Mettā, loving-kindness from Pali, is considered one of the four sublime attitudes of an enlightened being, the Brahmavihāras, which also include compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. Applying Mettā to our own lives helps us to treat ourselves and others with greater compassion. Starting from a place of self-care and friendliness within ourselves gives us the resources to offer compassion and love to all living beings.
While Mettā meditation is usually associated with Buddhist communities, it arises out of the rich tradition found in Vedic texts. The Upanishads discuss the virtue of Maitrī, also found alongside compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity, being the the first of the Four Immeasurables, the Apramāṇa. These become the Brahmavihāras in Buddhist practice. Practicing the virtue of Maitrī is also encouraged in Jain texts and was included by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
I first learned about Mettā meditation when I practiced with a Zen Buddhist community. One of my teachers at that time, Jan Chozen Bays Roshi, believed that loving-kindness practice was the best thing you could turn to in any situation. Anxious for yourself, Mettā is the right choice. Anxious for someone else? Angry? Despair for a mass tragedy half a world away? Outrage and sorrow and children being shot in school? In all these situations, Chozen would remind us, Mettā is the right response.
Mettā gives focus to our natural responses and helps us to be soothed enough to respond more fully. If we find ourselves still unable to respond, we can use Mettā practice to hold ourselves gently rather than fall into negative self-judgement about our inability to somehow to rise to the occasion as we think we ought to.
How do do Mettā Meditation:
For you practice you will find a comfortable, seated posture. I’ve also found this to be a rich practice to bring to walking meditation as well as something for my busy mind to do while I’m riding on public transportation, stuck in traffic, waiting in lines, etc.
You will do four rounds of offering Mettā.
- For yourself.
- For someone you care for (personal love).
- For someone you feel neutral to (impersonal love).
- For someone you have a difficult relationship with.
The phrases used during each round may vary and you can change things to suit your specific practice that moment. I personally use two phrases for most of my Mettā meditation practices.
May I be free from anxiety and fear.
May I be peaceful and happy*.
For the second round the “I” would change to the name of the person you care for. The third round you would identify the neutral person, e.g., “May the cashier at the market be free from anxiety and fear.” In the third round you would again use the name of the difficult person you are directing to.
Chozen would remind us that some days that word “happy” feels too difficult to work with. Rather than berate ourselves for being unable to wish happiness to someone we perceive as doing great harm, we should instead change that wording to, “May that person be peaceful and content.”
I often like to end classes with an inclusive set of Mettā phrases:
May all living beings be free from anxiety and fear.
May all living beings be peaceful and content.
There are lots of variations of these phrases, find or create ones that resonate for you. Here are some additional examples to consider.
From the Metta Institute:
May I be happy.
May I be well.
May I be safe.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
From Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield:
May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy.
A Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Prayer from Padmasambhava Buddhist Center:
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.