Remembering to Loosen Up

Ajahn Amaro • September 2008

By reflecting on the theme of kindness and establishing the quality of mettā, we gain insight into how mettā is developed. One of the not-so-obvious ways we create qualities of unkindness is by relating to our own attitudes, opinions, and pet projects through self-identification: My responsibility, my job, my role. Many of these aspects of our lives slip into existence and claim a substantial reality without our noticing. Of course this is what I am. This is my job. I’m the water monk. I’m the co-abbot. I’m the head cook. I’m the driver. This is what I am. The mind takes hold of these particular attitudes and creates a false substantiality around them. The more solid they become, the more we create the causes of friction.

If we want to sharpen a blade, we don’t get a soft grindstone made of gelatin. We get a good, hard grindstone for the blade to rub against, something that’s solid, unyielding, and abrasive. The more the mind hardens around opinions, the more we buy into them, creating false solidities and divisions between the apparent me and the apparent world. The more solid and unyielding these attitudes and opinions become, just like an abrasive grindstone, the more friction there is and the more sparks that fly.

Developing the quality of mettā, in terms of non-contention in the way that we behave and relate to others, is an important dimension to notice. We don’t often think of this in terms of mettā practice, but it’s helpful to bring a genuine attentiveness to the kind of fixedness, the sense of territoriality that the mind can have, or the fixedness of views that identifies with a particular role, position, or responsibility. This is my position. This is my job. You do your thing and I’ll do mine.

I remember one of the nuns from Chithurst Monastery talking about her pre-nun life in the kitchen at Amaravati. She said, “It’s quite incredible—the opinions about the ways to cut a carrot.” She spent three years as an anagārikā at Amaravati, which has a kitchen about three or four times the size of the kitchen here at Abhayagiri, and at least ten times the number of opinions. People were almost coming to blows on occasions and stomping out of the house. “Those carrots have been cut wrong—it’s completely out of order, inappropriate, and contrary to the Dhamma to cut carrots like that!”

We might not notice in the course of a day the 10,000 ways the mind creates a sense of territory, priority, or position, and seeks ways to establish them. We can be very polite, keep the precepts, and do things in the appropriate way, but at the same time send out signals that are based on identifying with a particular position. I’m right. This is my job. You don’t matter. What I’m doing is important. My views are correct. What you do is totally insignificant. It’s all the habits of self creating the I and my. We can take the ordinary, utterly innocent activities of our monastic lives—helping out with the work tasks, washing the dishes, putting things away in our cupboards, or whatever it might be—and use them to feed those I-creating, my-creating habits. It’s useful to bring attention to that, to see where we create a fixedness of views and a false solidity. Then we can challenge our own opinions, habits, and preferences by training the heart into not buying into them, not going along with that kind of subtle grasping. And remember to loosen up! This is a genuine act of kindness. It’s a kindness to ourselves not to create that sort of stress and fearfulness within our own hearts. It’s also a great kindness to the people around us. They are much more able to harmonize with us when we’re able to harmonize with them. There’s less of the alienation that comes from clinging to self view and self-creating habits. We are no longer like a hard unyielding grindstone.

There are many different dimensions to developing mettā. We can see how much of a difference it makes when we notice within ourselves a hardening of the heart or a clinging to an opinion, belief, or preference, and then we change direction by relaxing around our views and loosening up our identification with those opinions and preferences. We experience for ourselves the blessings that come from the more easeful and pleasant world we live in because we’re not vying for positions, judging each other, fearing being judged, or positioning ourselves against this or that person. Notice how delightful and wonderful it is to have none of that being created. We realize, Oh look at that. If I don’t create it, then it’s not there. What an amazing surprise! So much of the stress and difficulty of our personal worlds is generated from our own cittas, our own minds and hearts. If we ourselves stop creating that division and stress—that friction and heat from the grindstone—then we find the citta becomes cool because the division and tension simply aren’t there.