Maitri is a Buddhist concept that means “love” or “loving kidness.” Maitri is one of the four Brahamavihara or “limitless qualities,” practices that we can undertake that will allow us to grow more expansive in our relationship with our minds and the minds of others.
I like to tell people I’m not a Buddhist but I am a groupie. Perhaps I’m more Buddhist than I think, given that my hesitations stem from detaching from my ego and my attractions/attachments. I always joke that I like my Xbox too much to be a Buddhist but… maybe I’m struggling with attachment just like anyone else.
Whether Buddhist or not, we can benefit from the mindful practice of maitri. In her talk From Fear to Fearlessness, Pema Chödrön instructs the listener in a maitri practice I want to share here.
Think of yourself, and offer yourself the wish to enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
Think of someone you like in an uncomplicated way (could be a pet, even). Wish for them to enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
Think of a neutral person. Wish for them to enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
Think of a complicated, beloved relationship. Wish for them to enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
Think of a person you do not like. Wish for them to enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
Think of all beings. Wish for them to enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
–paraphrased from From Fear to Fearlessness by Pema Chödrön
What I like about this practice is that it’s challenging, but not too challenging. I don’t feel as though I’m asked to eat a cracker and do yoga all day. I’m being asked simply to turn my loving kind self on and direct it toward various people. I can do that. I like that it progresses, too, although for me it starts with the hardest one–myself. Holding my own feelings, thoughts, and mind in what she calls “the cradle of loving kindness” can be a challenge.
The best part about this practice, though, is that you can’t do it “wrong.” You’re not instructed to feel anything here. You aren’t trying to make yourself truly feel that your enemy should experience happiness, for example. You’re simply “inviting the thought.” It’s not something you “need to do” or “should work on.” It’s tuning in and paying attention. While doing this little maitri practice, I don’t have to feel or do anything special. All I have to do is notice with gentle curiosity and compassion when I do feel things.
Do I find it is hard to offer loving kindness and wish happiness to people I don’t like? Certainly. But I’ll tell you what I noticed. When I thought of offering happiness to someone who once betrayed me, a block arose immediately in my mind, filled with my own hurt and sorrow. I noticed that I still carry a lot of hurt around from that particular experience. I just normally cover that hurt up with my dislike of the person who caused the pain.
Practicing maitri allowed me to invite that pain in to tea. I could, as Pema Chödrön said on Super Soul Sunday, “breathe in the whole unwanted.” The Buddhists say that fear dies in the light, and when I expose my emotional pain to light I find it gets more manageable as well. Deep pains are going to be a part of life, but they’re not the whole of life. Mindful practice allows us to see the whole truth of ourselves, and explore that truth without running from it.
Happiness, the root of happiness, isn’t whether we’re “happy” all the time or not. It’s how we relate to the parts of us that are in pain. How do we experience discomfort, and how do we respond to it? This right effort can lead us to further peace of mind and heart.
For more on the practice of maitri, check out this article. I’ll give you the money quote:
Really, I think a lot of people, like children, you’re wanting some kind of practice that’s not going to take you into anything uncomfortable but at the same time you want the practice to heal you. And it just doesn’t work like that.
I won’t deny I’m still a child. But I plan to keep on trying to grow up.