Some contemplative practices have been designed to emphasize a practitioner’s specific strengths and qualities. For example, in some Tibetan traditions, shinay, or tranquility meditation, is used to train the mind to be calm and focused, and is followed by lhatong, or analytical meditation, a focused inquiry into the nature of the self and the mind.
Metta bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation, is a method of developing compassion. It comes from the Buddhist tradition, but it can be adapted and practiced by anyone, regardless of religious affiliation; loving-kindness meditation is essentially about cultivating love.
Loving-Kindness Practice Instructions
based on a teaching by Steven Smith
Loving-kindness, or metta, as it in called in the Pali language, is unconditional, inclusive love, a love with wisdom. It has no conditions; it does not depend on whether one “deserves” it or not; it is not restricted to friends and family; it extends out from personal categories to include all living beings. There are no expectations of anything in return. This is the ideal, pure love, which everyone has in potential. We begin with loving ourselves, for unless we have a measure of this unconditional love and acceptance for ourselves, it is difficult to extend it to others. Then we include others who are special to us, and, ultimately, all living things. Gradually, both the visualization and the meditation phrases blend into the actual experience, the feeling of loving kindness.
This is a meditation of care, concern, tenderness, loving kindness, friendship–a feeling of warmth for oneself and others. The practice is the softening of the mind and heart, an opening to deeper and deeper levels of the feeling of kindness, of pure love. Loving kindness is without any desire to possess another. It is not a sentimental feeling of goodwill, not an obligation, but comes from a selfless place. It does not depend on relationships, on how the other person feels about us. The process is first one of softening, breaking down barriers that we feel inwardly toward ourselves, and then those that we feel toward others.
Take a very comfortable posture. One of the aims in this meditation is to feel good, so make your posture relaxed and comfortable. Begin to focus around the solar plexus, your chest area, your “heart center”. Breathe in and out from that area, as if you are breathing from the heart center and as if all experience is happening from there. Anchor your mindfulness only on the sensations at your heart center.
Breathing in and out from the heart center, begin by generating this kind feeling toward yourself. Feel any areas of mental blockage or numbness, self-judgment, self-hatred. Then drop beneath that to the place where we care for ourselves, where we want strength and health and safety for ourselves.
Continuing to breathe in and out, use either these traditional phrases or ones you choose yourself. Say or think them several times.
May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected.
May I be free of mental suffering or distress.
May I be happy.
May I be free of physical pain and suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.
Next, move to a person who most invites the feeling of pure unconditional loving kindness, the love that does not depend on getting anything back. The first person is usually someone we consider a mentor, a benefactor, an elder. It might be a parent, grandparent, teacher, someone toward whom it takes no effort to feel respect and reverence, someone who immediately elicits the feeling of care. Repeat the phrases for this person: “May she be safe and protected….”
After feeling strong unconditional love for the benefactor, move to a person you regard as a dear friend and repeat the phrases again, breathing in and out of your heart center.
Now move to a neutral person, someone for whom you feel neither strong like nor dislike. As you repeat the phrases, allow yourself to feel tenderness, loving care for their welfare.
Now move to someone you have difficulty with–hostile feelings, resentments. Repeat the phrases for this person. If you have difficulty doing this, you can say before the phrases, “To the best of my ability I wish that you be….” If you begin to feel ill will toward this person, return to the benefactor and let the loving kindness arise again. Then return to this person.
Let the phrases spread through your whole body, mind, and heart.
After the difficult person, radiate loving kindness out to all beings. Stay in touch with the ember of warm, tender loving-kindness at the center of your being, and begin to visualize or engender a felt sense of all living beings. The traditional phrases are these:
May all beings be safe, happy, healthy, live joyously…..
May all living beings be safe, happy, healthy, live joyously…..
May all breathing beings be safe, happy, healthy, live joyously…..
May all individuals be safe, happy, healthy, live joyously…..
May all beings in existence be safe, happy, healthy, live joyously…..
Allow the phrases to be simply a conduit for the force of loving-kindness. Empower your imagination through the five phrases to touch the hearts of all forms of life in the universe, unconditionally and inclusively. Stay with all beings until you feel a personal sense of the profound interconnectedness of all creatures, all life.
Then you can move on to specific categories of beings:
All females of all species (or the feminine principle of the universe within us all).
All males of all species (or the masculine principle of the universe within us all).
All awakened ones.
All celestial beings.
All animals and other beings in difficult places.
The two pairs and the triad above are three more ways of including every being in the universe.
Here is an alternative way to practice this meditation:
Begin with yourself. Calm the mind/heart and find the center of your being. Generate warm, gentle, loving feelings for yourself:
May I be safe from harm.
May I be happy just as I am.
May I be peaceful with whatever is happening.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I care for myself in this ever-changing world graciously, joyously.
From yourself, move out spaciously into your immediate surroundings. Include every living being within this circle:
May all beings in the air, on land, and in the water be safe, happy, healthy, and free from suffering.
Stay within your reach. As you feel your immediate surround fill with the power of loving kindness, move on, expanding the surround in concentric circles until you envelop the entire planet.
Expand your loving kindness until you are able to visualize Earth, spinning within the vast, mysterious universe. If you like, continue expanding the sense of your loving kindness, filling the endless emptiness of the universe.
May all living beings everywhere, on all planes of existence, known and unknown, be happy, be peaceful, be free from suffering.
Steven Smith is a guiding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society, the Kyaswa Retreat Center in Burma, Vipassana Hawai’i, and founder of the MettaDana health and education project in Burma. As an advisor for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, he develops and teaches meditation programs to national environmental leaders, business executives, lawyers, and philanthropists.