Invisible People: Why They’re Important in Lovingkindness Practice

I’ve been doing lovingkindness practice for 20 years, mostly following the standard formula – starting by offering kindness to myself, then family, friends, teachers and benefactors (people easy to love) and on to indifferent people, difficult people and finally all beings. The practice of offering kindness to indifferent people in particular has completely changed my orientation and perspective. It has led to a deeper exploration of what “indifferent” really means and some interesting revelations.

I began to notice in metta instructions that indifferent people are often described as service workers, clerks, repair people, those we don’t see or interact with as regularly as others. In some cases they may be at a lower point socioeconomically than the largely middle and upper middle class Americans that practice lay Buddhism. In many instances, our unseen or unacknowledged privilege may render certain people indifferent, or even invisible.

My first insight into this happened in a grocery store. I have long frequented a Kroger near my home that has a well-stocked organic produce section. A man who works in this department is normally present stocking and restocking in the morning when I often shop. He is likely an immigrant as are many employees in the Kroger produce department. For a few years, he was essentially an indifferent person to me, and often invisible.

One day I touched some produce that was very wet and my hands were dripping. He rushed over with a paper towel so I could dry my hands. This simple act of kindness and attention penetrated my heart. I felt tears welling up as I realized how often I overlooked him, how I had unconsciously rendered him not just indifferent but invisible.

After that I began looking around the store and noticing people who were stocking the shelves, working the cash registers, etc. and offering them wishes of kindness and wellbeing. Inevitably, a friendly hello or a smile followed. As an introvert I often keep my attention to myself in public places, but these simple acts of acknowledgement opened my awareness and loving friendliness in a way that broke me out of conditioned patterns and created friendly interactions. This practice was a new avenue for me to recognize and appreciate the interconnection we all share.

Another awakening occurred when I read an article by a disabled person describing his experiences in public. He’s in a wheelchair and he explained how people either reflexively look away or view his disability with morbid curiosity. He wrote that he simply wants to be seen and acknowledged as a human being. This is an example of how some of us may unconsciously render a person, or a group of people, invisible. Even if we see them, if we primarily see their disability or their “otherness,” they are invisible.

I often walk at a park near my home and I began to consciously acknowledge those in wheelchairs with a friendly, simple hello. I could see right away the gratitude that arose from this acknowledgement of inherent humanity that is too often withheld from those seen as “different.” This is one of the great teachings of metta – at heart all humans all have the same needs for safety, wellbeing, and freedom from suffering. To make someone the “other” and render them invisible, strips away this reality and separates our hearts from the compassion, kindness and love that naturally dwells in awareness.

Now when I offer an extended guided metta meditation, I ask the participants to explore what categories of humans are invisible to them. For some of us, it may be the homeless or disabled; for others, people of different ethnicities, sexual orientation, women or the elderly. Even if we see them, do we categorize them too quickly into stereotypes and preconceived ideas of who they are? If so, they are invisible to us. If we want our metta practice to truly include all beings, we need to bring them into our practice consciously. Buddha admonished us to offer kindness without exception and it is part of our practice to do so.

Sometimes, we also make certain parts of ourselves invisible. When I was leading an exploration of invisible people at a recent lovingkdiness retreat, a practitioner described his experience doing this practice:

“When the Metta practice pointed towards invisible people, as a person of color, I thought to myself, ‘how many times have I made myself invisible in the company of those that do not share my diversity?’

And also, how many times have I faded into the background so that a particular group of people, seemingly different from my diversity, could feel safe?

Thoughts of my teenage years came back when my white friends would say, ’don’t go over there or don’t hang out with those people because they are the N-word,’ then someone would say to me, ‘sorry.’ Then someone else would say to me, ‘you’re not a N-word’ and I would think to myself ‘yeah, I’m not a N-word.’

During this practice, the realization of how thin that veil is allowed me to witness deeply where I have been spiritually bypassing my diversity.

Then, the following phrases came to mind.

May I, you, we, be seen
May, I, you, we, be heard
May, I, you, we be understood and not misunderstood
May, I, you, we be held and cared for with compassion, love and grace.”

The final category of metta is “all beings.” While it does include invisible beings, it is nonspecific and doesn’t address how bias, bypassing and racism render some beings invisible. The practice of including invisible people more explicitly is not a panacea, but a simple invitation to make visible and explore what has been hidden. May we allow our hearts to open to all of the beings we overlook or ignore, may we extend compassion without limitation.

Lisa Ernst