In this series on Beginning Meditations, I’ve been teaching the practices that I find most useful and that I frequently recommend to students and clients. The technique that I’m sharing today is metta bhavana, the Buddhist practice for cultivating compassion. It is a simple yet highly effective way to reduce stress between yourself and those you have a difficult relationship with. It even works to let go of those concluded, but still complicated, past loves. But more than that, you can use this practice to heal yourself, while at the same time it ripples out to heal the world. Today’s post includes written instructions for how to perform metta bhavana, and an 11-minute mp3 recording of a guided meditation that you can use to start learning the technique. Please also check out the other meditations in this series!
About Metta Bhavana
Metta bhavana is the practice of cultivating loving-kindness. It is based on the idea of building feelings of compassion for yourself, others, and the whole world. Although the primary experience of the meditation is feeling the sensation of loving empathy, the use of a repeated phrase such as “May I be well, May I be happy, May I be free from suffering” can help concentrate our mind so we can perceive and increase metta, which we understand as love or oneness.
We develop the feeling of compassion in stages, starting with ourself, expanding to others, and eventually incorporating the whole world. I think too often people want to jump right in to healing the whole world, but this is a wonderful reminder that we must always start with ourselves. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”
This practice is simple enough to use daily, or even periodically throughout the day, to find peace. Regular use can allow us to call up a feeling of compassion for ourselves or another by silently repeating this simple phrase.
Benefits of Metta Bhavana
One practical goal of practicing metta is that daily interpersonal conflicts are eased or even resolved. Many of my clients come to me expressing frustration with unavoidable relationships: family, bosses and co-workers, and exes. They’re ready to quit. Regular use of this meditation can help people in these situations re-center on their own peace, build equanimity with others, and find a path through the difficulties. I am still surprised by how my attitude can abruptly change, and a situation shift, after using this meditation.
In addition, so many clients of mine express sadness and anger over the difficulty of letting go of ex lovers or deeply intimate relationships that for one reason or another simply are not meant to be. This meditation can be perfect for regaining your sense of self and releasing the other in peace.
For those of you who are professional readers or healers, I find this can be a nice way to energetically disengage from the day’s clients, using this prayer to focus on and release each of them at the end of the day.
The practice of metta bhavana fills us with peace and joy. It brings calm to the bluster of our daily lives. It helps us release conflicts so we can work together as necessary, or move on when appropriate. Daily work cultivating loving-kindness brings us an abundance of peace. We are so full of calm compassion that, overflowing, we spread it wherever we go.
Metta Bhavana Instructions
Metta bhavana, or cultivating loving-kindness, is a Buddhist practice done in five stages. I was taught to practice each stage for several minutes. Adjust this to suit the time you have available. Short, daily practice is more beneficial than infrequent longer work with this meditation. Aim for five minutes of practice for each of the five stages daily. And recall the resulting feelings throughout the day!
- Start by coming into a comfortable seated meditation posture. You can leave you hands open palms facing up on your lap, or hold them in prayer position in front of you. Eyes can be open or closed for this meditation. I visualize the person I’m saying the prayer for at each stage, so it’s easiest for me to keep my eyes closed.
- Ground and center yourself with the fourfold breath or another form of rhythmic breathing.
- First, we cultivate kindness towards ourselves, repeating the phrase “May I be well, May I be happy, May I be free from suffering” for several minutes.
- Next, we do the practice for a person we feel affection toward, repeating “May you be well, May you be happy, May you be free from suffering” for a few minutes. Examples might include your child, a best friend, or someone you dearly love. It’s nice to say their name rather than the generic “you.”
- We continue, saying the words for a person we have neutral feelings toward. A common example given is that of a friendly mail carrier or store clerk, someone you see frequently but don’t really know. You can use their name if you know it.
- Next we direct loving-kindness to a person we have difficulty with. I’ve worked with clients who are trying to resolve conflicts with a parent, a boss, a co-worker, or an ex. Alternately, you can concentrate on someone you have intense, passionate, or stormy feelings for. This might be the hardest part of the practice. The previous steps prepare us for this. But it is only through resolving the illusion of separateness and finding oneness with those most challenging or even abhorrent to us that we can truly heal ourselves and find the peace that beams out to all. Use their name or not as feels most comfortable to you.
- Finally we send loving-kindness to the whole world. In some ways this might seem the easiest step, but we are not truly practicing metta until we have worked to experience each of the previous steps.
Final Thoughts on the Practice of Metta Bhavana
Some of the steps will more readily produce the feeling of loving-kindness than others. Remember that this exercise guides you to cultivate and expand that feeling. No matter at which stage you most easily feel metta, know that the sensation will grow and begin to permeate all relationships.
It’s ok to do the steps without feeling anything. This is an ancient practice and simply following the steps aligns you with a tradition. By honestly working with the practice, regardless of your perceived level of effectiveness, you enter into the spirit and community of all who have practiced it. Change happens whether you notice it or not.
Metta Bhavana Meditation Recording
Practice this meditation daily to resolve conflicts with others and feel a greater sense of peace throughout the day. Although it is best to practice this meditation quietly at your own pace, the following 11-minute guided meditation mp3 recording might help you learn the practice. Once you are comfortable with it and know it well, you can discontinue using the recording and do the meditation on your own.
What is your experience with metta bhavana or cultivating loving-kindness? I’d love to hear how it has changed you in the comments!