Recent articles 2011
ideology mindfulness psychology: buddhism
Universal Loving Kindness (Metta)
as ‘Constructive Imagination’
I came across an interesting passage in Mindfulness in Early Buddhism (p55) by Tse-Fu Kuan connecting metta with imagination. One of the main themes of his book is connecting mindfulness or sati with sanna. Sanna, though it is sometimes rendered perception or recognition, is better translated as ‘apperception.’
Apperception is: “The process of understanding by which newly observed qualities of an object are related to past experience.” Apperception is in a way a combination of perception and recognition. For example, we perceive a chair; but we already have an idea in our minds about what a chair is. So our apperception of the chair is to re-cognize what we have previously cognized as a chair.
Having pointed to how the Metta Sutta talks about metta as “this mindfulness” Tse Fu-Kuan goes on to say:
‘To cultivate loving-kindness towards all sentient beings and conceive of them as being one’s own son involves “constructive imagination.” This is a process of morally constructive transformation of one’s sanna by means of deliberate conceptualizing. …Loving-kindness may be counted as a type of emotion produced by deliberately transforming sanna, which is the job of sati.’
[He also says: ‘While the Metta Sutta mentions “this mindfulness” (etam satim), it probably does not mean that loving-kindness itself is a kind of sati, but it implies that the process of developing loving-kindness involves sati.’]
So how does the metta bhavana meditation work by ‘transforming our apperception by deliberate conceptualizing?’ Before doing the neutral stage of the metta bhavana, we will see the person in the corner shop in a particular way. We will have a particular view of them; if they are neutral we will no doubt see them more or less indifferently: as an object, we will have conceptualized them as an object. When we encounter them in the street, having the idea in our mind already that they are an object, we apperceive them as 'an object.'
Suppose we then do the metta bhavana meditation. Once we have borne them in mind and recited the phrase “May they be well, may they be happy.” it is then less easy to see them as an object. We begin to take in the fact that the person is a living being, with feelings and aspirations and who desires happiness. We now cognize them as a living being, with all that entails. We have re-conceptualized them from ‘object’ to ‘living being.’ Our apperceptions have been transformed in a ‘morally constructive’ direction; our sanna is now more in line with the truth, the truth about living beings: that they are not objects. It is then only a short step to having the emotion of loving kindness towards them, if we allow our ‘reconstituted’ view of that person to affect our emotions.
The above is a good example of how - through conditionality - we can work on our emotions by transforming our perspective or view. This is only possible because our perspective or view, here represented by sanna, is a separate condition or ‘domain’ from our emotions, here represented by metta. It means that we can work on the one through the other.
In all of this it is important to remember to distinguish between feelings in the generic sense that includes emotion and feelings over which we have no control because they are resultant: vipaka. Metta is ‘feeling as emotion’ – which we have the power to create (or influence by transforming our sanna) – and not ‘feeling as resultant’ - which we may feel powerless about if we don’t have.