The Haunted Forest of the Mind

Lately, I’ve been contemplating the paradox of metta.

Many of you are familiar with metta practice, which developed in early Buddhism as an approach to working with threatening energies and the fears that can arise when facing the unknown.

The backstory: Legend holds that the Buddha gave the practice to a group of monks trying to practice in what they thought was a haunted forest. They would have preferred relocation to a new locale, yet the Buddha asked them to remain at their forest monastery and to shift their insight practices to a metta practice; ultimately with the goal of extending loving-kindness and compassion to the etheric beings that they felt haunted by.

The traditional metta practice, in its very structure, calls us to investigate what energies we are haunted by, in the forests of the mind. Where are our demons lurking? How are we relating to them? How are we relating to our adversaries, within and without? How are we relating to our griefs, our fears?

Luckily, metta gives us a way to re-shape those relationships.

Metta is a profoundly focalizing practice. It depends upon the utterance of phrases and thus utilizes our mind’s language-making capacities. According to dharma traditions, language is how the universe re-represents itself to itself.

As we know, left to our own conditioned devices, we get very pulled into stories. Story making can be a beautiful creative process, but can also be problematic! We spin stories about the threats we face. We make meanings based on mental constructs (vikalpas) that are not quite accurate. This predictive, meaning-making process is the primary activity of the mind, and allows the brain to know how to regulate the body. It also molds our perception of the world, so when those predictions are off, havoc is wreaked.

When we stop to practice metta, we first take hold of language in a new way. We submit, in a sense, to the discipline of reciting phrases, known as the metta phrases. In doing so, we pause the machinations of conditioned mind, and thus consciously remake our worlds.

I have, at times, clung almost desperately to the anchoring the metta phrases. There have been times in my life when I’ve been in deep threads of worry or fear, where I knew I needed the anchoring of metta. Effectively, I needed the quality of prayer that metta practice provides. I needed to give my mind something very clear to do, and the repetition of the phrases and the circulation of metta through the body seemed as good a tactic as any.

Strict concentration on the metta phrases requires the mind to still itself in a particular way. For me, that is quite distinct from some of my other meditative practices, where the core of the practice is simply to watch the movements of the mind, and trust that whatever arises within consciousness is perfect.

Ultimately, the intention of meditation is to open into reality itself, into the fathomlessness of all arising. Nothing has any inherent, separate essence. Everything is an arising in consciousness, within a web of interdependent arisings.

So how does a concentrative practice like metta, or any other specific concentration practice fit with this model?

I’m more curious about the question than I am interested in coming up with a pat answer. I’m curious what this is like for you! I would LOVE to have you write to, if any reflections come to mind for you.



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