I began my meditation practice in earnest about 11 years ago. I was originally motivated to practice because of a desire to overcome anxiety and depression, feelings that had followed me around for most of my life. For the first couple of years, I focused on trying to “perfect” my practice in order to become happy. I had a “goal” and that goal was to rid myself of the unpleasant feelings that had caused me so much suffering. While all of my efforts helped improve my ability to sit for long periods of time, it did little to alter my temperament.
I was beginning to feel frustrated with meditation and even considered quitting, when I made the fortunate decision to attend a residential retreat at Sprit Rock led by Arinna Weisman. During the retreat she led several guided meditations on lovingkindness (metta) that opened my heart in ways I had never experienced before. While I was familiar with metta practice, I hadn’t until then taken it very seriously. What I learned from Arinna was that even when I don’t feel particularly lovable, I can still plant seeds of friendliness and care towards myself and others, knowing that in time they will bear fruit.
If you practice meditation for any time, you’ll quickly see that cultivating a spirit of kindness towards yourself is key to staying on the path towards liberation. Having the capacity to touch this feeling of metta – this innate sense of genuine love and kindness – allows us to open our heart and let the world in without expectations. We can see this when we are around people that radiate this sense of genuine kindness. They can make us feel important and at ease, not because of anything we’ve done, but because we are a fellow human being. Great spiritual leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King, Jr. exude this quality, as well as many ordinary people who somehow have this great gift and capacity.
This quality of metta manifests as a generous and openness of heart that simply wishes happiness for all beings. Metta is unconditional. It does not seek self-benefit, but is offered without expectations. Because this feeling is not dependent on external conditions, on people or events behaving a certain way, it is not easily disappointed or dissatisfied. As metta grows within us we become more open to ourselves, our neighbors and the world.
Like all qualities of the mind, metta can be strengthened with practice. We can begin in our meditation practice by silently repeating simple phrases that are meant to evoke metta within ourselves, for example some typical phrases suggested by Sharon Salzberg are:
May I be happy
May I be peaceful
May I be healthy
May I live with ease
The exact phrases we use do not particularly matter, it is the underlying feeling that they are intended to evoke where we want to focus our awareness. As we continue to repeat the phrases, we can begin sending metta to our friends by wishing that they may be happy, peaceful, healthy and at ease. Finally, we can expand our practice further to include people we don’t know very well, difficult people and eventually to all beings.
When practicing metta for ourselves or others, it is not unusual to feel that we are not loving enough, or that the practice is not working. Maybe we have an idea of what metta should feel like, an ecstatic feeling, waves of bliss, etc., and end up feeling discourage when these states don’t arise. All of these emotions are simply part of the practice and objects for mindfulness. They are a chance for us to open our hearts to whatever arises and allow the world in.
The Buddha suggested that we can also strengthen this feeling of metta by focusing on the good qualities of others in our daily lives. Finding fault and criticizing others is really a seductive habit that can be hard to break. Focusing on the positive qualities of others doesn’t mean we ignore their faults. Instead it helps us see the whole person for who they are without becoming sentimental about it. When we cultivate metta in this way, it helps us foster a greater sense of well-being towards ourselves and a greater appreciation of the joy and sorrows experienced by all beings.