Metta meditation is a practice of cultivating understanding, love, and compassion by looking deeply, first for ourselves and then for others. Once we love and take care of ourselves, we can be much more helpful to others. Metta meditation can be practiced in part or in full. Just saying one line of the metta meditation will already bring more compassion and healing into the world.

To love is, first of all, to accept ourselves as we actually are. That is why in this love meditation, “Know thyself” is the first practice of love. When we practice this, we see the conditions that have caused us to be the way we are. This makes it easy for us to accept ourselves, including our suffering and our happiness at the same time.

Metta means “lovingkindness” in Pali. We begin this with an aspiration: “May I be . . . ” Then we transcend the level of aspiration and look deeply at all the positive and negative characteristics of the object of our meditation, in this case ourselves. The willingness to love is not yet love. We look deeply, with all our being, in order to understand. We don’t just repeat the words, or imitate others, or strive after some ideal. The practice of love meditation is not autosuggestion. We don’t just say, “I love myself. I love all beings.” We look deeply at our body, our feelings, our perceptions, our mental formations, and our consciousness, and in just a few weeks, our aspiration to love will become a deep intention. Love will enter our thoughts, our words, and our actions, and we will notice that we have become “peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit; safe and free from injury; and free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.”

When we practice, we observe how much peace, happiness, and lightness we already have. We notice whether we are anxious about accidents or misfortunes, and how much anger, irritation, fear, anxiety, or worry are already in us. As we become aware of the feelings in us, our self-understanding will deepen. We will see how our fears and lack of peace contribute to our unhappiness, and we will see the value of loving ourselves and cultivating a heart of compassion.

In this love meditation, “anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety” refer to all the unwholesome, negative states of mind that dwell in us and rob us of our peace and happiness. Anger, fear, anxiety, craving, greed, and ignorance are the great afflictions of our time. By practicing mindful living, we are able to deal with them, and our love is translated into effective action.

Related: Why Compassion 

This is a love meditation adapted from the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) by Buddhaghosa, a 5th-century systematization of the Buddha’s teachings.

To practice this love meditation, sit still, calm your body and your breathing, and recite it to yourself. The sitting position is wonderful for practicing this. Sitting still, you are not too preoccupied with other matters, so you can look deeply at yourself as you are, cultivate your love for yourself, and determine the best ways to express this love in the world.

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May she be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May he be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May they be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.

May I be safe and free from injury.
May she be safe and free from injury.
May he be safe and free from injury.
May they be safe and free from injury.

May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.
May she be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.
May he be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.
May they be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.

Begin practicing this love meditation on yourself (“I”). Until you are able to love and take care of yourself, you cannot be of much help to others. After that, practice on others (“he/she,” “they”)—first on someone you like, then on someone neutral to you, then on someone you love, and finally on someone the mere thought of whom makes you suffer.

According to the Buddha, a human being is made of five elements, called skandhas in Sanskrit. They are: form (body), feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. In a way, you are the surveyor, and these elements are your territory. To know the real situation within yourself, you have to know your own territory, including the elements within you that are at war with each other. In order to bring about harmony, reconciliation, and healing within, you have to understand yourself. Looking and listening deeply, surveying your territory, is the beginning of love meditation.

Knotty, 2011. Gouache on paper, 12" x 9". cultivating compassion
Knotty Pines, 2011. Gouache on paper, 12″ x 9″.

Begin this practice by looking deeply into your body. Ask: How is my body in this moment? How was it in the past? How will it be in the future? Later, when you meditate on someone you like, someone neutral to you, someone you love, and someone you hate, you also begin by looking at his physical aspects. Breathing in and out, visualize his face; his way of walking, sitting, and talking; his heart, lungs, kidneys, and all the organs in his body, taking as much time as you need to bring these details into awareness. But always start with yourself. When you see your own five skandhas clearly, understanding and love arise naturally, and you know what to do and what not to do to take care of yourself.

Look into your body to see whether it is at peace or is suffering from illness. Look at the condition of your lungs, your heart, your intestines, your kidneys, and your liver to see what the real needs of your body are. When you do, you will eat, drink, and act in ways that demonstrate your love and your compassion for your body. Usually you follow ingrained habits. But when you look deeply, you see that many of these habits harm your body and mind, so you work to transform your habits in ways conducive to good health and vitality.

Next, observe your feelings—whether they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Feelings flow in us like a river, and each feeling is a drop of water in that river. Look into the river of your feelings and see how each feeling came to be. See what has been preventing you from being happy, and do your best to transform those things. Practice touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are already in you and in the world. Doing so, you become stronger and better able to love yourself and others.

Then meditate on your perceptions. The Buddha observed, “The person who suffers most in this world is the person who has many wrong perceptions, and most of our perceptions are erroneous.” You see a snake in the dark and you panic, but when your friend shines a light on it, you see that it is only a rope. You have to know which wrong perceptions cause you to suffer. Please write beautifully the sentence “Are you sure?” on a piece of paper and tape it to your wall. Love meditation helps you learn to look with clarity and serenity in order to improve the way you perceive.

Next, observe your mental formations, the ideas and tendencies within you that lead you to speak and act as you do. Practice looking deeply to discover the true nature of your mental formations—how you are influenced by your individual consciousness and also by the collective consciousness of your family, ancestors, and society. Unwholesome mental formations cause so much disturbance; wholesome mental formations bring about love, happiness, and liberation.

Finally, look at your consciousness. According to Buddhism, consciousness is like a field with every possible kind of seed in it: seeds of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity; seeds of anger, fear, and anxiety; and seeds of mindfulness. Consciousness is the storehouse that contains all these seeds, all the possibilities of whatever might arise in your mind. When your mind is not at peace, it may be because of the desires and feelings in your store consciousness. To live in peace, you have to be aware of your tendencies—your habit energies—so you can exercise some self-control. This is the practice of preventive health care. Look deeply into the nature of your feelings to find their roots, to see which feelings need to be transformed, and nourish those feelings that bring about peace, joy, and well-being.

You can continue with the following aspirations, first for yourself, then for others:

May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May I learn to look at her with the eyes of understanding and love.
May I learn to look at him with the eyes of understanding and love.
May I learn to look at them with the eyes of understanding and love.

May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in her.
May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in him.
May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in them.

May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in her.
May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in him.
May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in them.

“May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.” One time when we practiced love meditation in Plum Village a young laywoman said to me, “When I meditated on my boyfriend, I found that I began to love him less. And when I meditated on the person I dislike the most, I suddenly hated myself.” Before the meditation, her love for her boyfriend was so passionate that she was not able to see his shortcomings. During her practice, she began to see him more clearly and she realized that he was less perfect than she imagined. She began to love him in a way that had more understanding in it, and therefore it was deeper and healthier.

She also had fresh insights into the person she disliked the most. She saw some of the reasons he was like that, and she saw how she had caused him to suffer by reacting to him harshly.

Again, we begin with ourselves to understand our own true nature. As long as we reject ourselves and continue to harm our own body and mind, there’s no point in talking about loving and accepting others. With mindfulness we will be able to recognize our habitual ways of thinking and the contents of our thoughts. We shine the light of mindfulness on the neural pathways in our mind so we can see them clearly.

Whenever we see or hear something, our attention can be appropriate or inappropriate. With mindfulness we can recognize which it is and release inappropriate attention and nurture appropriate attention. Appropriate mental attention, yoniso manaskara in Sanskrit, brings us happiness, peace, clarity, and love. Inappropriate attention, ayoniso manaskara, fills our mind with sorrow, anger, and prejudice. Mindfulness helps us practice appropriate attention and water the seeds of peace, joy, and liberation in us.

Rooted, 2012. Gouache on watercolor paper 30" x 23". cultivating compassion
Rooted, 2012. Gouache on watercolor paper 30″ x 23″.

Next, we use mindfulness to illuminate our speech, so we can use loving speech and stop before we say anything that creates conflict for ourselves and others. Then we look into our physical actions. Mindfulness illuminates how we stand, sit, walk, smile, and frown, and how we look at others. We recognize which actions are beneficial and which bring harm.

Understanding of oneself and others is the key that opens the door of love and acceptance of oneself and others.

“May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.” The soil of our mind contains many seeds, positive and negative. We are the gardeners who identify, water, and cultivate the best seeds. Touching the seeds of joy, peace, freedom, solidity, and love in ourselves and in each other is an important practice that helps us grow in the direction of health and happiness.

“May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.” We look deeply to see how these came about, what are their roots, and how long they have been there. We practice mindfulness in our daily lives to be aware that such poisons as craving, anger, delusion, arrogance, and suspicion are present in us. We can look and see how much suffering they have caused ourselves and others.

We need to master our own anger before we can help others to do the same. Arguing with others only waters the seeds of anger in us. When anger arises, return to yourself and use the energy of mindfulness to embrace, soothe, and illuminate it. Don’t think you’ll feel better if you lash out and make the other person suffer. The other person might respond even more harshly, and anger will escalate. The Buddha taught that when anger arises, close your eyes and ears, return to yourself, and tend to the source of anger within. Transforming your anger is not just for your personal liberation. Everyone around you and even those more distant will benefit.

Look deeply at your anger, as you would look at your own child. Don’t reject it or hate it. The point of meditation is not to turn yourself into a battlefield, one side opposing the other. Conscious breathing soothes and calms the anger, and mindfulness penetrates it. Anger is just an energy, and all energies can be transformed. Meditation is the art of using one kind of energy to transform another.

May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in her every day.
May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in him every day.
May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in them every day.

May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May she be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May he be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May they be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.
May she be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.
May he be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.
May they be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

These aspirations help us to water the seeds of joy and happiness that lie deep in our store consciousness. The notions we entertain about what will bring us happiness are just a trap. We forget that they are only ideas. Our idea of happiness can prevent us from being happy. When we believe that happiness should take a particular form, we fail to see the opportunities for joy that are right in front of us.

Related: A Quiver of the Heart 

Happiness is not an individual matter; it has the nature of interbeing. When you are able to make one friend smile, her happiness will nourish you also. When you find ways to foster peace, joy, and happiness, you do it for everyone. Begin by nourishing yourself with joyful feelings. Practice walking meditation outside, enjoying the fresh air, the trees, and the stars in the night sky. What do you do to nourish yourself? It’s important to discuss this subject with dear friends to find concrete ways to nourish joy and happiness. When you succeed in doing this, your suffering, sorrow, and painful mental formations will begin to transform.

“May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.” “Fresh” is a translation of the Vietnamese word for “cool, without fever.” Jealousy, anger, and craving are a kind of fever. “Solid” refers to stability. If you aren’t solid, you won’t be able to accomplish much. Each day you only need to take a few solid steps in the direction of your goal. Each morning, you rededicate yourself to your path in order not to go astray. Before going to sleep at night, take a few minutes to review the day. “Did I live in the direction of my ideals today?” If you see that you took two or three steps in that direction, that is good enough. If you didn’t, say to yourself, “I’ll do better tomorrow.” Don’t compare yourself with others. Just look to yourself to see whether you are going in the direction you cherish. Take refuge in things that are solid. If you lean on something that isn’t solid, you will fall down. A few sanghas may not yet be solid, but usually taking refuge in a sangha is a wise thing to do. There are sangha members everywhere who are practicing earnestly.

“Freedom” means transcending the trap of harmful desires and being without attachments—whether to an institution, a diploma, or a certain rank. From time to time we encounter people who are free and can do whatever is needed.

“Indifference.” When we are indifferent, nothing is enjoyable, interesting, or worth striving for. We don’t experience love or understanding, and our life has no joy or meaning. We don’t even notice the beauties of nature or the laughter of children. We are unable to touch the suffering or the happiness of others. If you find yourself in a state of indifference, ask your friends for help. Even with all its suffering, life is filled with many wonders.

“Free from attachment and aversion.” The kind of love the Buddha wanted us to cultivate is not possessive or attached. All of us, young and old, have a tendency to become attached. As soon as we are born, attachment to self is already there. In wholesome love relationships, there is a certain amount of possessiveness and attachment, but if it’s excessive, both lover and beloved will suffer. If a father thinks he “owns” his son, or if a young man tries to put restrictions on his girlfriend, then love becomes a prison. This is also true in relationships between friends, teachers, students, and so on. Attachment obstructs the flow of life. And without mindfulness, attachment always becomes aversion. Both attachment and aversion lead to suffering. Look deeply to discover the nature of your love, and identify the degree of attachment, despotism, and possessiveness in your love. Then you can begin untangling the knots. The seeds of true love—lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity—are already there in our store consciousness. Through the practice of deep looking, the seeds of suffering and attachment will shrink and the positive seeds will grow. We can transform attachment and aversion and arrive at a love that is spacious and all-encompassing.

From No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, by Thich Nhat Hanh © 2014 Parallax Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

To read more about metta meditation see Triumph of the Heart.

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