Metta Meditation and Finding Joy in the Happiness of Others

Have you ever felt a powerful sense of loving kindness for someone you’ve never met before? Just from observing this person, you felt an overwhelming sense of compassion and pure love towards them as they went about their business, completely unaware you were watching them with this sense of love vibing from your heart?

Before I even knew what “Metta meditation,” or “loving kindness” was, I can remember a particular instance of it happening to me. Before I begin my story, let me explain what Metta meditation is. It is cultivating compassion towards yourself and others, wishing all beings to be happy and free from suffering, and in that wish, feeling pure joy in imagining all beings being happy. In a sense, your happiness arises as a result of knowing others are happy. Metta meditation as a practice involves thinking about beings you care about (people, animals, etc.), as well as people you don’t know or care about, and visualizing and sending positive thoughts towards yourself and them. But sometimes this practice can happen more “organically”.

My experience with Metta meditation happened during a trip abroad. I was coming home late on a bus from a day full of Christmas shopping in Edinburgh. I was exhausted, yet feeling hopeful that my unique finds from another part of the world would bring pleasure to my family back in the US as they unwrapped the gifts I had purposely picked out for each of them. As I sat and imagined my family’s smiles spread across their faces, I looked over to see an elderly gentleman wearing a tattered wool suit jacket, a plaid wool paperboy hat, and very worn boots. As I looked a little closer, I noticed he had a hole in one of his boots, and I could see his very wet black sock through the hole. He was also wearing earmuffs and gloves with the fingertips cut off. Despite his tattered clothes, he still looked very distinguished, as if he used to live a wealthy life, hosting lots of parties that included intelligent conversations around chimney fires and glasses of scotch.

The elderly gentleman held a Menzies bag in his hand. Menzies is a store with a bit of everything in it. I would compare it to Target or Walmart, only smaller. He kept looking at the bag and a smile drew upon his face. It was as if he was trying to fight the urge to open it up. Finally, he couldn’t wait any longer and opened the bag and pulled out what appeared to be a small plastic box. The gentleman opened the box and pulled out small plastic chess pieces. I soon realized he had a travel-sized plastic chess board. He pulled out each individual chess piece with a curious smile and held it high into the air so that he could steal a glimpse of it when the bus passed by a streetlight. When the streetlight finally shed some light on the chess piece, his smile grew even bigger. I watched as he kept pulling out each piece and counting them as he put them back in the case.

I wondered who he had bought this small plastic chess game for. Was it for his grandchild? His own son or daughter? Or was it a gift for himself?

Though he looked like he had played many chess games in his life, I made the conclusion that the chess game was a gift for a grandchild, and he wanted to pass on his love for chess to his grandson or granddaughter.

I suddenly realized that we were both having the same feelings and imagining how our gifts would bring happiness to our loved ones. I felt an instant connection with this man and hoped that the recipient of his gift would not disappoint this man’s excitement, as I watched him anticipate the joy his gift would bring. Though this plastic chess game may have cost no more than ten pounds, I hoped the memories it brought would be worth so much more. I hoped the recipient would understand how much giving this gift meant to this man.

Though we parted ways without saying a word on that day twenty years ago, the image of this elderly man has stayed with me all these years. I now understand how someone can wish happiness on someone they have never really met and how his happiness made me happy.

As I unloaded my many purchases from all the touristy places onto my bed, I counted out the precious cargo and realized I was just as hopeful as the gentleman on the bus. Picturing my family’s faces as they unwrapped my gifts, I realized it wasn’t so much about the gifts as it was about wishing my family could be in Scotland and get to experience what I was experiencing. I wanted my joy to be my family’s joy.

With the memories of my encounter on the bus fresh in my head,  I decided to wish happiness upon myself and to truly enjoy each remaining day abroad in order to make the most of it for myself and my family. And I looked forward to the moment I could share my gifts with my family so that I could experience the joy of their happiness.

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