The “metta bhavana” is a meditation practice for cultivating kindness.
The Pali word “metta” is commonly translated as “lovingkindness,” but the simple and familiar word “kindness” offers us a better way to understand what metta is.
“Bhavana” means “producing, dwelling on something, putting one’s thoughts to, or developing by means of thought or meditation.”
And so “metta bhavana” is “developing kindness through meditation.”
If you want to get a quick sense of what this practice is like, try this five minute meditation to get started.
Jump to a section:
- What this practice does
- An outline of the Metta Bhavana practice
- Cultivating kindness
- What metta isn’t
- What metta is
- The Metta Prayer
- What the Buddha said about kindness
- What’s next?
The metta bhavana meditation 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. In fact we know that some form of this practice pre-dates the Buddha, because in at least one place in the early scriptures he contrasts how we understands the practice with how non-Buddhist teachers approach it.
You know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of kindness. You know what it’s like to be kind. So what we’re cultivating in this practice isn’t anything strange, unknown, or other-worldly. It’s something you’re familiar with, because we all are kind sometimes. By doing the metta bhavana practice we’re training ourselves to be kinder than we usually are, more often than we usually are, in circumstances where we might not usually find ourselves being kind.
We’re often taught as children that we should be kind and love others. Religious teachings say, for example, that we should “love others as ourselves.” But how do we learn to love others? What does it mean to love others? Does being more loving make us naive, or lead to us neglecting our own needs? And what happens if we don’t particularly like, let alone love, ourselves?
Lovingkindness meditation practice is the practical means by which we learn to cultivate kindness toward ourselves and others. To be kind to someone starts with recognizing empathetically that they are a feeling being, that their happiness and unhappiness are as real, vivid, and important to them as our own are to us. Once we’ve realized that, we don’t want to act in ways that hurt them unnecessarily. In fact we want them to be happy. We want them to feel valued. We want them to feel that they matter, and that their well-being matters.
Metta bhavana is part of a series of four practices, called the brahmaviharas (literally “abiding in the best or highest mental states”). This term comprises:
- Kindness, or metta (valuing and supporting others’ sense of well-being)
- Compassion or karuna (the desire to help others who are suffering)
- Appreciative joy, or mudita (appreciating the positive qualities others have that bring them peace and happiness)
- Equanimity, or upekkha (patient acceptance of both our own and others’ joy and suffering)
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.
As Buddhaghosa, a Buddhist teacher who lived 1,500 years ago, said, having anger and resentment toward others is like picking up a hot coal to throw at them. You might hurt them but you’ll certainly hurt yourself. 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.
Buddhism teaches, and experience shows, that happiness comes from empathizing with others and from seeing their well-being and their suffering as being important to them as our own is to us. Happiness comes from connectedness and from caring.
It’s not that becoming kind we set aside our own needs and become martyrs in the popular sense of the word. In fact the opposite is the case. Before we can recognize that others are feeling beings whose happiness and unhappiness are important to them, we have to recognize that we are feeling beings whose happiness and unhappiness are important to us. We have to learn to empathize with ourselves first.
This is where kindness begins — with self empathy. If you don’t feel that you have much empathy for yourself, that’s okay. That’s just where you’re starting from. The metta bhavana meditation practice helps us to take our own well-being seriously as well. It helps us to see that we matter and that our well-being matters. It teaches us to value ourselves.
Also, however, cultivating kindness helps us to 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.
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. This is why the Buddha talked about the act of developing kind and supportive relationships with others as being “the whole of the spiritual life.”
Since “bhavana” means “cultivating” or “developing,” and “metta” is a word that means “kindness,” metta bhavana is a meditation practice where we actively cultivate kindness towards ourselves and others.
This meditation practice helps us to bring more harmony into our relationship with others, so that we deepen our connections with our friends and loved ones, are more empathetic toward strangers, and experience fewer conflicts and resolve existing difficulties with those we ordinarily clash with.
It helps us to empathize more, and to be more considerate, kind, and forgiving. We can also learn to appreciate others more, concentrating more on their positive qualities and less on their faults. We learn to be more patient, understanding that all people have their own difficulties, and that the behavior we find difficult in them is often them responding to their own pain.
We also cultivate kindness towards ourselves, so that we experience less internal conflict, and learn to appreciate ourselves more. This is a particularly important aspect of the practice. It’s traditionally held that we all cherish ourselves, and that what we need to do is to expand our love from ourselves to others. For example in the Buddhist text, the Udana, we read:
Searching all directions
with one’s awareness,
one finds no one dearer
In the same way, others
are fiercely dear to themselves.
So one should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.
And yet many of us in the west have been brought up to hate ourselves. We don’t thoroughly hate ourselves, of course. In fact we tend to treat ourselves very well! In fact the Buddha talked about this when he said:
Even though they may say, ‘We aren’t dear to ourselves,’ still they are dear to themselves. Why is that? Of their own accord, they act toward themselves as a dear one would act toward a dear one; thus they are dear to themselves.
We do actually spend a lot of time taking care of ourselves — we buy our favorite snacks and treat ourselves to our favorite TV shows, for example — but we tend to focus on aspects of ourselves we don’t like, and we ignore the care and kindness we show ourselves. Ignoring and failing to see our own self-kindness, we believe it doesn’t exist, and are aware only of the unkind words we direct at ourselves.
Lovingkindness practice helps us to feel more positive, accepting, kind, and patient toward ourselves, in order that we can be more compassionate and loving toward others.
In the Metta Bhavana practice we’re cultivating lovingkindness, or simply kindness.
It would be ideal if we could be kind all the time. That’s unlikely to happen, even if we do a lot of meditation. But there’s no need to let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and not make efforts to cultivate kindness because we’ll likely never do it perfectly.
Any degree of kindness that we develop is going to help us be happier more fulfilled human beings. Any degree of kindness we develop is going to help others feel better as they go through life. We don’t have to be perfect.
With practice it’s possible for us to change ourselves substantially. A friend of mine started meditating because he saw a very crabby employee become more relaxed, approachable, and friendly. He asked someone discretely, “Helen’s changed. Is she on medication?” He was surprised to hear that she was actually on meditation instead, because as far as he was concerned meditation was a bunch of hippy nonsense. And for myself, I used to be an incredibly critical and bad-tempered person. I’m much mellower now.
The meditation practice is in five stages. We cultivate kindness toward, in turn:
- A friend
- A “neutral” person or relative stranger — someone we don’t have any strong feelings for
- A “difficult” person — someone we have conflicts with or feelings of ill will towards
- Everyone — which means not that we literally have kindness for every individual being in the universe, but that we have a general attitude of kindness, so that anyone we think of or meet, we encounter them in a kind way
The middle three stages are progressively more challenging. It’s easy to feel kind toward a friend. It’s a little harder to overcome our indifference to people we don’t know, and to actually value them as individuals. It’s much harder to overcome hostility to someone we have conflict with.
We’ll learn these stages one at a time. We suggest that you practice one stage for a while before moving on to the others.
The idea of cultivating kindness in meditation might strike some of us as being a bit odd: after all, don’t emotions “just happen”? It often seems like they well up inside of ourselves unbidden, and come and go like the weather.
A lot of the language we use to talk about emotions suggests a lack of control. For example, we “fall” in love, or we are “overcome” with anger, or we feel “depressed” (who’s doing the depressing?), or we feel “overburdened” with stress, or people “make” us annoyed.
From a Buddhist point of view it is not the case that emotions “just happen”. Emotions are habits, and are actively created. It seems like they have a life of their own because we aren’t conscious of exactly how we create them. If we can bring more awareness into our emotional life then we can cultivate the emotions we want to experience (those that make us and others happy), and discourage the arising of those we don’t want (those that make us unhappy and generate conflict with others).
Buddhist meditation encourages us to take responsibility for our emotional states. However the word “emotion” doesn’t have a precise equivalent in traditional Buddhist terms. The two closest terms are “vedana,” which means “feeling” and “cetana,” which means “volition.”
A feeling is an internally generated sensation in the body, which may be pleasant or unpleasant. (Sometimes we don’t feel anything, and this is traditionally termed a “neutral” feeling.) The feeling of your heart sinking when you’re disappointed, the pleasant warm glow you feel when you admire someone, a tight knot in the belly when you’re anxious, or the ache you experience when you’re empathizing with someone’s distress are all forms of feelings. They’re sensations, and their purpose is to alert us when we’ve perceived a potential threat or a potential benefit.
Volitions, or cetanas, are active responses to those feelings. A volition has an aim. Anger is a volition, for example. Anger generally wants to break through some barrier. Kindness (metta) is a volition, because it’s the desire to support someone’s wellbeing. Although kindness (and any other volition) has feelings associated with it, it’s essentially a volition, not a feeling.
When I use the word “emotion” here I’m restricting its meaning to cover volitions. The word “emotion” in fact implies movement (“motion”) out from our being (signified by the e- prefix).
We cultivate emotions all the time. An example of how we unconsciously generate emotions is this: imagine you’re with a group of people, and you get to talking about all the things that are wrong with the world — hatred, war, intolerance, child-abuse, pollution etc. As the conversation goes on, and we get more and more involved, what happens? The chances are that we get angry, or depressed, or feel self-righteous. By focusing on things that anger or depress you (without creatively trying to see what you can actually do about these things), you cultivate these emotions.
Imagine if you did that with things that encouraged a sense of love and well-being? That’s what the metta bhavana practice is about. It’s a meditation in which we consciously set up the conditions for the arising of kindness.
There are many common myths and misunderstandings about metta, or kindness.
Simply because the word metta is not found in English — and because there isn’t an exact equivalent — it’s possible to think that the emotion itself is something strange and unusual. The standard translation of “lovingkindness” doesn’t help, because it’s not a word most people use in everyday conversation. I’d certainly never come across the term until I began attending a meditation class. And because the term was unfamiliar to me, I assumed that what I was being asked to cultivate was something new and unusual.
If metta had been explained to me right at the start as being “kindness,” then I would have had a much better understanding of it. Kindness is something we all know.
Nevertheless, it’s possible for us to confuse kindness with other things.
Here are some explanations of what metta is not:
- Kindness isn’t the same thing as feeling good, although when we are kind we do feel more complete, and usually feel more joyful and happy. But it’s possible to have pleasant feelings and not to be kind. We can feel pleasure, but still be selfish, inconsiderate, or even cruel, for example. Kindness has a quality of caring about others. It’s not just a feeling.
- Kindness isn’t “being nice.” Yes, when we’re kind, we treat others with sensitivity, respect, and concern for their well-being. But when we’re “being nice” we’re usually trying to be liked. “Niceness” is manipulative. Our motivation when we’re being nice isn’t really promoting other people’s well-being, but to get them to treat us well. A kind person is willing to be direct and critical when that’s what’s needed in order to promote someone’s welfare.
- “Being nice” often leads to self-sacrifice. A kind individual is not someone who always puts others before themselves. A kind person is prepared to protect their own boundaries because they care about themselves as well as others.
- Kindness isn’t something unknown. We all experience kindness. Every time you feel pleasure in seeing someone do well, or are patient with someone who’s a bit difficult, or are considerate and ask someone what they think, you’re experiencing kindness. You also know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of kindness (as opposed to someone’s niceness — see above). So in metta bhavana meditation we’re not trying to create something unfamiliar to us. Instead we’re connecting with our own innate kindness, and strengthening it.
- Kindnes isn’t the same as “liking” someone. Even if you don’t like someone, you can still have their welfare at heart. Someone might be rude to you, for example, but instead of lashing out you can treat them with respect. If you’re being kind in the face of rudeness might tell the other person that their behavior is unacceptable, but you’ll do it in a kind way. You might, for example, bear in mind that the way they’re acting is an expression of their own suffering, and is causing them to suffer.
- Kindness begins by recognizing that we are all “feeling beings.” We all can feel joy, peace, and well-being, or unhappiness, distress, and suffering. Given the choice, we will opt for the former over the latter.
- Kindness recognizes that the most fundamental need any being has is to seek well-being and to be free from suffering.
- Kindness is a recognition of the most basic solidarity that we have with others, this sharing of a common aspiration to find fulfillment and escape suffering.
- Kindness recognizes that we’re all doing a difficult thing in being human — that it’s hard to desire happiness when happiness is often elusive, and that it’s hard to want to be free from suffering when suffering can come unexpectedly at any moment, and often does.
- Kindness recognizes that we’re all fighting a hard battle.
- Kindness involves empathy. It is the willingness to see the world from another’s point of view: to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.
- Kindness is wishing others well.
- Kindness is friendliness, considerateness, and generosity.
- Kindness is the basis for compassion. When our kind regard meets another’s suffering, then that kindness transforms into compassion — a desire to help others be free from suffering.
- Kindness is the basis for shared joy. When our kindness meets with another’s happiness or good fortune, then it transmutes into empathetic joy. Kindness also recognizes and celebrates the good in others that brings peace and joy.
- Kindness, resting on an awareness that we are all feeling beings who prefer happiness to suffering, is potentially boundless. We can potentially have a kind regard for any sentient being, regardless of gender, race, species, or nationality. We can be kind whether or not we like the person we’re being kind to.
- Kindness is a fulfilling emotional state. It brings joy both to ourselves and to anyone we’re kind to. We are wired to be fulfilled through connection to others.
- Kindness is the answer to almost every problem the world faces today. Money alone won’t do it. Technology alone won’t do it. Kindness provides the will to make the world a better place.
The Buddha gave a beautiful teaching on the development of lovingkindness called the Metta Sutta (also known as the Karaniya Metta Sutta). I’ve adapted the words of the sutta to formulate them as an aspiration that can be repeated in a prayer-like way.
Prayer — in the sense of a verbal expression of ideals and aspirations — is an important part of many religious traditions, including Buddhism, even though Buddhism has no creator God to whom we can pray.
Through expressing aspirations in words, and especially out loud, we can connect with our beliefs and ideals more deeply, helping us to hold them in our minds as we go about our daily business, and helping us to develop a stronger sense of conviction.
So in order to bring more lovingkindness, or metta, into your life, take a few minutes each day, just after you’ve awakened or perhaps just before you begin work in the morning, to recite the Metta Prayer. You can print out a PDF version and display it or keep it in your planner.
Saying words out loud make them more emotionally real for us, so if it’s possible, say the words out loud; otherwise just say them inwardly.
Read the words slowly and let them sink in so that they become your aspirations. Try sitting for a little while to let the words resonate in your heart and mind. Do this for a period of two weeks and see what difference it makes to your daily attitudes, thoughts, and emotions during that time.
In order that I may be skilled in discerning what is good, in order that I may understand the path to peace,
Let me be able, upright, and straightforward, of good speech, gentle, and free from pride;
Let me be contented, easily satisfied, having few duties, living simply, of controlled senses, prudent, without pride and without attachment to nation, race, or other groups.
Let me not do the slightest thing for which the wise might rebuke me. Instead let me think:
“May all beings be well and safe, may they be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be, whether moving or standing still, without exception, whether large, great, middling, or small, whether tiny or substantial,
Whether seen or unseen, whether living near or far,
Born or unborn; may all beings be happy.
Let none deceive or despise another anywhere. Let none wish harm to another, in anger or in hate.”
Just as a mother would guard her child, her only child, with her own life, even so let me cultivate a boundless mind for all beings in the world.
Let me cultivate a boundless love for all beings in the world, above, below, and across, unhindered, without ill will or enmity.
Standing, walking, seated, or lying down, free from torpor, let me as far as possible fix my attention on this recollection. This, they say, is the divine life right here.
Translated and adapted by Bodhipaksa from the Pali Metta Sutta.
Practitioners, whatever kinds of worldly merit there are, all are not worth one 16th part of the release of mind by universal friendliness; in shining, glowing, beaming & radiance the release of mind by universal friendliness far excels & surpasses them all.
As a mother even with own life protects her only child, so should one cultivate immeasurable loving-kindness towards all living beings.
The Metta Sutta
He who both day and night takes delight in harmlessness sharing love with all that live, finds enmity with none.
Samyutta Nikaya. I, 208
What are the eleven advantages of Metta ?
- One sleeps Happy.
- One wakes Happy.
- One dreams no evil dreams.
- One is liked and loved by all human beings.
- One is liked and loved by all non-human beings too.
- One is Guarded & Protected by the divine Devas.
- One cannot be Harmed by Fire, Poison, or Weapons.
- One swiftly Attains the Concentration of Absorption.
- One’s appearance becomes Serene, Calm, & Composed.
- One dies without Confusion, Bewilderment, or Panic.
- One reappears after death on the Brahma level if one has penetrated to no higher level in this very life.
Anguttara Nikaya XI.16
They may address you in an affectionate way or a harsh way. They may address you in a beneficial way or an unbeneficial way. They may address you with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. In any event, you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person’s welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will equal to the great earth — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.
Majjhima Nikaya 21
When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should direct one’s thoughts to the fact of his being the product of his actions: ‘This venerable one is the doer of his actions, heir of his actions, born of his actions, related by his actions, and is dependent on his actions. Whatever actions he does, for good or for evil, to that will he fall heir.’ Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued.
Anguttara Nikaya V.161
I have good will for legless beings,
good will for two-legged beings,
good will for four-legged beings,
good will for many-legged beings.
May legless beings do me no harm.
May two-legged beings do me no harm.
May four-legged beings do me no harm.
May many-legged beings do me no harm.
May all creatures,
all breathing things,
all beings — each and every one —
meet with good fortune.
May none of them come to any evil.
Anguttara Nikaya IV.67
The disciple of the Noble Ones, who in this way is devoid of coveting, devoid of ill will, undeluded, clearly comprehending and mindful, dwells, having pervaded, with a mind of lovingkindness, one quarter; likewise the second; likewise the third; likewise the fourth; so above, below, and across; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of amity that is free of hate or malice.
He lives, having pervaded, with a mind of compassion, one quarter; likewise the second; likewise the third; likewise the fourth; so above, below, and across; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of compassion that is free of hate or malice.
He lives, having pervaded, with a mind of joy, one quarter; likewise the second; likewise the third; likewise the fourth; so above, below, and across; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of gladness that is free of hate or malice.
He lives, having pervaded, with a mind of equanimity, one quarter; likewise the second; likewise the third; likewise the fourth; so above, below, and across; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of equanimity that is free of hate or malice.
Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 3.65
“There are these five ways of subduing hatred by which, when hatred arises in a monk, he should wipe it out completely. Which five?
“When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should develop good will for that individual. Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued.
“When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should develop compassion for that individual. Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued.
“When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should develop equanimity toward that individual. Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued.
“When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should pay him no mind & pay him no attention. Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued.
“When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should direct one’s thoughts to the fact of his being the product of his actions: ‘This venerable one is the doer of his actions, heir to his actions, born of his actions, related by his actions, and has his actions as his arbitrator. Whatever action he does, for good or for evil, to that will he fall heir.’ Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued.
“These are five ways of subduing hatred by which, when hatred arises in a monk, he should wipe it out completely.”
Aghatavinaya Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya, 5.161)
For one who mindfully develops
Seeing the destruction of clinging,
The fetters are worn away.
If with an uncorrupted mind
He pervades just one being
With loving kindly thoughts,
He makes some merit thereby.
But a noble one produces
An abundance of merit
By having a compassionate mind
Towards all living beings.
Those royal seers who conquered
The earth crowded with beings
Went about performing sacrifices:
The horse sacrifice, the man sacrifice,
The water rites, the soma sacrifice,
And that called “the Unobstructed.”
But these do not share even a sixteenth part
Of a well cultivated mind of love,
Just as the entire starry host
Is dimmed by the moon’s radiance.
One who does not kill
Nor cause others to kill,
Who does not conquer
Nor cause others to conquer,
Kindly towards all beings —
He has enmity for none.
If you’ve read a bit about the practice, and maybe tried out the five-minute guided meditation above, you can either learn a bit more about how to work with your emotions or you can start learning the first stage of the metta bhavana practice.