Seven tips for people who struggle with lovingkindness practice

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In the tradition I practice in, lovingkindness (metta bhavana) and mindfulness meditation are considered equally important, and yet my own informal surveys suggest that about a third of long-term practitioners have essentially given up on lovingkindness practice, doing it hardly at all, or skipping it altogether.

Often people have problems with the first stage, which is about cultivating lovingkindness for oneself. They look for (and are often encouraged to look for) feelings of kindness toward themselves. If those feelings fail to appear, they get anxious or despondent, assuming that they’re defective in some way.

In many cases, though, it’s the practice as a whole that they find difficult. Again, feelings of love may fail to appear. And when this happens people can take it to mean that they’re somehow personally lacking in love. That’s, of course, a depressing thing to think about yourself.

So there can be a sense of failure around the practice, which leads to self-loathing. This is of course the exact opposite of what should happen.

I’d like to suggest a few approaches to lovingkindness meditation that can take away that sense of failure, and help make the practice more accessible, effective, and rewarding.

1. Stop thinking of it as “lovingkindness” meditation.

“Lovingkindness” practice is what metta bhavana is commonly known as, but I don’t talk these days about cultivating lovingkindness. Instead I use the much more accessible term, “kindness.” “Lovingkindness” is not part of our natural vocabulary, and it suggests that we’re trying to bring into being something unusual. Using the word “kindness” reminds us that we’re simply connecting with a very familiar, everyday quality. And kindness is what metta is. Both kindness and metta begin with an empathetic recognition that a person is a feeling being who wants to be happy and doesn’t want to suffer. Having recognized this, we don’t want to act in ways that cause them to suffer, and we want to support their long-term happiness and wellbeing.

2. Start by sitting with kindness.

Right at the very beginning, as you settle in to meditate, bring qualities of kindness into how you hold your body. It’s not kind to hold yourself rigidly upright. Neither is it kind to force yourself into a posture that you think is “right” or “cool” but that doesn’t allow you to sit comfortably. Find a way to sit that supports kindness and relaxation. Let your muscles soften, especially as you breathe out.

At the same time, it’s not in your long-term wellbeing to slump or to lie down (unless you have an injury that you need to protect). So you’re aiming to find a balance of uprightness and relaxation. The words “dignity” and “ease” convey this very well. So sit with dignity and ease.

3. Regard yourself with kindness.

We all know how to look with loving eyes. We can remember times that we’ve looked with love at a child, a lover, a friend, or even an animal companion. At the beginning of a session of practice, remember experiences such as those. Notice the quality of your experience around the eyes in particular, and anyplace else they might manifest. Let those qualities persist, especially around the eyes, as you turn your attention inward to your own body. Observe your breathing human, animal body with the same fondness that you would have for a sleeping child or beloved pet. Don’t try to make anything happen. Just let it happen.

Keep checking in with your eyes during the practice. If necessary, recollect again the memory of looking with kindness.

4. Empathy before kindness.

Kindness is based on empathy, but very few people actively cultivate empathy at the start of the practice. What I recommend is the following:

  1. First of all recall that that you are a feeling being. Your happiness and suffering are important to you. In fact these are your deepest concerns. You want to be happy (or to have some sense of wellbeing) and you don’t want to suffer. Feel the truth of this in your own experience.
  2. Recall that it’s often difficult to find happiness, and all too easy to suffer. And so you’re doing a difficult thing in being human. You’re not failing when you suffer; you’re being perfectly human.
  3. Knowing that you’re doing a difficult thing in being human, realize that you need and deserve your own support and encouragement. And the main way to provide that is by wishing yourself well, using “lovingkindness” phases.

You can repeat exactly the same steps for anyone else you call to mind in the practice.

5. Remind yourself that the point of the practice is kindness.

The “lovingkindness” phrases I was taught were, “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.” These tended to give me the impression that the point of the practice was to become happy. But the practice is about becoming kinder. Usually if we become kinder we’ll be happier too, but that’s not the main point. So now I usually say something more like “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be kind to myself and others.” This reminds me, over and over, what the purpose of the practice is. And the word “kind” can be a trigger for kindness. It can remind us of the experience of being kind, and thus bring qualities of kindness into our experience.

6. Give yourself time and space.

It’s not kind to bombard yourself with words, so when you’re repeating the phrases it’s important to give yourself time to digest them. So I’ll usually say one phrase on an out-breath, then take a full in-breath and out-breath, and another in-breath, and then say the next phrase on the following out-breath. This allows your being time to take in what you’re saying.

7. Forget about having “lovingkindness for all beings.”

When I was introduced to metta bhavana practice I was told that the purpose was to develop “universal lovingkindness.” Of course I wanted this to be possible, but it always seemed like a lofty goal. You don’t have to call everyone in the world to mind. In fact that’s impossible.

In the final stage of the practice I go back to the principle outlined in an early commentary, the Vimuttimagga (path of liberation). There the final stage of the meditation practice is described in terms of “permeation.” And so what I do is to permeate my awareness with kindness, so that anyone I encounter, either in the world of the senses or in my mind, will be met kindly. That is what universal kindness is. In other words, anyone I meet or think of will be met with an awareness that they are a feeling being, that they want to be happy, and that they need my support because they’re doing a difficult thing in being human.

If there is anyone around me that I’m aware of, I meet them with kindness. When there are people I’m indirectly aware of—for example if I hear cars or airplanes—then I meet those people with kindness. If I call to mind people from other places, then I meet them with kindness too. I simply embrace with kindness anyone who I happen to encounter with my awareness. So I’m not overwhelming my mind by trying to do the impossible task of wishing everyone in the world well.

So if you’re one of those people who struggle with “lovingkindness” meditation, these are seven very practical things you can do to help your practice go more smoothly.

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8 Comments. Leave new

  • Excellent topic selection Bodhi. I am a neglector of metta bhavana myself.

    Reply
  • Though I have found this practice beneficial, it’s always been ‘tough going.’ Your article has helped me understand why. This is the first time I’ve been able to understand the spirit of the practice as opposed to my former focus on the ‘mechanics.’ Thank you so much. I am grateful…

    Reply
  • Barbara Hickman
    March 20, 2019 9:34 am

    So true that empathy for self is the hardest. Great article!

    Reply
  • Gregory Alter
    March 31, 2019 6:46 pm

    Wonderful article, substantiating some things, such as slowing down, and introducing brand new, if there is such, pointers. Thanks so much.

    Reply
  • very helpful. thank you so much!

    Reply
  • It has been years since I was on retreat with you at Aryaloka. In that time I had drifted away from my meditation practice. I have just returned from retreat once again and am taking up my practice once more. I am so happy to find this new expanded website. The loving kindness meditation is difficult but I am making headway now. Thank you for these useful tips

    Reply

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