I recently returned from a 19-day silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. In the first half of the retreat we practiced metta (kindness) practice, and in the second half we practiced insight (mindfulness) meditation. It’s always a wonderful experience to practice kindness with a group of 90-plus meditators. I love the sense of care and courtesy we extend each other, even though we are mostly total strangers. This year, I learned more about the importance of one of the traditional practices—extending kindness to what we call a “neutral” person.
This concept is not new to me. I attended my first 10-day silent metta retreat in 1991. Since then, I’ve attended seven more and have practiced metta consistently. I have not, however, spent much time practicing kindness for the “neutral” person, except on retreat.
When we practice kindness, we offer metta in a progression, from easy beings to more challenging ones. Starting with what’s easiest helps us develop a foundation of kindness that we may be able to extend into more challenging categories of beings. We spend a lot of time in the easy categories, because the purpose of practice is to develop the quality of metta.
The Traditional Categories of Beings for Practicing Kindness
- Easy being or benefactor: Your benefactor could be someone who has supported you in your life, such as a teacher, grandparent, etc. It could also be a beloved animal. The benefactor or easy being should be someone to whom it’s very easy to offer your good will.
- Yourself: Kindness toward yourself is traditionally the first category, but many people feel it is challenging to practice kindness toward ourselves. If it is easy for you, you can start with yourself and then proceed to the benefactor.
- Dear friend or family member: Of course, there are probably lots of people in this category for all of us. For the purposes of going deeper, choose one person with whom you have an easy, uncomplicated relationship. Stay with that person for a while—days, weeks or months. Then sometimes you can expand your goodwill to other friends and family members.
- Neutral person: Someone you are aware of, but don’t really know anything about their life. More on this below.
- Difficult or challenging person: We all likely know a few people with whom we have difficulty. This is, of course, the most challenging category. It’s best to practice in this category when you’ve built up a strong foundation of metta.
What Is a Neutral Person?
In kindness practice, a neutral person is someone you don’t really know. A neutral person could be someone you see at a restaurant or store. It could be a person at work that you recognize, but you know nothing about his/her life. This year, I chose a person on the retreat who was on the veggie-chopping team with me.
The funny thing about the neutral person is that the more you practice kindness toward them, the less neutral they become. You still may not know anything about their life, but you begin to reflexively wish them well. This is the power of practice—we all have the ability to connect to and wish well for people we don’t even know.
Why Practice Kindness for a Neutral Person?
Before my most recent metta retreat, I thought practicing kindness for a neutral person was simply a bridge between the easier beings to more challenging individuals. But it’s much more than that. It’s actually a bridge to developing a much more expansive practice.
Here’s why: There are more neutral people in our lives than there are people of any other category—billions of them, in fact. None of us will ever know more than a microscopic fraction of the beings on this planet. But learning to practice kindness for the neutral people in our lives can open our hearts to all the neutral beings on Earth.
How to Practice Kindness for All Beings
There are many ways to practice kindness for all beings. I’ll outline just one of them here. Feel free to be creative, however, and come up with your own ways to expand your kindness to all. If you aren’t familiar with how to practice kindness as a meditation, read this post first. Feel free to take several minutes or more with each step.
- Start with yourself or a benefactor, whichever is easiest.
- Then offer kindness to yourself or a benefactor, whichever one you didn’t choose in the first step.
- Now offer kindness to those in your circle of friends and family members. Imagine them surrounding you and offering their well wishes to you.
- Invite a neutral person (or several) into your circle.
- Expand your kindness outward, to all the beings in your community, known and unknown, human and non-human.
- Expand further to include your state or region. For example, if you live in the western U.S., you could include all beings in the western region.
- Now offer your metta to all beings in your entire country.
- Expand to include the entire hemisphere, and then finally to the entire Earth. Be sure to include all beings: beings of the Earth, sky and sea; flora and fauna.