I ask for your patience because, if you’re at all like me, you will initially find this topic to be dopey and hokey. If someone sent me an article with “lovingkindness” in the title, I would smirk and then delete before opening. But this will only take five minutes to read and might actually prove to be helpful, so give it a shot.
Some of you might have read my narrative about a 10 day vipassana meditation course and/or going through a midlife crisis. It’s not required reading for what follows but, if you’ve made it here without reading my first post, I think it’s worth your while.
The course provided me theory and practice of three separate meditation methods: anapana (breath concentration), vipassana (body scan for sensations), and metta (lovingkindness). The first 3.5 days covered anapana, the next 6.5 days covered vipassana, and one morning session covered metta.
Based on the course name and schedule, it would seem that vipassana meditation is of utmost importance, anapana meditation is the gateway drug, and metta meditation is essentially an afterthought. This is a reasonable thought yet untrue- the three meditation methods are interconnected and all vital to a complete meditation practice.
Since completing the course nine months ago, I have diligently practiced a combination of anapana and vipassana meditation for 1–2 hours daily and have attended two one day vipassana seminars. However, until recently, I had spent zero time and energy on metta.
After some introspection, I concluded that my concentration and energy had notably improved yet I didn’t feel that I had progressed much as a person. While I did not expect to become an enlightened being in only nine months, I wanted my peacefulness to increase at a similar rate as concentration and energy. Therefore, I realized that including metta could help lead me in a better direction on the path.
The mere thought of lovingkindness meditation makes me and many others nauseated. Images of saccharine faces and new age Yannis and unicorns and rainbows pop into my head. I’m not sure that I’m brave enough to say the word out loud in public or even private.
If attempted, I envisioned myself inauthentically bellowing “PEACE AND LOVE PEACE AND LOVE” as fast as I could between rants as some sort of quick fix. Watch Ringo Starr take a crack if you want a good laugh.
Yet, all of the serious meditation teachers that I admire emphasize the importance and benefits of including metta in a daily practice. Research (of varying reliability and validity but some quite good) is illustrating how metta can be helpful. Stanford Medicine has its own Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. The hope is that by earnestly practicing metta regularly, slowly but surely, we can change our disposition positively.
A Simple Metta Practice
The traditional three sentences of metta are: may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from suffering. While these are three wonderful wishes, when planning my metta practice, I chose to get rid of the “happy” part because, while everything is ultimately ephemeral, happiness seems to be especially fleeting. Wishing for peace and lack of suffering is more realistic, thus easier for me to practice earnestly.
Metta is a pure feeling of kindness for all beings without expectations, stipulations, or desires. Nothing should be expected in return and the same exact feeling should be given to someone you consider a saint as to someone you consider a shitbag. Just as you are always the first victim of your own anger, you are the first beneficiary of your own kindness regardless of who is receiving it and if he/she “deserves” it.
Metta is best practiced directly after a meditation session when the mind is calm. I practice metta after focusing on my breath and scanning my body to calmly observe sensations but I believe that you can practice metta anywhere after a few deep breaths. If you want to do something useful while sitting in traffic or waiting in line, I don’t see why you couldn’t practice metta. You do NOT have to be full of compassion like the Dalai Lama or even a serious meditator to benefit from this exercise.
(1) Once you are comfortable, turn off your phone or put it on do not disturb and, with a peaceful image of yourself, repeat “may I be peaceful, may I be free from suffering” until you sincerely feel it. Remember that it’s not about whether you “deserve” it or not at the given moment. You need to be at peace to feel peace for others and the peace is not based on any particular requirement.
(2) Think of someone who is genuinely kind. If no humans fit the bill, think of a dog. If you don’t have one, borrow my dog Louie. He gives every person, regardless of physical appearance, smell, expression, or political beliefs, an unconditional overflowing amount of love. Pure metta. A living Buddha. This should be the easiest step, so build off of the goodwill you are feeling. “May ___ be peaceful, may ___ be free from suffering.”
(3) Think of those closest to you, your children, spouse, parents, siblings, etc and repeat “May ___ be peaceful, may ___ be free from suffering.”
(4) Think of someone random who you have no feeling for one way or another. “May ___ be peaceful, may ___ be free from suffering.”
(5) Think of someone you despise. One of the two examples below should work (or both) but vary it with people closer to you, especially after you eventually have warm feelings of love for both. It’s obviously a difficult step but remember that they are humans just like you, obviously suffering, and wishing them further suffering will surely not help you (or him/her) in any way. “May ___ be peaceful, may ___ be free from suffering.”
(6) Think of people in your state/country/world and finish with all beings. “May all beings be peaceful, may all beings be free from suffering.”
That’s it. You should not proceed to the next step until you feel that you have earnestly completed the current step. If you forget to turn your phone back on, count it as a blessing. You haven’t missed anything. Don’t fake it and don’t rush it a la Ringo. Each session shouldn’t take you longer than 2–4 minutes to complete unless you feel like including more people. You might not feel results immediately (or ever) but give it at least a couple tries and, at the least, I don’t think you’ll feel like you’ve wasted your time.
For further reading on the topic from a real professional, I suggest you read Triumph of the Heart by Joseph Goldstein.
Thank you for reading. May you be peaceful, may you be free from suffering.