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Let’s Talk About Mettā and Service

By David Cohen | 6/22/2022

During a recent committee meeting at my local Dhamma center, we discussed alternative ways to encourage service because our meditation center, like many other Dhamma centers, is working through server shortages. This essay is my attempt to dive deeper into mettā and service and how they are essential for a complete practice. After reading, at the end of the article please feel free to leave comments about your experience with mettā, service, or anything else that might inspire us.

. . .

July 21, 2018. Day 10, mettā day at Dhamma Visuddhi. My first sit.

I’m tired and relieved. Even though I'm not sure whether I'll continue the practices that I've learned, I'm happy to be nearing the completion of my goal. But to give the course a fair trial, I must learn one more technique and finish this last day.

Ānāpana and Vipassana were slowly and methodically hammered into us for nine days. However, the mettā teaching consists of only one short learning session. Our wonderful teacher, Mr. S. N. Goenka, after explaining the theory, slowly chants some phrases. I can’t imagine myself replicating them out loud or internally and, even if I could, I haven’t learned an authentic way to do it. It just doesn’t resonate. I understand that he's wishing us peace and happiness, but how do I do this on my own?

After the mettā teaching is over, we proceed to noble chattering with our new friends and mettā is basically dropped. The course ends and we return to our regular lives. In my case, I quickly change from “that was difficult, I’m happy I finished, but I’ll never do that again” to “wow, I’ve never felt this peaceful before, I've obtained a superpower, everyone likes me, I like everyone, and I can’t wait to go to my next course.”

Anicca. My superpower wanes. I continue to practice Ānāpana and Vipassana but I don’t practice mettā, nor do I even consider it. I recognize that my concentration and energy have improved due to my Vipassana practice but understand that my practice is incomplete. I’m not a horrible person but I could be so much kinder, so much less judgmental. How can I begin to fill the gap?

Something clicks when I listen to Goenka talk about mettā during my first one-day sit as an old student. He tells us that when we give dana, a donation, at the apparent level it seems that we have lost something, even though at a deeper level we haven’t. When it comes to sharing spiritual wealth, it’s obvious even at the apparent level that we lose nothing by sharing. We have an unlimited capacity to generate mettā. It won’t run out. It can’t harm us. It benefits others. It benefits us. Why not share it with reckless abandon? But how?

I dive so deeply into the subject that I research academic studies of compassion cultivation and loving-kindness, and present my findings at work. I feel that I have a good grasp of the theory, but my personal practice of mettā is still lacking, and I'm still nowhere near where I want to be along the path. A couple minutes of mettā meditation, even done earnestly at the end of sits, is, quite simply, not enough. I’ve sat another ten-day course, a three-day course, and many one-day courses. I'm (still) not a horrible person, but I (still) could be so much kinder and less judgmental.

Where do I go from here? I provide service to my closest Dhamma center in various forms that I enjoy and can fit into my schedule. It benefits me and, I hope, benefits others. However, I've never served at a Dhamma center. Many of the “beginner” students, like me, and some longer-term students too, feel that, when they are fortunate enough to find time to visit a Dhamma center, it must be to sit. But everyone whom I have talked to who has served at a center has told me that serving is a wonderful experience and essential to a complete practice.

There's nothing whatsoever pushy about our Dhamma organization. We're our own masters. We must learn for ourselves. Unless due to something extraordinary, Dhamma centers will let us sit and sit and sit without ever serving. Perhaps mettā and Dhamma service are not heavily stressed to students on purpose, so that we can discover their importance on our own. But if you listen closely, seeds are planted. Many of us might have been too exhausted to remember it well during the course, so I recommend listening to Goenka’s Day 10 talk about the benefits of Dhamma service because this is precisely where the seed is first planted. His talk is located in the old student resources of the dhamma.org website.

Goenka tells us that Dhamma centers provide a superior training ground, not just to hone our meditation practice as students, but to develop our mettā. Outside of Dhamma centers, the entire atmosphere is full of negativity; inside Dhamma centers, students might generate some negativities, but the overall atmosphere is so pleasant that the negativities are much easier to confront. Whenever we serve people, we naturally generate love and compassion for them, and this helps develop mettā.

Do I believe that serving at Dhamma centers is the only way to properly cultivate mettā, complete my practice, and that everyone who can’t do so doesn’t stand a chance? Of course not. But I know that many of us lose track of the importance of mettā and Dhamma service, both in our regular practice, and when it’s time to decide whether to sit or serve the next time we're fortunate enough to get away. The next time I set foot in a Dhamma center, it will be to serve.

The ultimate goal is to be selfless, kind, and nonjudgmental everywhere. Everyone is a Dhamma-brother and -sister, not just those who sit and serve at Dhamma centers. But there are no shortcuts on the path. Our practice is one of action, not inaction. Practice over theory. Dhamma centers are our middle ground, wonderful gyms available to us. Our gains come from actual experience, not intellectual knowledge. We must continue to train at our Dhamma centers—not just sitting, but serving—to keep progressing.

Please comment below with your thoughts and experiences with mettā and service.

1 Comments

Will Constable
Date: 6/22/2022

Well said! Thank you for this post. I just served my first course (3 day) and it was surprisingly productive. Just like you said, this revealed an essential part of the path. I was so accustomed to seeing only the part of the path that is an intense personal experience on a cushion. Serving illuminated what feels like the other half of the path I am walking on. A path that is also a shared communal striving. We are islands onto ourselves, but we are not alone, there are other islands. :) Much Metta

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