Metta, from Pali: loving-kindness

Meaning: benevolence, friendliness, amity, kindness, good-will, and an active interest in the well-being of others.

Metta is considered one of the sublime attitudes of an enlightened being, the first of the Four Immeasurables, Brahmavihāras (Divine Abodes”), which also include: compassion (Karuṇā), empathetic joy (Muditā), and equanimity (Upekkhā). While Metta meditation practice is often associated in Buddhist communities, the first mention of practicing with kindness appears in the Chandogya Upanishad, one of the oldest of the Upanishads, found within the Samaveda.

Further, the Brahmavihāras also appear in The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali as a guide on relationships with others:

*1.33 In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.

(maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam)

Metta Meditation has been a part of my practice for many years. It helps me to settle anxiety, calm busy thoughts, and ease the times I find myself caught up in negative self-judgement. Metta is a perfect response when I feel helpless to help in a situation; when I cannot assist directly I can at least send loving-kindness to those suffering. When Chozen Bays, Roshi, was still my teacher she would say that Metta is the only tool you need in any situation.

Metta meditation practice is done as a set of phrases you repeat mentally or aloud, often with the breath. I was taught to repeat each phrase on an exhale.

The phrases are repeated in four rounds. The first round is to generate loving-kindness for the self. This is quite literally a meditation example of “putting on your own oxygen mask first”; you make sure you’re ready to offer Metta to others before proceeding.

Second, you offer loving-kindness to a person you are fond of. Third, you consider someone you feel neutral for; the cashier that helped you at the grocery store, for example. For the fourth round you focus loving-kindness on a person you have difficulty with; letting us practice offering goodwill despite having negative feelings about a person.

There are many different suggestions for scripts to use for the phrases. Some are more detailed, for example these from Jack Kornfield:

May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness.
May they be free of suffering and the cause of suffering.
May they never be disassociated from the supreme happiness which is without suffering.
May they remain in the boundless equanimity, free from both attachment to close ones and rejection of others.

Another of my Zen teachers, Hogen Bays, would use only two phrases. It is this more simple approach I’ve continued to practice with over the years. The phrases I use in my practice now are:

May I be free from anxiety and fear.
May I be peaceful and happy.

That word “Happy” can catch people. Some days we don’t feel ready for happy or ready to wish some people happiness. Rather than judging ourselves harshly for struggling over a word, we can chose to use the word “Content” instead. As Chozen Bays noted during the loving-kindness retreat I attended, contentment really is happiness after all.

Through the process of deepening my own practice with Metta, I began thinking about how to incorporate this practice in healing myself. While having a practice that lets us open our heart to the world is deeply beneficial, this practice can be used as a way to reconnect with the body. I began incorporating it while teaching yoga movement to help students manage the negative self-judgement that arrises, to help heal the relationship with the body directly.

As I started to explore applying the phrases of Metta to my chronic pain, to the toxic messages I absorbed as a child, and to the abuse and sexual trauma I’d experienced across the early years of my life, I experienced a growing comfort with my body, my back pain, and with my trauma history. Turning Metta inward opened it up for me, offering me insight for my own healing and in my work with others.

Some of us live with a condition that causes chronic physical pain and creates limitations; we can offer loving-kindness for a body that works especially hard. Using the lens of Metta we look deeply at the physical pain the body experiences; offering tenderness instead of flinching away from discomfort.

Many of us were taught to judge our bodies or how we view the world harshly, we need a way to temper the voice of the Inner Critic or the felt sense of unease and unhappiness held in the body. Metta provides space to be curious about our bodies and our insight into the world, instead of critical.

For those of us who’ve experienced the violation of our bodily integrity through abuse, sexual trauma, or domestic violence, Metta can offer a way to befriend the body again. We can cultivate loving-kindness for the very anxiety, fear, and anger we still experience, held in our bodies.

In doing this work to befriend the body, I’ve changed the phrases I use. Instead of offering the energy outwards to others, the loving-kindness energy is sent inwards, directly to the body.

May I be free from the anxiety and fear I have about my body (I feel in my body).
May I feel peaceful and happy about my body.

It can be tough to offer yourself loving-kindness. When I first started this practice I found it so difficult to offer it to myself that I worked my way around to it, offering it to everyone else ahead of me as a kind of warm-up! Chozen would advise me to picture myself as a small child. Hogen even suggested visualizing myself as a tiny kitten, so in need of love.

During some meditation sessions, instead of offering myself Metta, I’d find myself disassociated from the present moment. My struggles with offering myself loving-kindness opened my eyes to the depth of trauma I’d experienced from my family of origin. This was part of the impetus to begin work with a therapist who specialized in trauma recovery and used EMDR, which really set me upon the path to healing.

I still struggle with shame. I’ve come to realize shame underlies most of my anxiety and all of my negative self-judgement. When I’m deep in a struggle with shame I am certain that I don’t deserve loving-kindness. Of course, that’s exactly when I need it most.

I’ve learned to respond to those shame messages as a signal to stop and do Metta meditation, as soon as I can. I’ve sat and meditated in all kinds of places, including a bathroom stall! I recognize that I need to turn down the toxic messages that can still bubble up from the past before they overwhelm me, so any place is a good place for Metta practice!

The more we befriend our body, treat it like a treasure and an ally, the more resources we have for healing ourselves and others. The more curiosity we can have for those things like fear, anger, and pain, the more spaciousness we will have around those experiences, rather than being overwhelmed by them. Metta practice is a valuable tool for this journey, may it help us all to find peace.

May our practice together be meaningful.
May our practice together bear fruit.
May the fruits of our practice benefit others.

Metta Prayer;
for Everyone Who’s Been Abused

May we be
Freed from
The misery
Of shame.

May we
Be released
From the thought
That somehow
It was our fault.

May we
Rest in the
Truth that we
Never did

May the too many
Who’ve experienced
Abuse in any way
Be free from
Anxiety and fear.

May we all
Be peaceful.

May we all
Be happy.

*Thanks to Swami J for the translation of the Yoga Sutras.