Metta – the practice of loving kindness

In our yoga practice here at SSY we try to bring the underlying meaning of the loving kindness practice into each part of our time together on the mat, to experience the powerful effect of this practice within ourselves for our own healing and therefore by extension the ability to offer it out all those around us and experience the expansive nature of awareness that comes for this energy. Metta, the practice of loving kindness, is a Buddhist teaching (with a specific meditation that we’ll come to later) that is widely practiced by folks on many spiritual paths. It’s all about cultivating an undifferentiated compassion for all and the ability to be soft with ourselves, non-judgemental, allowing and easeful, whatever outcomes we’re experiencing. Translated from Pali, which is closely related to Sanskrit and one of the major languages of Buddhist scriptures and literature, Metta means love.

When we cultivate an ability to watch more closely those endless rounds of internal conversations that rise up, it’s possible to start to notice just how many of these conversations are based in judgements about ourselves or others, sometimes they need a little unpicking to see that (sometimes it’s blatantly obvious!) but most of the time it all boils down to something isn’t good enough in ourselves or others. Even a seemingly benign vikalpa (internal thought construct) usually leads down the path to some qualitative assessment and lets be clear here, in itself, that’s ok. After all, all this internal conversation stems from very important evolutionary developments for survival – ‘will this hurt me, won’t this hurt me’ ‘is there danger around that rock, isn’t there danger around that rock’, ‘is this poisonous, is this edible’, the ability of our brain to discriminate between one situation and another, to weigh it up and evaluate to make an opinion or judgement, well that’s one of the main functions of the mind. . .

But it’s clear as our animal consciousnesses and brain power evolved into a more reflective and expanded state, that these essential processes for survival have been extended out to encompass all the new activities and interactions that we’ve embraced as our species has evolved…so where does this leave us?

Well in a near constant round of making assessments, opinions and judgements about everything around us and ourselves, and tbh it can be exhausting!... and this is where the wonderful practice of Metta comes in. One of the most effective ways that we can begin to curb the unintentional negative effects of this evolutionary necessity to analyse and judge everything, is firstly to become aware of it. Then to soften around it and understand for ourselves that all we want is to feel safe and secure, to feel love and to be loved and if that in reality this is one of the key drivers of all behaviours, however they might look on the surface.

As we watch our vikalpas (thought constructs) we remind ourselves again and again, that we’re simply looking to experience a feeling of safety and security, to love and to be loved. In doing so we can begin to forgive ourselves for our critical thoughts and judgements toward ourselves. Then we can extend that out to those around us, our loved ones, friends and family, so when we’re filled with thoughts of how they’re not showing up the way we expect them to, we can remind ourselves, that they, like us, are simply looking to experience safety and security, to love and to be loved.

We can then extend this out further, to those that we don’t know well or even at all, out in the wider world and then again, to those whose behaviours are abhorrent to us and revile us. However we’re behaving, whatever we’re all doing or saying , however it manifests itself (the good, the bad and the ugly), we’re trying to get to that feeling of safety and security. It’s our samskaras (impressions – all experiences from the womb to this moment, more on this soon!) that determine how we try to seek that experience of safety and security.

We can live the Metta practice in a mindful way, reflecting as often as we can, especially when we seem to be stuck in some circular thinking (that deeply frustrating conversation or disagreement with a partner, a conflict with a unsympathetic colleague at work) and we can also practice it in seated meditation. It’s a great way to bring a sense of ease and peace into the day, of allowing and accepting. When we soften in this way, we release tension in our bodies and our minds and with that we’ll notice a substantial effect on our overall sense of wellbeing.

The Metta Meditation is a great way to kickstart this practice if you’re new to it and taking some time at the beginning of the day on a regular basis to devote to it can help carry the intention through the rest of the day. Then we don’t just use Metta to help us soften around all the critical thoughts and opinions about ourselves and others that are already there, but we come into our interactions with those around with an attitude of compassion, so that the samskaras (impressions) that are laid down in those moments have a different quality, a softness toward ourself or the other, and then the thoughts that arise around them later are softer, don’t trigger us into negative vikalpas (thought constructs) and require less Metta when we reflect on them.

Try this Metta Meditation and if it resonates for you find it regularly through the week as a means of helping you cultivate a deeper kindness towards yourself and to others and therefore more ease and contentment as you go about your life.

The Metta Meditation

Find a comfortable seat, with your back straight and supported, on a chair, on the floor, wherever feels comfortable for you. Take some moments to just allow your body to settle into stillness and notice your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Don’t worry if your mind feels busy, this is how it works! Just keep returning to your breath and come to a place where you feel relatively settled (please note the word, relatively!)

When ready, start turning your attention more toward your inner landscape, noticing whatever is rising up there and simply wish yourself well with the following words (adapt the phrases as you see fit and you can repeat them internally with eyes closed or out loud referring to notes)

  • May I be safe
  • May I be happy
  • May I be healthy
  • May my mind be at ease.

Take the time to visualize the object of your meditation (yourself!) and feel the outpouring of goodwill and love for yourself. Next, imagine someone you care about, someone you’re grateful for, and wish them well with the same words and in the same way

  • May you be safe
  • May you be happy
  • May you be healthy
  • May your mind be at ease.

Again, take the time to visualize the object of your meditation and feel the outpouring of goodwill and love. At this point you might choose to extend your goodwill a bit further, imagining someone you feel neutral about. Keeping that person in mind, send them your benevolence with the phrases above (or your versions!)

The next step is to imagine someone you really don’t appreciate and do the same thing. It could be someone you know personally (the ultra-challenging colleague), or someone—or a group—you know through the media. Keeping them in mind, send them your benevolence as you did above.

Finally, extend you love and well-wishes to the world.

Notice any feelings that arise during the practice, remember there is no right or wrong place to be in and you don’t need to follow these feelings anywhere. You might notice a big reaction in yourself if you think about someone you love who is in distress, or someone you have a big dislike for. Don’t judge yourself for these feelings, practice Metta in that very moment toward yourself and allow the warmth of the Metta meditation to surround you and hold you as relax into everything that is.

When you feel you’re done, take some deep breaths into your heart space, maybe placing one hand on top of the other on top of your heart and take a final moment to relax into any sensations, before you go about the rest of your day.

If you’ve practiced Metta before or you’re giving this a go for the first time, I’d love to hear about your experiences – if you want to share them or have any questions just leave me a comment!