Metta (lovingkindness) is that sense of openness when we feel connected to everyone and everything in the world. In some ways, it’s a natural outgrowth of mindfulness practice and just the general cultivation of happiness in our lives. When the Buddha talks about lovingkindness, he’s clearly pointing to something different from what we usually call “love.” In fact, his teachings point to the problems with selective love, and how that leads to clinging and ultimately suffering as things change. The Metta Sutta tells us to spread love over the entire world to everyone, no matter what we think or feel about them. This is unconditional love, love that doesn’t expect or need a return, love that sees past the petty differences and disputes in life to the universal longings for happiness that we all share. In practicing lovingkindness, we are faced with our clinging, our judgments, and our selective caring. We see that what we usually call love may have a lot of conditions tied up with it: “I’ll love you as long as you love me” or “as long as you give me what I want.” And, further, we see that the love we have for our dear ones makes us vulnerable to grief and loss.
Traditionally, metta practice focuses on three categories: those we love, those we are neutral or have no strong feelings about, and those we have difficulties with. Before we work with these categories, the practice suggests we first focus on a benefactor or beloved person (or even a pet). When we spend time sending lovingkindness to this beloved, we accomplish a couple of things: first, we soften ourselves up a bit, so that we are ready to send love to others; and second, we get a clear sense of what love feels like so that we establish that kind of baseline.
After connecting with the beloved, we then try to send love to ourselves. Many people find this to be one of the most difficult aspects of the metta practice. At least in our culture, many of us have complicated, and often negative, feelings about ourselves. To see ourselves as just another person deserving love is a valuable exercise. Here we start to disidentify with ourselves, see ourselves in more objective terms. When we can see ourselves as just another imperfect human, equally deserving of love as anyone else, it becomes easier to offer love to ourselves.
Moving from focus on ourselves to focus on all the rest of the people we care about—family, friends, intimates, and partner—the heart tends to open more easily. Now we might feel ourselves getting into the flow of lovingkindness. Without obstruction, and using the phrases, feelings, and visualizations of the practice, the mind can become quite focused and concentrated, so that, not only do we enjoy the pleasant feeling of love, but also the powerful feeling of concentration, called samadhi, that comes with deeper meditation practices.
We then try to carry these two qualities, the openheartedness and the focus, into giving metta to a neutral person or persons. For many people, this seems to be an awkward practice at first, but I think it has great potential in terms of growing a broad sense of lovingkindness for all beings.
A neutral person is someone we don’t have strong feelings about, either positive or negative. I’ve used people like the clerk in the video store and the security guard at the bank. These are people I can visualize pretty easily because I’ve seen them many times, but I certainly don’t like or dislike them in any meaningful way.
At first, and naturally enough, it might be hard to feel much about these people, but the practice gives us a form we can simply follow without worrying about the results. You see the person in your mind, you say the lovingkindness phrases to yourself, and you try to connect in your heart. What helps me in doing this practice is contemplating the universal desire for happiness and freedom from suffering. Even though I don’t really know this neutral person, I know that, just like me, they want happiness. So, in a sense, I’m connecting with my own wish for happiness and just projecting it onto them.
As we work with the neutral person, we have the opportunity to see what the Buddha was getting at. It might be easy to wish happiness for your loved ones, but as you wish that, it’s still very personal for you. You have some investment in their happiness, so it’s difficult to disidentify with their happiness. However, with the neutral person, you have no investment, so you have to connect with something else, this universal longing that is impersonal. That moves you away from your self-identification into a more authentic metta. As long as there is identification or longing or investment in someone else’s happiness, we aren’t experiencing unconditional love.
I think that many people can get caught up in the idea that metta is about feeling good and praying for people you care about. This is something of a distortion of the teachings. Yes, being immersed in metta is a pleasant experience, but that experience isn’t the goal of the practice.
Working with the difficult person makes this fact clear. If we were just trying to feel good, we certainly wouldn’t spend time thinking about someone we don’t like. The difficult person can be someone you’ve had conflict with or toward whom you have a resentment. Sometimes when no one in my life comes up, I just use a political figure that I disagree with. In any case, this is a place where we have to apply a strong mindfulness to our practice so that we don’t lapse into aversion, anger, judgment, or resentment. As we follow through on the practice, visualizing the person and saying the phrases, it’s very likely that we will not feel much that’s positive, at least in our initial efforts. We need to be careful that the mind doesn’t wander into negative thoughts and that we just keep with the simple task of the practice, staying with the words and the breath in the heart. Here, you may be able to get some insight into the limits of your own capacity for love. That’s a valuable thing to see. It can give us some goals as well as show us where some of our own suffering comes from.
Clearly, the great spiritual masters believe that the capacity to love our enemies is one of the vital tasks of human evolution. Jesus spoke of this and exemplified it when he forgave those who crucified him; the Buddha explains this in the “Simile of the Saw,” in which he says that even if someone were sawing off our limbs one by one, no thought of hatred should arise. If we want to be truly loving people, unconditionally and for all beings, we have to work with some form of this practice. It’s certainly not something that I’ve come anywhere close to mastering, but I have found that with compassion practice, I can get some sense of this.
After working with the difficult person, we can move to the expansive part of metta practice. This is actually a complete shift because no longer are we thinking about any individuals, but working instead with a sense of space. This space is what the Buddha is talking about in the Metta Sutta when he says that we are “radiating kindness over the entire world, spreading [it] upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths, outwards and unbounded, free from hatred and ill will.”
This is a somewhat more difficult area of practice to describe because it doesn’t have the same cognitive elements of the earlier pieces. Instead, we are working more with a feeling, a feeling of expansiveness and connection. Hopefully when we arrive at this part of the practice, we’ve developed something of an internal sense of lovingkindness. While focusing on that feeling, that authentic wish for all beings to be free from dukkha, or suffering, we being a process of imaginative expansion. We can use a visualization if that works, while we stay connected to the feeling in the heart and imagine that the love is growing.
First we see/feel that love filling and enveloping the room we are in. Then we let that feeling expand out through the whole building, the neighborhood, outward in all directions until it touches everything on earth. This can be done slowly or quickly, depending upon how much time you have and how into it you are. You can think of specific groups of people you want to send love to: the sick and dying, the oppressed, or whatever comes up for you. You can also send love to animals, plants, and the earth itself.
At this point, you may lose the sense of boundaries with your body, and experience a sort of floating or fluid sensation. I’m not trying to tell you how you should feel—just know that anything in this realm is normal and helps to support this part of the practice. When we’ve spread lovingkindness over the entire planet, we then expand into space, vast and limitless. We try to permeate the universe with lovingkindness.
Once we’ve sat in this place of boundless love for a little while, we can bring ourselves gradually back into the body and heart, and close the period of meditation.
I’ve more or less outlined the practice above. Always start by connecting with the breath, so you have some attention in your body, preferably at the heart. As I’ve said, we first send metta to a beloved person or benefactor, then ourselves, our dear ones, a neutral person, a difficult person, then radiating to all beings. A big part of this, then, is the felt sense of lovingkindness; however, this feeling may be stronger, weaker, or even absent at times. Nonetheless, we continue the practice by visualizing the people we are sending metta to, maybe naming them, and repeating phrases. You should use phrases that resonate for you and are simple and direct. Not more than four phrases. Here are some typical ones:
May you be happy
May you be peaceful
May you live with ease.
Some people like to add something like, “May you be safe.”
Stay in touch with your breath; notice feelings of happiness or resistance that come up at various stages; let the phrases flow with the breath and stay connected to the heart.
Adapted from Recovering Joy: A Mindful Life After Addiction by Kevin Griffin. Copyright © 2015 by Kevin Griffin.
This article was originally published in 2015.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.