The most common Buddhist meditation practice is known as mindfulness meditation, often referred to as "following the breath." I wrote about it in Mindfulness Meditation: Why to Do It and How to Do It. On retreats, however, people are often taught other meditation techniques which they can use as alternatives when they get home. Two alternatives are the body scan (See Using the Body Scan to Help With Chronic Pain and Illness) and metta or lovingkindness meditation. Indeed, sometimes people go on "metta retreats" in which they do nothing but lovingkindness meditation!
Lovingkindness meditation came about because of the Buddha's response to a group of monks who were scared. As the story goes, these monks had gone to a remote forest to engage in intensive mindfulness meditation. But when they got there, they started hearing strange noises, smelling terrible odors, and seeing scary spirits. They fled the forest and sought the Buddha's help.
The Buddha taught them lovingkindness meditation and told them to go back to the forest and cultivate lovingkindness for these scary spirits. The monks returned to the forest and began to practice lovingkindness meditation. Soon the spirits became as benevolent and friendly to the monks as the monks were being to the spirits. The monks stayed a long time in the forest, in harmony with the spirits.
Gaetano Donizetti wrote an opera called L'Elisir d'Amore—the elixir of love. I think of lovingkindness meditation as an elixir for my heart. It's a medicine that heals any irritation, anger, or negative judgments I may be feeling for myself or others. It's a medicine that softens my heart so that I'm not afraid to enfold myself and others in the warmth of benevolence, kindness, friendliness, and even love.
Here are the basic instructions for lovingkindness meditation. Traditionally, you settle on a set of phrases and then recite them silently, over and over. I recite my phrases before I get out of bed in the morning. These are the phrases I settled on in the early 1990s:
May I be peaceful.
May I have ease of well-being.
May I reach the end of suffering...
And be free.
There's no reason for you to pick these phrases. The cadence and meaning just work for me. "Ease of well-being" is a phrase I learned from "metta master" Sharon Salzberg. It has an old-fashioned feel to it that appeals to me. Pick phrases that have meaning for you. Ask, "What do I wish for myself and for others?" Here are some possible phrases (I'll put them in the first person, even though you'll be directing them toward others too):
May I be free from danger. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering. May my mind be healed. May I make friends with my body. May I dwell in peace. May I be at ease.
You may like this phrase that I heard while on a retreat. It was used by one of the teachers, Kamala Masters. She closed one of her talks by directing this lovingkindness phrase to all of us: "Whether sick or well, may your body be a vehicle for liberation."
After trying out different phrases, settle on three or four that express most deeply your intention to cultivate kindness and well-wishes toward yourself and others (and, as you begin this practice, feel free to adjust any phrase that's not working for you). Repeat your phrases in whatever way is comfortable for you, keeping in mind the intention they express. Some people coordinate the phases with their in- and out-breaths; this doesn't feel natural to me so I don't do it. Don't be concerned if the sentiments expressed in your phrases don't feel genuine at first. Repeat your phrases anyway. They will do their work and, after a time, the sentiments they express will come to feel genuine.
Traditionally, lovingkindness phrases are directed at five different groups of people. At first, I don't recommend that you try to move through all five groups during one practice session. On a retreat, it's common to spend several days on a person from one of the groups before moving on to the next group. Here are the five groups, in the order in which they're usually taught.
First, repeat the phrases, directing them at yourself. Some people may feel that others are more worthy of their well-wishes. When asked about this, the Buddha said, "If you search the whole world over, you will find no one who is more worthy of metta than yourself." Perhaps he said this partly because when we are loving and kind to ourselves, our hearts open and we can more easily be loving and kind to others.
Other people find it hard to be kind to themselves because, from years of conditioning, they've become their own harshest critics—which only serves to increase their suffering and sadness. If you're plagued by negative judgments about yourself, remember that the Buddha said the mind is soft and pliant. This means that you can transform it from critic to ally. Think of that cliché, "This is the first day of the rest of your life," and start with a blank slate in your mind. Begin to fill that slate with thoughts of kindness, benevolence, friendliness, and love for yourself. Repeat your phrases even if they don't feel genuine at first. They will work their magic anyway, transforming your heart and mind.
After a time, begin to direct your phrases to someone for whom you feel deep gratitude. This person is traditionally called the benefactor. It might be an influential teacher in your life. It might be a grandparent. The idea here is to pick a person with whom you have no conflicts. Some people pick a beloved public figure, like the Dalai Lama. I always direct my phrases to the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. In a silent voice, I say his name and then recite my phrases.
A Beloved Friend or Family Member
Then, direct your phrases to a person you love unconditionally but with whom there might occasionally be conflict. This distinguishes the Benefactor from the Beloved Friend or Family Member. Silently say the person's name or bring an image of his or her face to mind. I say my phrases first, to my husband, and then to my two children, then to their spouses, and then to my grandchildren—one repetition each. (It's more traditional to pick just one person to direct your phrases to.)
A Neutral Person
Next, direct your phrases to a person in your life for whom you don't have strong feelings one way or another, like the mail carrier or the checker at the supermarket. If you stick with the same person each time you practice, over time you're likely to find that this person becomes someone you really care about. It's a beautiful side effect of practicing lovingkindness for a neutral person; your heart will fill with kindness and friendliness every time you see your "neutral" person!
The Difficult Person
Finally, direct your phrases to a person whose name alone can give rise to aversion and anger in you. It's best not to start with someone who might stir up a lot of painful emotions, so begin with a person who doesn't pose a great difficulty for you. He or she could be a family member or friend with whom you have repeated conflicts, or even a public figure with whom you disagree.
To make it easier to practice with the difficult person, you might begin by reflecting on how this person, like you, wants to be happy and at peace. The Buddha encountered many people who wished to do him harm. He responded, not in anger, but with lovingkindness because he understood the suffering a person must be feeling in order to want to harm another.
Because I've been practicing lovingkindness for many years, I go straight for my edges here! I purposefully pick someone I feel disrespected by or with whom I vehemently disagree, like a politician or a political commentator. Wishing for a person who is a thorn in your side to be peaceful and to be free from suffering may be a challenge, but it turns lovingkindness practice into a liberation practice.
The goal of lovingkindness practice is to cultivate benevolence and friendliness in this fashion until it's a mental state that arises effortlessly. At that point, you'll find it increasingly natural to greet all living beings with kindness and friendliness.
Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in Chapter 15 of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. The chapter includes a discussion of how to handle resistance to the practice.
© 2012 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:
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