The Metta Bhavana, or Development of Lovingkindness, practice is one of the most ancient forms of Buddhist practice, one that has been passed down in an unbroken line for over 2,500 years.
We’re often taught as children that we should love others. Religious teachings say, for example, that we should “love others as ourselves.” But how do we learn to love others? And what happens if we don’t particularly like, never mind love, ourselves? The development of lovingkindness meditation practice is the practical means by which we learn to cultivate love for ourselves and others.
The practice helps us to actively cultivate positive emotional states towards ourselves and others, so that we become more patient, kind, accepting, and compassionate.
It’s part of a series of four practices which lead to the arising of:
- compassion (empathizing with others’ suffering)
- empathetic joy (rejoicing in others’ wellbeing and joy)
- and equanimity (patient acceptance of both joy and suffering, both our own and others’).
The metta bhavana is the foundation practice for this series of meditations.
The practice, leading as it does to the realization of compassion, is central to Buddhism, to the extent that the Dalai Lama has said “My religion is kindness.” While this statement may appear almost platitudinous, it’s actually indicative of something profound about spiritual practice.
How to get started
Much of our unhappiness comes from the desire to be happy at the expense of others. It’s really very ironic that in grasping after happiness in this way we end up causing ourselves pain. It’s like sticking your hand into what you think is a cool stream in order to find relief on a hot day, only to discover that the water is boiling.
Buddhist theory teaches, and practice demonstrates, that happiness comes from empathizing with others and from seeing their wellbeing and their suffering as being important as our own.
It’s not that we set aside our own needs entirely and become martyrs in the popular sense of the word, but that we recognize that one of our needs is to help others meet their own needs. In meeting our need to help others meet their needs we find that we become happier: a layer of self-induced (and selfishness-induced) suffering starts to dissolve.
Realizing this and working it out in our lives through the practice of kindness is a major part of Buddhist practice. In fact we could say, as the Dalai Lama implies, that developing a sense of connectedness with others and overcoming selfishness is the essence of the spiritual path.