The story goes that, at the time of the Buddha, a group of monks wanted to do a quiet retreat away from the crowds of followers, so the Buddha sent them to a glade in the forest where he said they would be undisturbed.
The monks found their way there and settled down to meditate. But what they didn’t know was that a gang of tree spirits inhabited the glade and they were really upset that the monks had come. And when tree spirits get upset they can be extremely scary, ugly, very smelly, and unbelievably noisy, ferociously shrieking all over the place. They did everything they could to spook the hermits and make them leave.
And it worked. The monks couldn’t possibly meditate with so many disturbances, so they went back to the Buddha and begged him to let them go somewhere else. But the Buddha said no; instead, he taught them a meditation practice of loving kindness, or metta in Sanskrit, which develops loving kindness towards everyone, including yourself and your enemies. And then he sent the monks back to the forest. His famous words were, Loving kindness is the only protection you will need.
Thinking the Buddha must be mad, the monks reluctantly went back to the glade, sat down and began practicing the Loving Kindness meditation. And the tree spirits, who at first were not at all pleased to see them returning, no longer had any affect on them. For all their antics, the monks just kept sitting there and beaming out loving kindness. Eventually the tree spirits were won over by the waves of love and compassion emanating from these robed ones and, far from trying to chasing them away, the same nasties that had been so ferocious now became disciples.
The question is, who are the tree spirits? Answer: they are everything that goes on in our minds—all the doubts, insecurities, fears, anger, negative thoughts— that constantly undermine our balance and positivity. And the point the Buddha was making is that loving kindness has the capacity to overcome all manner of inner monsters and ghouls and lead us to a true heart opening.
We know this sounds so easy: just be kind and loving, how great, what a cool idea. But in practice it’s definitely not always so easy, such as when someone says or does something that is personally critical or hurtful. Can metta still flow when the ego is upset? By focusing on loving kindness as a way of living, it shows us all those places that are bound in selfishness; it brings us up against our limitations. Where is our capacity to step into greater kindness?
Metta is the act of extending our love, kindness and friendship equally towards all beings, proving that love is more powerful than any negative force. Rather than trying to deal with negativity, we cultivate the opposite; seeing and knowing pain, we bring loving kindness. Then amazing change is possible.