The buddha taught that the cultivation of a kind and loving heart, and ultimately of a “boundless love” for all creation, was the most important dimension of our spiritual work. Sustaining a loving heart, he taught, even for the duration of a snap of a finger, makes one a truly spiritual being. This quality of love is called in Buddhist teachings either “maitri”(Sanskrit) of “metta” (Pali).
The Pali word metta has two root meanings. One is the word for gentle. Metta is likened to a gentle rain that falls upon the earth. This rain does not select and choose – ‘I’ll rain here, and I’ll avoid that place over there.’ Rather, it simply falls without discrimination.
The other root meaning for metta is friend. To understand the power or the force of metta is to understand true friendship. The Buddha… talked about a good friend as someone who is constant in our times of happiness and also in out times of adversity or unhappiness. A friend will not forsake us when we are in trouble nor rejoice in our misfortune. The Buddha described a true friend as being a helper, someone who will protect us when we are unable to take care of ourselves, who will be a refuge to us when we are afraid.
… The culmination of metta is to become such a friend to all of life.” -Sharon Salzberg, Loving Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness
“Confidence is our innate potential to be loving human beings empowers the cultivation of metta. Our potential to love is very real and is somehow not destroyed, no matter what we experience: all of the mistakes that we might make, all of the times that we are caught in reaction, all of the times we have caused pain, all of the times we have suffered. Throughout everything, our potential to love remains intact and pure. Through practicing metta in meditation and in daily life, we cultivate this potential. Love joins with our intention, as partners in healing ourselves and the world.” – Sharon Salzberg, Loving Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.
METTA MEDITATION PRACTICE
In working with the meditation practice of metta, we gently repeat phrases that are meaningful in terms of what we wish, for our own happiness and well-being and that of others. Classically there are four phrases that are used: May I be free from all the anger, hatred, and ill will. May I be happy. May I be peaceful. These can be altered so that the words more closely express the deep wishes of our hearts, or other phrases can be used. An example of alternative phrases might be, May I be happy. May I be free of suffering and fear. May I be healed. May I be peaceful, healthy and harmonious.
Reflecting on the Good Within You
In metta practice, we begin by allowing a feeling of love to converge in our hearts. Traditionally, we begin by spending several minutes reflection on our own goodness. We call to mind a times that we did or said something that was loving, generous, caring, or kind. If nothing comes easily to mind, we gently turn our attention to a quality in ourselves that we like – a strength or ability we can recognize and admire. If still nothing comes to mind, we can simply reflect on the basic “rightness” and beauty of our primal wish to be happy.
Basic Instructions: Metta Practice
Sit comfortably. Begin with five minutes of reflection on the good within you. Begin to repeat the phrases you have chosen, that express what you most deeply wish for yourself. You can coordinate the phrases with your breathing or not, as you prefer. Let the pacing and tone be gentle, offering yourself a gift with each phrase. If your mind wanders or difficult feelings or memories arise, simply notice that in a spirit of kindness and gently come back to repeating the phrases.
There are times in doing this practice when feelings of unworthiness come up strongly, and you can see clearly the conditions and limits you place on loving yourself. When this occurs, breathe gently, accept that these feelings are there, remember that you, like all beings, want to be happy and free from suffering, and come back to the metta phrases.
When directing metta to another person, we will begin our practice sessions by spending about ten minutes reflecting on our own goodness and directing metta to ourselves. Then we call to mind the person toward whom we have decided to direct the blessings of loving kindness. It is best to begin by using the same phrases we have used with ourselves, breaking down the barriers between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and acknowledge out commonality.
For example, Just as I wish to be happy, so you wish to be happy. May you be happy. Just as I wish to be free from suffering and fear, so you wish to be free from suffering and fear. May you be free from suffering and fear. Overtime, you may find that you will modify the phrases you use to fit the particular person.
The Sequence of Metta Practice
- Ourselves. In Buddhist teaching, this is the essential foundation for being able to offer genuine love to others.
- A ‘Benefactor’. This is someone who has been good to you, for whom you feel gratitude and respect.
- A beloved friend.
- Someone toward whom you feel neutral.
- Someone with whom you have experienced conflict, someone toward whom you feel anger, fear, or a lack of forgiveness.
- Groups or categories of living beings. An example would be those living in the four directions, people with AIDS, those who are suffering from hunger, animals etc.
- All beings everywhere.
Important note: When working with sending metta to a difficult person in your life, be very patient and gentle with yourself. Accept the different feelings that may arise – grief, anger, fear. If you can, allow them to pass through you and continue to repeat the phrases. If they become overwhelming, go back to sending metta to yourself or to a friend. You can also reflect on how much pain holding onto these feelings is causing you, and out of compassion for yourself, offer the intention: To ease my own heart, may I let go. When you can, return to directing the metta phrases to the difficult person, going back and forth between yourself, a friend, the reflections, and the difficult person as necessary. Remember, as in all meditation, beginning again and again is the practice.
As an alternative to sending metta to a difficult person, you can experiment with directing metta toward a difficult aspect of yourself – a part of yourself you have resisted, denied, struggled with, judged, been afraid of, or hated. To do this practice, begin by sending yourself metta. After some time, turn you attention to whatever aspect of yourself you feel most estranged from. Begin to surround this painful aspect of your being with warmth, acceptance, and kindness. Use such phrases as, May I accept this part of myself. May I touch this part of myself with kindness instead of judgement. May this difficult aspect of myself be healed and made whole. Use whatever phrases come to mind and return periodically to directing metta to yourself with your usual phrases.
With loving kindness.