“May all beings live happily and safe
And may their hearts rejoice within themselves.”
—From the Buddha’s Discourse on Loving Kindness [Karaniya Mettā Sutta]
The Buddha is frequently referred to in the Pali scriptures as ‘the Happy One’, and his friendliness immediately struck those who encountered him. In that spirit he taught a wide range of spiritual practices to a great variety of individuals, instructing them according to temperament and spiritual need.
Two practices he frequently recommended were mindfulness of breathing and Mettā Bhāvanā, literally ‘the meditation that cultivates a quality of goodwill’. This quality focuses strongly on relationships. It is the desire to help, to be a friend and to be open and interested in people. The opposite of the anxiety to get things, it’s a desire to give—the very spirit of generosity. It’s also an ethical, responsible quality: one cannot bear to harm or to exploit others.
Mettā is a positive emotion. Its essence is the wish for someone to be truly happy. This wish is also at the heart of Metta Bhavana meditation, in which you wish happiness—and importantly, its causes—for four kinds of people with a special place in your life: you [and that’s vital], good friends, neutral people and those you find difficult.
Mettā Bhāvanā meditation
This brief description gives an idea of the stages of Mettā Bhāvanā practice.
Prepare for meditation. Sit quietly, settle down, connect with your body and with whatever you are feeling and thinking.
Cultivate mettā for yourself
Consider your life and experience how it feels to be you. Feel the truth of your experience, perhaps joyous, perhaps sad. Acknowledging whatever feelings are present, wish yourself happiness. Maybe say to yourself, ‘May I be well and happy. Then just keep setting your attention back on to that wish [five minutes].
Cultivate mettā for a friend
Switch to the impression in your mind, whatever form that takes, of a friend—maybe this will be an actual visual image, but a simple feeling is fine. They should be roughly your age and not someone you particularly have sexual feelings for [keep it simple!]. Experience your true response and wish them happiness as you did earlier for yourself [five minutes].
Cultivate mettā for a ‘neutral’ person
Think of someone for whom you don’t have a particular liking or dislike. What you feel when you bring them to mind may not be very clear but stay with what’s there and encourage a friendly response, wishing them happiness. It’s good training to maintain this in relation to someone you don’t naturally find interesting, so keep it up [five minutes]!
Cultivate mettā for a difficult person
Turn your attention to someone you’re not getting on with. Experience truthfully how you feel now without being misled by how they ‘always’ make you feel. Cultivate a fresh response, wishing them real happiness, even though that might go against the grain. Real happiness makes everyone more likeable and has little connection with superficial pleasure or advantage. So let go of any animosity or resentment you’re harbouring [five minutes].
Cultivate mettā equally for each person
Now concentrate on all four people—you, your friend, the neutral person and the difficult person—and develop mettā as equally as you can towards each.
From there, cultivate mettā for all beings everywhere
Let your mettā expand like the warmth of the sun towards all beings everywhere in the world. Here is one way. Start with those nearest you, in the same room or the same building. Then include everyone in the street, town, city or area you are in. Let your imagination take your good wishes out in ever-widening circles. Include everyone in the country, the continent, the other continents, the entire Earth, the whole universe. Recall how all those beings, human and non-human, are undergoing every kind of experience even as you are meditating. Think of them all with equally strong love and kindness.
Start by sitting in a comfortable position. If you sit as still as possible, it will help to keep you focussed on how you are feeling. Mindfulness, especially mindfulness of feeling and emotion, is an important key to Mettā Bhāvanā. But body awareness is also needed in order to experience feeling: emotional energy comes from opening up to what is here physically. Fully experience the pleasantness, the unpleasantness or just the absence of feeling that is present. If there are painful feelings, don’t pretend that they don’t exist. Realise that there’s no need to be angry or despondent because of them.
Simply experience them mindfully. It’s the same with pleasant feelings—recognising and enjoying pleasure without getting over-involved. And if there seems to be no feeling at all, which is common enough, turn and face that space of [apparent] nothingness. Actively experience it. It could be that you need to re-establish contact with your core experience, with the body and the senses, because you’ve lost touch. But it is just as likely that, quite naturally, your experience is somewhat neutral at the moment. Whatever the case, to help with the meditation sit very still and simply ‘listen’ receptively to the experience, even though it may feel as though there is nothing there. Rest attention within the body, on the breathing, the muscular relaxation or tension and the general flow of physical energy.
Don’t worry if feelings are weak or hardly noticeable; if they are subtle or uncertain, this only indicates that they need to be given space for their meaning to become clear. Thus, feeling doesn’t have to be powerful and strong before you can do something with it. If you stay with the experience as it is, you can build mettā effectively, even when the feeling is subtle and barely perceptible.
As often as not, you have to acknowledge pain. Human experience is a bittersweet mixture; it is never 100 per cent pleasure. When feelings are pleasant, it is easy to be kind and friendly. But when they are painful, you need to be patient and avoid reacting with emotions such as denial, ill will, frustration or self-pity, which easily become habitual.
It is helpful, if you can, to continue experiencing them, patiently understanding that all feelings—pleasant, painful or neutral—are temporary, and that your reactions to pain actually end up making it even more painful. So allow space for something new to enter.
At first, the response of loving-kindness may not be very strong; but once it gets started, you can build on it.
As you meditate, try to get a sense of totality, of completeness, of all beings. Let go completely and expand the attitude, emotion and feeling beyond all conceivable limits.
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