In the second stage of the lovingkindness practice we cultivate kindness toward a friend, strengthening and deepening our friendships.
The meditation practice called metta bhavana is about cultivating (that’s the bhavana part) our innate kindness (which is metta). The first stage of the practice involves developing an empathetic connection with ourselves, recognizing that we need support as we do this difficult thing of being human, and offering ourselves that support in various ways, including regarding ourselves with a kindly inner gaze and offering kind and supportive words, such as “May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be kind to yourself and others.”
The aim is to develop an attitude of empathy kindness toward ourselves which, with practice, can become our default emotional state rather than our usual reactivity. The empathy and kindness we develop toward ourselves find their way into our attitudes toward others. The next few stages of the practice involve us cultivating kindness toward a friend, a relative stranger, and then someone we’re having difficulty with.
Right now we’re exploring the second stage of the practice, in which we cultivate empathy and kindness toward a friend.
A friend is by definition someone we already care about — someone whose well-being is important to us. When they feel bad it upsets us, and when they feel good it’s pleasing to us. So a friend is someone we already have kindness towards, and what we’re doing is strengthening that kindness during this stage of the practice.
For most people this is the most enjoyable stage of the meditation, because we’re getting (in imagination) to hang out with someone we care about.
Jump to a section:
- Guided Meditation Recording
- How to Cultivate Kindness Toward a Friend
- Spending Time On the Second Stage
- Who Not to Choose as the Friend
- Should I Pick the Same Person Every Time?
- What’s Meant to Happen in Stage Two?
- What if I Don’t Feel Much?
- Is it Okay to Do Stage Two First?
- How to Be With Your Friend in Meditation
- What’s Next?
It’s worth thinking in advance who we’re going to choose as the friend, otherwise we can spend much of the time deciding which friend we’re going to be meditating on.
You can listen to an MP3 guided meditation that will lead you through the first two stages of the practice by clicking on the player below:
This practice follows on from the first stage of the metta bhavana, in which we cultivate empathy and kindness toward ourselves. In a way we treat ourselves as a friend, offering warmth, support, and encouragement. Cultivating kindness toward a friend is a natural extension of this.
Here’s how I cultivate a deeper sense of kindness for a friend. This approach has evolved over more than 40 years of exploring lovingkindness meditation, and most of my meditation students seem to have found it useful.
- First, call to mind a friend — someone you know and basically like; someone whose well-being you care about. (There are some traditional guidelines on choosing a friend below, but there’s no need to be too concerned about them at this point.)
- If you’ve been regarding yourself with kindly eyes, then regard your friend in the same way. (Briefly, remember what it’s like to look with love, notice the qualities of warmth, appreciation, and so on that pervade your sense of vision, and then turn that regard toward your friend.)
- Remember that, just like you, your friend is a feeling being. They feel happiness and unhappiness, and their feelings are as real to them, as vivid to them, and as important to their well-being as yours are to you.
- Remember that, just like you, your friend wants to be happy, and at ease, and at peace, and doesn’t want to suffer.
- Remember that, just like you, your friend finds like a struggle, because happiness is often elusive, and suffering all too common. Just like you your friend is doing a difficult thing in being human.
- Knowing all this, recognize that your friend needs and deserves emotional support.
- And then offer support to your friend, wishing them well by saying “May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be kind to yourself and others.”
- Use the breathing to pace the phrases, so that you allow yourself ample time to observe the effects of this well-wishing on the quality of your connection with your friend.
- Continue wishing your friend well for at least five minutes, and then either move on to the third stage of the practice (the so-called “neutral person“) or gently bring your awareness back into the outside world.
What’s described above is a very natural process of first empathizing with a friend (seeing them as a feeling being who is doing a difficult thing in being human) and then, on the basis of that empathetic connection, offering them support by wishing them well.
We’re not trying to manufacture kindness or to force feelings to arise. We’re simply connecting, letting the desire to support our friend’s well-being come into being, and then expressing that desire in an act of imagined verbal communication.
Throughout this process we can maintain a soft, kind inward gaze upon our friend.
This is how we can strengthen the kindness (metta) we have toward a friend.
As I mentioned above, this stage of the metta bhavana practice is a natural extension of the first stage — cultivating kindness toward ourselves. It’s essential that we spend at least a little while connecting empathetically with ourselves, and relating to ourselves with kindness, before cultivating kindness for a friend.
In the formal meditation practice you’d spend at least as much time on yourself as on your friend. We don’t treat ourselves any differently from anyone else. Less formally, if, say, you have a spare moment and want to spend it dwelling kindly upon a friend, you can just momentarily “drop in” to a state of self empathy and self-kindness by remembering previous experiences of doing that. Again, though, when you sit down to do the metta bhavana practice, don’t skip developing empathy and kindness toward yourself.
If you’re new to this, I suggest spending a few days getting used to doing both the first and second stages of the Metta Bhavana practice before moving on to learning the next stage of the practice.
It’s in itself an act of kindness to slow down and to give yourself time to explore this stage of the practice. To be kind means having your own, and others’, long-term happiness and well-being at heart. Although you might want to rush ahead when learning a new skill, your long-term benefit lies in methodically working through the process step by step, giving yourself time to assimilate what we’re learning.
We’re not being kind to ourselves when we rush ahead and try to assimilate skills and information at a faster pace than is helpful. The Buddha, talking about how people want to rush on too quickly in meditation, said that we end up like a cow that leaves the familiar territory of its pasture and goes wandering too far, losing its way. It’s natural to want to explore and move on, but it’s best to do so gradually. It may be temporarily frustrating to take things slowly — and yet in the long term it beings greater satisfaction and joy.
I hope you’re actually practicing these meditations and not just reading about them. Simply reading about meditation is like reading about how to swim. You can study every book on swimming technique that’s ever been written — you could learn them by heart — and you’d find that it meant nothing when you first got in the water.
So I suggest exploring the various sections of this page before you move on to stage three.
You might also want to reread the sections on Ways of Cultivating Metta if you haven’t already done that.
There are some traditional suggestions for who we should choose—and who we should not choose—for the second stage of the Metta Bhavana. These aren’t so much rules as helpful suggestions based on the experience of past meditators, because some approaches to the practice are more useful than others. The fact that these are not rules doesn’t mean that you should disregard them lightly. On the contrary, I’d suggest taking them seriously, even if they might seem silly.
These suggestions are intended to help keep the practice relatively simple, so that, for example, we don’t end up either confusing other emotions, such as sexual attraction, with kindness.
Those traditional suggestions are:
1. Pick someone who is roughly the same age as yourself
We want to make sure that it is actual kindness that we develop. An so we’re traditionally cautioned from bringing much younger people into the friend stage because although we might have lots of warm feelings for them, those feelings might be conditioned by parental feelings or, in the case of very young children, by a sentimental response to their “cuteness.”
With much older people our kindness may end up mixed in with feelings of wanting to please a parental or authority figure.
It’s not that you can’t include much younger or older people in the practice at all, but that in this “friend” stage of the practice we’re meant to pick someone with whom there’s a sense of equality. You relate to each other as human being to human being, not as parent to child or child to parent.
Probably it’s best to choose a friend who’s within a decade or so of being the same age as yourself. But it’s up to you.
You might wonder: during the “kind eyes” exercise, which is part of the lovingkindness practice, I suggested that you might connect with kindness in and around the eyes by remembering a time you looked with love. And I said that you might remember looking with love at a child or even a pet.
What we were doing there was connecting with and activating our capacity for affection. That’s fine as far as it goes, but in cultivating kindness for a friend you’re looking for someone who’s more of an equal.
2. Pick someone you aren’t sexually attracted to
The reason for this is that if you get lots of warm emotions flowing towards your rather attractive friend it might turn out to be sexual attraction or romantic feelings that you’re cultivating, rather than kindness. My experience is that when I was young I had to be really honest with myself about this one. Did I want to include this person in the friend stage because they were a friend, or because I wanted to spend 10 minutes crushing on them?
It’s not that Buddhism has anything against sex. Buddhism in fact sees sex simply as another human activity that can be more or less skillfully pursued. It’s just that we want to keep the practice fairly straightforward at first, and to be sure that what we’re cultivating really is kindness.
Sexual or romantic feelings are highly conditioned. They depend on the object of our attention having a particular appearance, or having qualities we find desirable. Kindness is unconditional: it depends only on our recognizing that another being feels happiness and unhappiness, just as we do, prefers happiness to unhappiness, just as we do, is doing a difficult thing in being human, just as we are, and benefits from support, encouragement, and warmth, just as we do. These are universal qualities found in all beings, while a pleasing appearance or a personality we find ideal in a partner are not.
Again, it’s not that you can’t include people you’re sexually or romantically attracted to in the practice. They’re just not the best fit for the friend stage.
3. Pick someone who is alive
It might not even occur to you to call to mind a friend who’s no longer alive. But in case it has, this is another category or person we’re traditionally advised not to include in the friend stage.
You might have a friend who’s dead, and that you have a lot of warm feelings towards, but there may also be lots of other feelings associated with that person — like regret, or guilt, or sadness. There’s nothing wrong with those feelings, it’s just not what we’re trying to cultivate in this practice.
In final stage of the practice you can include all of the people above that I’ve suggested you don’t use.
Also, once you’ve been doing the practice for a while, and have a better sense of what metta feels like, you can use your discretion more in who you pick. For now though, especially if you’re new to the practice, let’s make it easy on ourselves, and play it safe.
If you only have one friend, this section won’t apply to you. And if you’ve been doing the practice for a long time this probably also won’t be an issue for you. But it’s a source of discomfort faced by a lot of beginners to lovingkindness meditation: which friend do you include in the practice?
Maybe you have two friends, or maybe many more than that. And you may sometimes feel uneasy and no know which of your friends to include in the meditation practice on any given day. Of course if you’ve been meditating for a while you’ve realized you have your whole life, and plenty of time to cycle through cultivating kindness for each of your existing friends, plus any new ones you happen to make in the future.
I find that I prefer to consistently cultivate metta for one particular friend for a while, by which I mean a few weeks or months, because I get a sense that I’m really working on strengthening the caring connection that I have with them. But in the long term I wouldn’t want to stick exclusively with one person because, obviously, I have more than one friend and want to deepen my connection with each of them.
The situation’s a bit different if you’re new to the practice, of course. You may have a half-dozen or more people that you could call to mind in the second stage of the meditation practice, but spending months on each of them would mean a long wait before you reached those at the end of your list! So I’d suggest perhaps spending a few days on each person, or calling to mind a different friend each time.
By the way, it’s a very good idea to decide before the meditation begins which friend you’re going to choose, so that you don’t waste time dithering about it. As long as you’re dithering you’re not meditating!
For many beginners to lovingkindness meditation, this isn’t just a straightforward decision, like trying to decide whether you want vanilla or chocolate ice cream. There’s a horrible, nagging suspicion that it’s wrong to choose one friend over another to include the practice. With ice cream you don’t have to worry that poor vanilla’s feelings are going to be hurt if you go with chocolate. Of course no one but you knows who you’re cultivating kindness for, but there can still be a sense that there’s betrayal involved.
If this happens to you I’d suggest that you take the wider view that longer-term meditators have, and consider that there’s plenty of time to include everyone who’s dear to you. If that still leaves you feeling uneasy — perhaps because you fear there’s some kind of betrayal involved in deciding who goes first — then notice the discomfort you feel as if it were a dear friend who was unhappy. Regard the discomfort with kind eyes, as if you were a strong, loving presence for a friend who was having a hard time. And maybe talk reassuringly to to your discomfort, saying “May you be well. May you be at ease.” This self-compassionate approach can help us get through all manner of difficulties, and it’s good practice for being compassionate toward our actual friends.
In the second stage of the meditation practice we’re strengthening the kindness we already feel for a friend.
It’s important to remember that kindness is something you do already experience. It’s not some new emotion that you’ve never felt before and that will only appear when you attain some distant mystical heights of attainment in your meditation practice. The words “developing” or “cultivating” in developing or cultivating kindness don’t mean “creating something from nothing.” They mean exercising and strengthening what’s already there.
Kindness is part of everyday life. We experience this kindness in ordinary life by being considerate to our friends, by wanting them to be happy, by putting ourselves out to make them feel more at ease.
We experience kindness in ordinary life when we’re rooting for our friends, when we’re happy at their good fortune, and when we’re concerned for their welfare.
This stage of the meditation practice deepens our friendships. We’re learning to be a better friend, to be more faithful to our friends so that we keep them in mind more often. We’re training ourselves to care more and to be more supportive.
We’re not looking for anything spectacular to happen in the meditation practice. You’re probably not going to have the emotional equivalent of a firework show. But hopefully it’ll be enjoyable for you to sit for a few minutes with your friend in mind, connecting with them empathetically and wishing them well.
It’s possible that there will be some awkwardness at first as you get used to calling a friend to mind in this way. But in time you’ll likely experience a warming of the heart and a glow of pleasure or happiness, wishing your friend well in this way. Ideally this will carry over outside of the meditation practice as well, so that your friendship begins to deepen.
When you call your friend to mind in the second stage of the meditation practice, it’s important to emotionally truthful. Don’t try to make yourself feel something that’s not there at that moment. The worst thing to do is to try to force some kind of feeling to arise. That won’t get you very far. So look for a sense of acceptance of whatever is arising. Remember that developing kindness is like growing a plant from seed. Forcing a feeling to happen is like trying to pick the seed apart to make it grow faster. So if you don’t feel much at one particular time then that’s fine. It’s just how things are right now. It’s just where you’re starting from.
Remember that you’re doing something a bit unusual in sitting down to bear a friend in mind for five or ten minutes. is a little artificial. I mean we’re consciously sitting there calling a friend to mind, perhaps wondering if we’re doing it right, and trying out the improbable task of cultivating kindness. It’s no wonder we’re sometimes a little self-conscious and stiff and neutral. Things often don’t “flow” right away, and it can take time for us to relax into the practice.
This is all an opportunity for you to practice being kind to yourself, not blaming yourself or placing impossible demands upon yourself, but instead recognizing that you are a complex, feeling being, and that there is kindness and warmth within you, just waiting for the conditions to be right so that it can reveal itelf.
Be patient, be kind. Allow your feelings to develop at their own pace.
Some people find it easier to feel metta for themselves through re-experiencing the loving connection that they have with a friend. So, yes, it’s fine to start with Stage 2 of the meditation practice and then to go on to wish yourself well.
Sometimes it’s easier to experience our feelings in relation to others. I’m sure you’ve had the experience at some point of only realizing how strongly you felt about something when you found your voice catching as you talked to someone.
When we’re in relation with others often we paradoxically become more aware of ourselves. Humans are essentially social animals, and we’re simply not complete while in isolation.
And sometimes we carry around unkind views about ourselves — that we’re not good, that we lack kindness, that there’s something deficient in us. And sitting with a friend in mind, and experiencing warmth and kindness as a result, can remind us of our own goodness. Once that’s done, we might feel happier wishing us well.
With practice, though, I hope you’ll find that it gets easier to cultivate metta for yourself. Just as in the friend stage of the meditation practice we are tapping into an already existing source of kindness, we can get to the point where our self-kindness is so well developed that we can experience appreciation for ourselves as soon as we call ourselves to mind. Practicing having kind eyes can be very important in that regard, because it’s so quick and easy to slip into.
Apart from this variation, though, I do suggest that you stick to the stages of the meditation as they are outlined here until you have a strong body of experience with the practice.
There’s a lot of creative license in this stage of the meditation practice. Yes, you’re seeing your friend in your mind’s eye. But how are you seeing them? You don’t want that kind of awkwardness, like when you can’t think of anything to say.
Often what I do is imagine that my friend is doing whatever they might ordinarily be doing right now — watching TV, or cleaning the kitchen, taking out the trash, or whatever.
And I’ll imagine myself like an invisible guardian angel, watching over them and wishing them well, repeating “May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be kind to yourself and others.” The fact that I’m an invisible presence takes any sense of awkwardness out of things.
But you can also imagine that you’re with your friend. Maybe they’re going through a hard time. Maybe something good is happening in their lives. Whatever’s going on for them, just imagine that you’re with them as a friendly and supportive presence. You’re regarding them with kind eyes. In your heart you’re wishing them well.
Sometimes I drop the phrases I usually use, and instead have a kind of natural conversation with them. I might find myself saying something like, “You know, I really appreciate our friendship. You’re a good man, and I like having you in my life. You’re steady, and kind, and generous, and I’ve learned a lot from you about being a better person.”
And I might then just imagine them smiling at me, almost as if something mysterious, wise, and unusually kind was shining from within them. I’m not expecting any response to them from what I’ve said. I’m certainly not expecting them to return the compliment! This practice is about me strengthening the kindness I have for my friend. It’s not about seeking their praise. So I just let this little scenario play out until it seems that it’s done its job, and then perhaps I’m back to being their guardian angel.
If you’ve found this section on cultivating kindness toward a friend helpful, then feel free to move on to the next stage of this practice, which is on learning to be kinder to strangers by bearing in mind that they too, just like you, are feeling beings who are doing a difficult thing in being human.
You can also learn more about this meditation practice in the following books:
- “Wildmind: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation,” written by me (Bodhipaksa)
- “This Difficult Thing of Being Human: The Art of Self-Compassion,” also written by me.
- “Change Your Mind,” by Paramananda
- “Meditation: The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight,” by Kamalashila