Getting Started with Metta Meditation
Instruction on Loving Kindness Meditation
Oh good, a new word! “Metta” comes to us from an ancient Indian language called Pali, and it translates as lovingkindness, benevolence, active good will—you get the idea. Normally, when we think about meditation we imagine sitting in silence and focusing on something pretty neutral like the breath or physical sensations. In this case, our practice is to be aware of when and where the mind is wandering and gently bring our attention back to the meditation object. So what is metta meditation and how does it fit in with other forms of sitting practice?
Metta is an active form of meditation where instead of focusing on the breath, we focus on sending benevolent thoughts and wishes out into the world, and we imagine that the people—or animals—in our minds are touched by our good will. In some forms of this meditation, we go a step further and imagine that whoever the object of our metta may be (and this includes ourselves) is relieved of their particular form of discomfort, unease or pain as they are touched by the power of our goodwill.
The origin of metta meditation
Metta meditation was taught by the Buddha 2600 years ago and is still practiced in many traditional Buddhist communities to this day, just as he taught it. Many communities recite parts of a famous discourse about cultivating lovingkindness in which the Buddha says, “Wishing: In gladness and in safety, May all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be; Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, The great or the mighty, medium, short or small, The seen and the unseen, Those living near and far away, Those born and to-be-born—May all beings be at ease!”
This form of well-wishing has become quite popular in the west, where it has been adapted to suit a variety of practices and faith traditions. One way to integrate it into a regular sitting practice is to begin or end the practice with a period of metta.
Getting started with metta meditation
Want to try it? Let’s get started.
Sit with your back straight in your regular meditation posture. Take a moment to set aside your busy-ness and tune into being present, right here, right now.
Connect with your breathing and spend a few minutes focusing on the movement of the breath. Notice the physical sensations that accompany this movement, especially at the level of your heart.
When ready, imagine someone you care about, someone you’re grateful for, and simply wish them well with these words (you can adapt the phrases as you see fit), either spoken out loud or in your mind:
- May you be safe
- May you be happy
- May you be healthy
- May your mind be at ease.
Some teachers recommend that you begin with yourself:
- May I be safe
- May I be happy
- May I be healthy
- May my mind be at ease.
Take the time to visualize the object of your meditation and feel the outpouring of goodwill.
At this point you might choose to extend your goodwill a bit further, imagining someone you don’t particularly feel one way or the other about. Keeping that person in mind, send them your benevolence.
The next step is to imagine someone you really don’t appreciate and do the same thing. It could be someone you know personally (the malevolent colleague), someone—or a group—you know through the media, or even the yappy little dog next door that tends to bark for hours on end (and its neglectful owners).
Finally, extend your well-wishes to the world.
Notice any feelings that arise during the practice but don’t invite or reject them. You might have very strong feelings if you imagine someone you care about who is in distress, or someone you dislike intensely, or a situation you have no personal contact with but which touches your heart. Let the feelings come and go naturally, without clinging to or judging them, or judging yourself for having them. Allow yourself to feel the warm-heartedness that accompanies metta meditation. Relax into it.
It’s as simple as that.
Benefits of metta meditation
Science is confirming what meditators who fold metta into their practice have known for centuries: it increases well-being. From enhanced feelings of empathy to improved relationships to better resilience to helping with PTSD and other trauma-based conditions, regular lovingkindness meditation has been linked to a host of benefits, much like mindfulness and awareness practices. And hey, you may even develop compassion.