Invisible People: Why They’re Important in Lovingkindness Practice

By Lisa Ernst

Metta, or lovingkindness practice, teaches us that all humans have the same needs for safety, wellbeing, and freedom from suffering. I’ve been doing traditional lovingkindness practice for 20 years – starting by offering kindness to myself, then people easy to love and on to indifferent or so-called neutral people, difficult people and finally to all beings. The practice of offering kindness to an indifferent person in particular has completely changed my perspective. It led me to a deeper exploration of what “neutral” or “indifferent” really means.

In metta instructions, “indifferent people” are often described as people we don’t really get to know as we interact. Often they are outside of our normal networks, thus their histories and lived experiences may be unseen in ways that render them not just neutral and indifferent, but also invisible.

My first insight into this happened in a neighborhood grocery store. A man who works in the produce department is usually present when I’m there. For more years than I’d like to admit, he was essentially an indifferent person to me, and often invisible. One day, after touching some wet produce, my hands were dripping. He rushed over with a paper towel so I could dry my hands. This simple act of kindness penetrated my heart. Tears welled up as I realized how often I overlooked him, how I unconsciously rendered him not just indifferent but invisible. To unconsciously make someone the “other” and render them invisible, strips away this reality and separates our hearts from the compassion, kindness and love that naturally dwell in awareness. The remorse I felt after this encounter changed my lovingkindness practice forever.

Now, when I’m offering a guided metta meditation, I’ll ask you to explore what categories of humans may be invisible to you. Is it someone carrying a sign asking for help, or a houseless person? Do you overlook a person of different ethnicity, ability, gender identity and expression, women or the elderly? When you see them, do they fall into biased stereotypes and assumptions about who they are? When that happens, their humanity is invisible to you. For your metta practice to truly embrace all beings, notice who may be unimportant to you or cause you to look away. Please bring them into your everyday practice of loving awareness. Buddha encouraged us to offer kindness without exception, even just a simple gesture or a smile.

In addition, some of us may make certain parts of ourselves invisible. To make ends meet after leaving home at 16, for years I was a temporary worker going from job to job. I worked long hours, often for less than minimum wage. I felt completely invisible, even to myself. I went home at night deflated and dejected. Finally I realized that I needed to see in myself what was invisible to others, to offer the love and kindness to myself that was missing. This practice of self compassion helped me appreciate the inherent value of my humanity. It was the one thing that got me through.

This practice of including invisible people more explicitly in metta is not a panacea for the systemic inequities in society, but a simple invitation to make visible and explore what has been hidden.

*May all beings be seen * May all beings be heard * May all beings be cared for with compassion and love.