Metta in everyday life

We don’t just cultivate metta, or lovingkindness, on the meditation cushion. It can be cultivated, and eventually experienced, in every aspect of our lives.

We can take lovingkindness practice off the cushion and into our daily lives, and develop it in our interactions with friends, family, and even with strangers. As with anything else, practice helps us to become better at what we do. Of course we’ll make mistakes — we’ll lose our tempers, harbor grudges, have irrational dislikes, fail to be compassionate even when our friends are suffering — but making mistakes is just a part of the process of learning any skill. The important thing is that we try to learn from our experience. But one of the lovely things about developing lovingkindness is that our mess-ups offer us an opportunity to develop greater kindness toward ourselves. We have the opportunity to realize that “to err is human.” We have the opportunity to forgive ourselves.

Really what we’re talking about when we’re discussing taking lovingkindness into daily life is practicing ethics. But this isn’t ethics understood in terms of obeying rules, or in terms of escaping punishments and earning rewards (metta has its rewards, but they are simply the natural consequences of our actions, not something handed out by an external judge). What we’re talking about is in developing a quality of awareness that is kindly and compassionate. And this quality of awareness leads to us acting, more and more, in a naturally kind way. It’s said in fact, that someone who is enlightened no longer has to practice ethics. They’re naturally ethical, because acting with mindfulness and compassion comes naturally when you’re enlightened.

Until we’re enlightened we do have to work at being kinder and more compassionate to ourselves and others, but in time we find that it comes naturally, just as with learning any other skill.

Cultivating metta in meditation has an effect on how we behave in our daily lives. Even if we don’t notice that we’re kinder, other people often do. But how we act in our daily lives also affects how easy it is to cultivate lovingkindness in our meditation practice. If you’ve been finding fault with others all day, or have been involved in arguments, when you sit down to meditate you’re going to find that your mind is turbulent and conflicted. The arguments and fault-finding will continue in your mind, even though you’re the only person there.

On the other hand if, during the day, you let go of critical thoughts whenever you notice them, try to speak kindly, and try to empathize with others even if you disagree with them, then when you sit on the cushion you’re going to find that you feel better about yourself and that it’s easier to connect with a sense of kindness.

So the relationship between meditation and daily life is a two-way street. Each has effects on the other. If we are trying to cultivate metta in meditation but are acting in our daily lives in a way that undermines our metta, then we’re obviously going to get “stuck” in our development.

In fact this might be one of the most common causes of lack of progress in meditation – that we are busy undoing the effects of our meditation while at work or with friends and families. So we need to look at every aspect of our lives and see to what extent it helps or hinders our development of metta.

13 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you for this. I find this a constant challenge in daily life. On the one hand I recognize the value of cultivating compassion towards self and others, and yet I also find that trying too hard to be compassionate is actually counterproductive. Its almost like I have to have room for myself to screw up and think angry or hurtful thoughts and then correct them after the fact but I also find it easy to just dive into anger and get caught up. Any thoughts? How do we cultivate compassion without constantly micromanaging our mind?


    • Hi, Bill.

      Compassion has to become a natural part of the way we are. It certainly shouldn’t be something we have to force, although of course we have to put in some effort, or nothing much happens.

      I’ve never thought of mindfulness and compassion as “micromanaging the mind” before. It’s certainly a form of management of the mind. And it works best when we’re aware of our moment-by-moment experience and making the wisest choices we possibly can. But “”micromanaging” is an inherently negative term.

      I’m not actually very clear what you’re asking, however. If by “micromanaging the mind” you’re talking about being harsh with yourself, then remember you have to have self-compassion as well. Sure, we’re going to screw up, lose our tempers, lash out at people, etc. That’s just part of the path. We apologize, forgive ourselves, resolve to do better in the future, etc.

      If I’ve missed your point, please do feel free to rephrase your question.

      All the best,

  • Thanks for the reply! Yes, what I’m talking about is being to harsh with myself. I’ve been practicing harshness for years I’m afraid so it’s taking some effort to be more self-compassionate. Any advice on specific techniques I can use to generate self-compassion? It doesn’t seem to be enough to just keep thinking “be nice, be nice, be nice” haha.

  • Hi, Bill.

    You don’t say whether or not you practice lovingkindness meditation, but that’s the place to start. The practice begins with cultivating lovingkindness toward ourselves first of all. When I had problems in the past with self-hatred I did a modified form of lovingkindness practice for myself, for about a year.

    One other thing I’d suggest is that when you’re being hard on yourself, pause and notice that you’re suffering. If you pay attention feelings in the body — especially in the heart and solar plexus — you’ll find that there’s a tangible sense of pain there. So just notice that pain, and send it thoughts of lovingkindess as if it was a dear friend who was suffering: “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.”

  • By the way, I expanded the article above.

  • Dear Bodhopaksa,
    I have a question about the difference between space for me and lovingkindness. I find it extremly difficult to have a healthy space for me and my needs and at the same time recognize the needs of the others. My challenge are my parents who in my opinion do not recognize my limits and needs and get fed up with me easily.
    At present, I would like that they find a gift on their own for my boyfriend with whom I am together for eight years and whom they have never given a gift to. They got fed up saying I am behaving like a teacher which is not my place. While I regognize this is true, that I incline behaving like this, I would still love that they spend the time thinking what gift to give him. Is it unkind to wish that sb does sth for me albeit he/she does not want to do this? Thanks a lot!

  • Hi, Olivia.

    We become very dependent on others’ praise or thanks when we don’t give ourselves much appreciation. We look to others to fill the gap. So I’d suggest doing more self-rejoicing.

    I don’t know about the gift-selection. Training people to change their habits is a slow process. It’s helpful to look out for and appreciate even small changes — for example if you ask them what their preference is from a selection you present to them (“Do you think he’d prefer this one or that one?). If they’ve never given him any thought it’s going to be hard to move them to developing a more involved level of interest. Not impossible, but it’ll involve a number of steps, with positive reinforcement of any signs of progress rather than negative reinforcement (through criticism) when they don’t make what you consider to be be sufficient progress.

  • I have been employed ina very negative environment for the last 8 years. It has a real bullying culture and I have at one time been on the receiving end. Although I am pretty well left alone now. I have only just started to meditate and practice lovingkindness and have been on annual leave. I am about to head back to work. I have always tried to practice kindness before getting involved in mediation.In the belief that I may be the only person who is nice to them today . Also standing up for the people who are the current target by saying ‘ they are a nice person once you get to know them’ or I haven’t been on the receiving end of that behaviour until I do, I really like that person . Trying to show there are positives if you look.
    My ultimate question is , when surrounded by such negativity and unacceptance ,What do I say to someone who wants to come to me to pick every fault that they can see in someone’s personality? I feel empathy for the person as they are clearly broken and I wish them well. Is there anything else I need to do ? I don’t want this affecting my meditation and my progress every day I work.

    • I appreciate the problem. It’s very hard to discuss these things with the complainer without risking alienating them. In some cases simply pointing out the positive isn’t very effective, because it doesn’t challenge the underlying negativity. It might be more effective to point out that you don’t think that criticizing people creates a positive workplace, and that you personally find it painful. After having said that, offering a more positive perspective might have more impact.

      I remember reading about something similar in a management book where the person hearing the complaint said something to the effect of, “It’s obvious that you have difficulties with this person. Let’s go over there right now and you can talk to them about what you find so difficult about their behavior.” Of course that put the complainer on the spot, since they weren’t interested in making change, just in complaining.

  • Thank you so much. I have not had to deal with any negativity since I have been on holidays and was really worried that it would affect my progress. I will put into practice what you have said.Your website has been my god send. It is making so much sense where I was struggling to comprehend it before and is already affecting my life in a positive way. I have finally realised that I am doing everything and have everything I want in life, I just failed to notice. I had always been looking forward to the next experience not enjoying what was right in front of me. Although I have always practiced being kind, I actually forgot that I should include myself in that. The change in my life is quite profound and over a very short period. I have to say thank you so much and I am indebted to you.

  • Well I just wanted to send a big thank you. I am now back at work and I have been able to focus on the amazing people and not so much on the negative aspects and staff members in my job. I have noticed that people are reacting differently to me and very much in a positive way. I don’t worry about negative reactions anymore or anything else really. The conclusion I have come to is that they will complain about even the most perfect things in life because they haven’t learned to be grateful yet. I have complete faith that it will all work out. I have a better outlook on myself and don’t think the negative stuff anymore. I have also had some pretty amazing results with meditation. This journey I have gone on has made a profound difference in my life. I am only looking at now and nothing beyond that. I am 42 and I believe that my life has just started.

    So thank you for your advice and your amazing website .


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