Teagan White/Society6

Followers of this blog may recall how I have struggled with metta. Vipassana, despite its obvious difficulties, seems to me to be the easier practice. It is at its basis, a very concrete task that may be challenging to attain on a procedural level, but is relatively easy to grasp on a conceptual one.

Like many others, I had always thought of metta of pulling a warm and fuzzy feeling out of my heart and projecting it toward others. Of course I didn’t frame it that way, but in hindsight, that is what I was trying to do, especially when I just began meditating. It seems to me that this approach is encouraged by a lot of articles (granted, they were mostly beginner’s articles) that I have read about metta. Metta is really about the opposite. Instead of projecting outwards with greater intensity, you are withdrawing projections in order to make room for the Other. Or, more accurately, you are dissolving/silencing/being mindful of your projections which is where the supporting role of vipassana comes in.

I was talking about this way of framing metta to my husband and he recommended that I read some Levinas. Because much of what Levinas wrote is in response to Heidegger, I’ll have to read him closely after I get a solid grasp on Heidegger, but what I’ve read so far resonates so much with how I understand metta.

Metta is about dissolving the ego from your relations, your contacts, with the Other. Other people, other beings, reality itself. Levinas writes, “The subject is ‘for itself’ — it represents itself and knows itself as long as it is. But in knowing or representing itself it possesses itself, dominates itself, extends its identity to what of itself comes to refute this identity.” Levinas describes this kind of projection as an “imperialism of the same.” Imperialism is a great term for this, because it connotes the violence that you do onto the world and onto yourself when you project so much upon yourself into the world that you override everything that may refute your projections. Imperialism implies that there is an ethical dimension to this human tendency that must be addressed.

Elle Hanley/Society6

Levinas describes the moment in which you no longer assert your projection over the Other as when “he overflows absolutely every idea I can have of him.” To recognize the Other means to acknowledge and recognize that which is beyond your ego. In metta, it is not so much, “I love you,” but rather, “I see you and I experience you in your totality, your exceptional presence; you are infinite.”

To see the face is to speak of the world. Transcendence is not an optics, but the first ethical gesture. – Levinas

If I am to look upon the face of another human being, another being, and I am unable or unwilling to see the humanity that resides there, if do not open myself to the full force of existence within another, then that is my failing, and I say, let me feel the lack from my failings. If I consistently refuse to acknowledge the presence of the Other, if I so choose to reject that totality, I do violence onto myself, I spit upon my own being.

To allow the Other to overflow and to give of yourself, to give all of yourself, to that flow, this is the first step toward an ethical life. An ethical life is not one in which ethics comprises of conduct that is external to you, guided by rules and principles and thou shalt nots. It is a life in which you move towards an ethical mode of being that cannot be compromised and in which your seeing is fundamentally changed.