Metta Starts with Me: A Step-By-Step Guide to Meditating on Loving-Kindness.
“So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; Radiating kindness over the entire world…” ~ Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness
Today I’m struggling. Struggling to maintain a positive mindset. Struggling to be kind to others.
I am struggling to understand how pain and suffering continue to manifest in so many ways these days, and why. I can’t make sense of it all. I hurt. You hurt. Cherishing seems rare. Kindness feels limited and locked behind gilded doors, reserved for a privileged few. There is so much damned pain pulsating through the world that it overwhelms me to the point of paralysis.
The empath way I walk, once a magical path, now feels riddled with land mines and rigged with trip wires. Harsh words fill my mind, anger simmers into a slow rolling boil, and patience falls apart. I’m struggling. And others are suffering. It’s a mess. A mess I’ve been in before, and will be in again. But this mess, as it multiplies, always brings me back to a simple message — every time — it’s time to make time for metta.
When I started writing this piece, I had recently been given the opportunity to attend a live webinar featuring the teachings of Sharon Salzberg, hosted by Tibet House US. It was a surprise gift from a friend, and I was thrilled to tune in, welcoming the respite from an exhausting and challenging week.
I remember feeling lost midst the news of poisoned water, misogynist politicians, greed and death and distraction, meanwhile saddled with personal, professional and family responsibilities, and I found myself in a state of emotional upheaval, feeling overburdened almost to the point of breaking.
Simply put, Sharon’s teachings on metta could not have come at a better time. Of course, this is how things work, most of the time, for most of us if we are paying attention. The multiverse offers up what we most need, when we most need it. It is then up to us to accept the offering, or not.
As I was gifted the reminder of these basic yet essential teachings on metta, I in turn offer the same to you, in the event that you may be ripe for this gift at just this moment.
“This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness, and who knows the path of peace…”
What is Metta?
Metta is loving-kindness, friendship, love, connection, compassion.
Metta is a centuries-old meditation technique.
Metta is a lifestyle.
Metta is a mindset.
Metta is an essential tool for those of you who are like me, and find the suffering of the world too much to bear most days.
Metta is a way to take that sense of helplessness and turn it into action.
Metta is compassion, framed first in the mind, then executed at the micro and macro levels.
Metta is a lifesaver, a powerful force for good, a game-changer, a world-changer.
Metta is the key to survival.
And metta starts with Me.
I have been practicing metta, sometimes devoutly and oftentimes sporadically, for the last five years. I have found it to be one of the most rewarding types of meditation I’ve ever learned. It is also one of the easiest, especially for beginners and children.
Even as my own formal meditation time, which once occupied at least an hour of each day, has been replaced by commuting and computing, I find that metta remains a foundation of my being, easily incorporated into even the busiest of days. It is the tool I return to when I feel I have no other options.
Metta is a practice that offers an opportunity to develop inner calm and focus. It is also a powerful tool for reflection and action in situations where you may feel helpless.
Metta is especially helpful when I get overwhelmed by the daily news that bombards my empath nature with wrongdoing and malevolent acts perpetuated across our world. It is also an instantaneous way for me to end a conflict in my mind, through my words and actions.
I’m the type of person who feels deeply, especially the pain of others, and the desire to help others is in my nature. With the state of things lately, it often feels impossible to know where to start. These are the days when metta is especially helpful to me.
By focusing on the interconnectedness we all share, and offering goodwill to myself and to those around me through metta, I am better prepared to know where to start. And I remember that I must start with myself.
How Do I Perform Metta?
Metta, as I employ it, can be used as an immediate remedy or as a focused process.
As with any meditation practice, it is preferable to find a calm quiet place and set aside at least 10 minutes for this meditation. Strive to begin your session in a comfortable position, and take time to clear your mind and focus on your breath. Allow yourself a few rounds of cleansing inhalations and exhalations, letting the outside world fall away.
(Of course, this is rarely how I practice metta these days. It usually begins with a slight panic attack, a fierce anger reaction, or a general sense of doom that I feel the need to alleviate. I call on metta when I’m driving, working, walking, or reading the latest article detailing atrocious acts perpetrated on innocents. I use it when my friends and family are crying out in pain, when I feel I’m being attacked, and when I feel like screaming at work. This is all to say that metta is one of those antidotes that can be employed anywhere, any time, and yes… by anyone.)
Step One: Metta Always Starts with Me
Once you have settled into your breathing, focus on your self. Envelope yourself in loving-kindness. Hold your self gently, as you would hold a newborn babe or wounded animal. Release judgment and accept yourself wholly. Picture yourself in your mind’s eye, holding yourself, using gentle touch and embracing yourself as you would a loved one. Tell yourself that you are worthy of blessings, you are worthy of love, you are deserving of peace, happiness, safety and comfort. Wrap yourself in these things, and feel these expand within your own heart and mind.
Say aloud to yourself, or silently in your most compassionate inner voice:
May I be endowed with happiness.
May I be free from suffering.
May I never be separated from happiness.
May I abide in equanimity, undisturbed by worldly concerns.
Repeat these words to yourself until you believe them. Bless yourself, heartily.
The root of metta must begin by instilling in yourself the strength, support and loving-kindness that you will then draw upon to bless others. You’ve all heard the adage that to love another, you must first love yourself — this is especially true in this practice. You must fill yourself up, and create a well from which you can draw, in order for metta to be beneficial to all beings.
You deserve happiness. You deserve to be free from suffering. You deserve to have the causes of happiness at your side, abundantly, at all times. You deserve peace of mind, and need not be concerned with how you appear to others. You are worthy of letting go of ideals of blame and praise, loss and gain, fame and abandonment. You deserve peace, non-judgment and ease.
Once you have repeated the above phrases to yourself long enough and earnestly enough to feel them, you can safely move to the next steps of metta. If you find that you are hitting a roadblock, and have difficulty giving and receiving loving-kindness internally, stay here. Stay with this until you master it. Self-compassion is the first, most important step of this practice, and is essential to creating the reserves that will allow you to spread compassion to others.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” ~ HHDL XIV
Step Two: Metta for Our Loved Ones
If and when you have covered yourself in compassion, you can move on to the next steps in a structured metta meditation. I learned to employ this practice in a successive way, offering loving-kindness to myself and others in a certain order. As you transfer your wishes for happiness to others, it naturally makes sense that you would want to offer them to those you love and care for. I liken it to any exercise: you begin by learning the basic technique (loving-kindness toward self), then progressively work up in difficulty levels, eventually spreading loving-kindness to even your enemies.
As you continue your breathing, performing inhalations and exhalations in a calm rhythm, picture someone you love and care for in your mind. Hold them in the same way you held yourself: gently, lovingly, without judgment. Surround them with acceptance, safety and peace. Radiate your loving-kindness into their being, knowing that they deserve happiness and peace.
Repeat the following words aloud, or silently, focusing on your loved one and using their name:
May my loved one be endowed with happiness.
May my loved one be free from suffering.
May my loved one never be separated from happiness.
May my loved one abide in equanimity, undisturbed by worldly concerns.
It’s relatively easy to offer good wishes to those we love. Similarly, this portion of the meditation can be used to offer blessings to those who are in pain or who you are feeling especially compassionate towards. For instance, you could replace the name of your loved one with the victims of violence such as those involved in airstrikes in Syria, the shooting in Las Vegas, or those affected by natural disasters.
The key to this portion of the metta exercise is to offer loving-kindness to those you find you naturally want to do so for. The recipient is someone you feel positive about, and who elicits loving thoughts from you easily. Lift them up for as long as you need, visualizing them in safe, happy settings, protected and at ease.
Step Three: Metta for the Unknown
In the third step of metta practice, think of someone whom you do not have positive or negative feelings toward. It could be the convenience store clerk, a news anchor, the man that sells newspapers on the corner, or anyone you see but don’t really know. As you continue your breathing, picture that unknown person in your mind. Take a moment to sit in the awareness that you have no aversive or loving feelings toward them to begin with.
Now begin to cultivate loving-kindness toward this person. Feel your compassion building, and surround this person with all the gentle acceptance you did for your loved one. Share your feelings of care, concern and generosity with this stranger, feeling these compassionate gifts expand as you give them.
Repeat the following out loud, or silently to yourself, until the words become genuine well wishes:
May this stranger be endowed with happiness.
May this stranger be free from suffering.
May this stranger never be separated from happiness.
May this stranger abide in equanimity, undisturbed by worldly concerns.
This is where metta becomes powerful beyond what we can see within our own lives. When we take the caring and thoughtful energies we feel for those we love and begin to apply them to others, we begin to actually make that change we want to see in the world. Developing genuine concern for the well-being of others who have no direct impact on our lives is the heart of true compassion.
There is no personal gain to be had from sending blessings to a stranger. There is no personal benefit to be had when we offer kind and loving energies to those with whom we have no personal attachments or interactions. Our relationships flourish when we are compassionate to those we interact with, but the outpouring of compassion to a stranger is purely altruistic.
Offering goodness to strangers through meditation cannot possibly bring the benefit to the individual offering it… or can it? Like I said, this is where the real power of metta begins to grow.
When you offer loving-kindness with absolutely no intention of reaping personal benefit, you may begin to understand and see the role that interconnectedness can play in the world. Removing expectations of reward, being free from those worldly concerns for praise, and removing the boundaries and conditions that often dictate who deserves our compassion, are all monumental means for self-release. Try it. Pay attention to what happens.
“Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.” ~ Prince
Step Four: Mastering Metta and Loving Your Enemies
The final step in a formal metta practice is, in my opinion, the most important. Assuming you’ve mastered self-compassion, developing the same loving-kindness for your enemies is the final and most challenging aspect of learning to cherish all beings.
It’s natural that we feel animosity, anger, and disdain for those who cause us harm. We feel harsh emotions towards those who harm innocents, abuse children, murder, steal and maim. The last thing we usually want to do for these people is love them. But are we not all deserving of love? Do we not all deserve to feel safe? Are we not all human beings, worthy of forgiveness and compassion?
There are some earnest barriers to compassion that the last step of metta begs us to address. That’s why it is the hardest, and most essential piece of this practice.
For this portion of your meditation, imagine someone you have intense negative feelings toward. Maybe it’s Assad or a political figure. Maybe it’s someone who has wronged you. Maybe it’s your boss, your coworker, a family member, a competitor, or someone you are in an argument with.
Picture that person in your mind. Pay attention to your visceral reaction and how the vision of this person makes you feel. Are you tense, shaking, or clenching your fists? Has your breathing changed from gentle inhales and exhales to pursed-lip panting?
(Caution point: If your reaction is too intense, you may want to pause and rethink who you are going to work with here, or return to the first step of saying metta for yourself. Your practice should not make you feel unsafe or trigger traumatic reactions that cause you harm.)
If you are able to continue, imagine that this person, the one who elicits these intense negative reactions within you, is your own child or mother or brother. Imagine you are holding this person, who has caused so much pain, as you would your own injured loved one.
Begin to feel how badly this person may be hurting, to have caused so much strife or to have committed such atrocities or to have said such hurtful things. Hold this enemy gently and with as much compassion as you held your self in the first portion of this exercise. Remember that this person had a mother, was nursed at her breast, and was born into this world the same way you were.
As hard as it may be at first, begin to hold them even more gently, without judgment, with loving compassion, recognizing their humanity. Expand your compassion to surround them, offering them the same safety and support you offered yourself, your loved one and the stranger alike.
Take note of how this person is no different from the others, how this person is just as deserving of happiness as you are. Just as deserving as I am.
Finally, repeat the following aloud, or silently in your mind:
May the enemy be endowed with happiness.
May the enemy be free from suffering.
May the enemy never be separated from happiness.
May the enemy abide in equanimity, undisturbed by worldly concerns.
Imagine what your enemy would do with happiness, if they had it. Picture how this person would act toward you and others if they were freed from their own suffering. Consciously envision this person being reunited with the causes of happiness, contentedness and security. Focus on the fact that they, like all living beings, deserve these things.
Finally, see how differently this person would behave if they no longer were bound by the fear of loss, blame, and abandonment. Imagine the freedom they could feel were they no longer motivated by their desire for praise, personal gain and fame. Surround this person with safety, calm and peace using the growing power of compassion that you are developing within your own worthy heart.
Expand the loving-kindness you instilled within your self, and let it blanket those who, lashing out in pain, are still worthy of happiness. Feel how bestowing this gift upon your enemy frees you. Experience the boundless metta that began with you, and allow it to radiate out into the world.
“So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; Radiating kindness over the entire world: Spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; Outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.”
May all beings be endowed with happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering.
May all beings never be separated from happiness.
May all beings abide in equanimity, undisturbed by worldly concerns.
* Verses taken from “Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness” (Sn 1.8), translated from the Pali by The Amaravati Sangha. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 November 2013.