The Power of Loving Kindness
Cultivating Metta

An edited talk by Shaila Catherine

What is metta?

Loving kindness is the simple and clear intention of good will. Metta is the Pali word that is most often translated as Loving kindness. The term is derived from Mitra, which means deep friendship.Metta is a quality of heart that embraces life without conflict –a deep friendship with life.

Metta is an attitude of non-contention. A wonderful quality to bring to this life.

  • What would it be to live in this world without contention?
  • What would it be like to experience life without demanding it to be other than it is?
  • To care for the well-being of others regardless as to whether or not they meet our expectations, or fulfill our desires?

Imagine the depth of trust, to trust yourself so fully that you know metta will flow to all beings…..

  • those that we like as well as those we do not like,
  • those who have helped us and those who have hurt us
  • regardless of preferences.

The Buddha said: The world may quarrel with me but I do not quarrel with the world.

We cultivate loving kindness as a gentle invitation to soften our hearts, to connect deeper and clearer with all of life, and abide in the ultimate wonder of an unconflicted relationship to all things and all beings. It is not uncommon to hear people describe the pain of a closed and contracted heart. The wish to live in connection, free from fear and alienation is a strong motivation for meditation practice.  The contraction around me and what I want, the stories of who did what to me and why it was not fair, the grasping after what I feel I deserve, and the armor that we weave around our hearts, all melt in the field of metta. Metta embraces all beings and all conditions, without exception.

Loving Kindness is a mental factor that can be cultivated.

We practice loving kindness meditation to strengthen this attitude. It is important to understand that metta is a mental factor and not a feeling. If we look to feeling life to determine if metta is present we will only find pleasant circumstances favorable. Our feelings tend to change quickly — we may feel positive when things are going our way and negative in the face of unwanted or painful events. Feelings shift with the vicissitudes of painful and pleasant experiences.

Metta refers to a strength of heart that can stay steady in the face of pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. Sometimes we may not feel warmhearted, yet with deep commitment to no hatred and dedication to care for all beings we express loving kindness and the intention of good will in challenging circumstances.

What is the purpose of metta practice?

As the legend is told, the Buddha first taught loving kindness to a group of monks who were practicing in a forest haunted by tree spirits. The monks were terrified and wanted to leave, but the Buddha sent them straight back to the forest with instructions to cultivate metta. As the monks became skilled in metta, the tree spirits stopped the harrassment and began to appreciate their presence, even serving the monks during their retreat. As the Buddha’s ministry continued he taught metta to a wide veriety of students and in a number of distinct situations. He taught metta as a method for gladdening the mind, as a way of strengthening concentration, as an offering of generosity, as a way of meeting both verbal and physical abuse, as a way of overcoming fear, and as a way of living in concord in community. Metta is a heartful practice that serves profound purposes.

Metta can be undertaken as a complete form of meditation practice, but most students use the practice of loving kindness as a compliment to a mindfulness based technique. The attitude of metta can infuse our perception and bring an attitude of non contention and non struggle to experience. We might use metta phrases during the first portion of our meditation session to establish a receptive attitude and concentrate the mind, and then shift to techniques such as mindfulness with breathing or awareness of all phenomena. Just as a bird flys with two equally strong wings, we can create a balanced strength through the cultivation of a heartfelt quality such as metta and a wisdom based approach of mindful attention. Loving kindness can be developed in conjunction with other practices.

How do we cultivate loving kindness?

To cultivate loving kindness, sit quietly. Feel your feet on the floor, your contact with the seat. Sense the uprightness of your spine. Let the posture be alert, but without excess tension. Gently close your eyes, or gaze softly at a neutral spot on the floor, and take a few deep breaths, feeling yourself sitting, letting go of thoughts about past and future. Let the breath move through the heart center, warming you, nurturing you, gently filling you with a sense of well being.

We begin the metta practice by developing the ability to generate loving kindness toward ourselves. Tune into a sense of yourself at your best. Think of some aspect of yourself that you respect and like. Imagine a situation when you helped others, when you acted from a place of heart that cares. Let yourself rejoice in your own virtue, and begin to silently repeat the phrases (compose 3 or 4 phrases that resonate with you) directing the sense of well-wishing toward yourself. We use ourselves as a kind of example, for we know we wish to be happy and not suffer.

  • May I be safe from danger
  • May I be happy
  • May I be healthy and strong
  • May I have ease of well being

After a time, (perhaps 15 minutes), bring to mind someone who is easy to care for. Someone who you feel gratitude toward, who you respect, perhaps who has helped you, or a dear friend. Chose someone endowed with virtuous qualities, worthy of admiration. Begin to repeat the phrases of metta for this virtuous person (another 10 or 15 minutes).

May you be protected from inner and outer harm. May you be happy and peaceful in mind. May you enjoy strength, vitality and health in body. May you be blessed with ease of well being in your social and material relations.

Let the meaning of the phrases deepen in your consciousness. Contemplate the possibility of truly and simply wishing well.

You can continue to develop metta using yourself and a friend in this way for some time, allowing the stability of mind to deepen.

As the metta grows clearer and stronger it is possible to bring to mind more challenging people, those whom we may have some conflict with, offering the very same wishes of happiness for them.

  • Just as I wish to be happy, so may you be happy
  • May you be touched by loving kindness
  • May you be free of mental and physical suffering
  • May you live in peace and harmony.

All beings want to be happy and not to suffer. This is a universal wish.

May all beings everywhere, known and unknown, near and far, be happy, peaceful and at ease.

Let the practice develop slowly. Little by little, phrase by phrase, day after day, our hearts will incline toward a full-hearted care for all of life. As we become more familiar with the practice we may discover spontaneous expressions of metta. Metta is the intention of good will. It is known through the clear absence of ill will, resentment, and selfishness in the mind. Metta is not limited to reciting “May you be happy;” it is not a magical incantation. We use the phrases merely to remind ourselves of the deepest truths of love and connection. Metta is more pervasive and more natural than any words could express. Words are only pointers to the deep natural capacity of the human heart to abide in pure and complete love.

Notice times during your days when your heart is at ease, in connection with life. Most people spend too much time contemplating their own problems and limitations, and miss the opportunity to find peace in the expanse of the boundless dimension of love. Love every day, every minute: not limiting the practice to just times when we are sitting quietly. Take the great risk to love life. Love all of life while walking the dog, while exercising, while waiting in airports, shopping centers, everywhere we go we can be silently cultivating a intention of care and good will. Every moment when we drop obsessive preoccupation with self concern and judgments of the inadequacies of others, we open to a vast, still and loving truth beyond words, beyond contention.

Recommended Books

  • Loving kindness; the Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Sharon Salzberg, Shambala, 1995
  • Step by Step: Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion, Maha Ghosananda, Parallax Press, Berkeley, CA 1992
  • How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, Knopf, New York, 1985
  • Spirit for Change: Voices of Hope for a World in Crisis, Christopher Titmuss, green Print, London, 1989
  • Learning True Love; How I Learned and Practiced Social Change in Vietnam, Chan Khong, Parallax Press, Berkeley, CA 1993