close your eyes and repeat the four phrases, imagining the person living a peaceful life, free from any anger or hatred in their heart.

That is something we can wish for all people, whether friend or foe.



Author: Jeremy Lipkowitz 
Image: Shutterstock
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Danielle Beutell
Social Editor: Callie Rushton

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