The metta bhavana practice (bhavana means “developing,” while metta means “kindness”) is a form of meditation in which we learn to be kinder to ourselves and others. It begins with cultivating self-kindness. Being kinder to ourselves means being understanding of our weaknesses, appreciative of our strengths, forgiving of our errors, and supportive to ourselves as we go through difficulties.
Learning to be kinder to ourselves also involves learning to see all the ways we are unkind to ourselves, through being over-critical or perfectionist, and learning to undo those habits.
Various ways that we can cultivate kindness in meditation are described on a page called Ways to Cultivate Kindness In Meditation. You might find it helpful to explore those methods before reading further here. Or you might want to just plunge in below.
Jump to a section:
- Guided Meditation 1
- How to Do the First Stage of the Practice
- Being Kind to Yourself
- Exploring Stage One
- Guided Meditation 2
- What’s Supposed to Happen?
- Is Loving Yourself Okay?
- What if I Find it Hard to Be Kind to Myself?
- Dropping Flowers In a Still Forest Pool
- Walking in the Forest of Your Mind
- When People React to You Changing
- The Need for Nourishment
In the first stage of the practice, set up your posture and sit with kindness, as best you can letting the body be relaxed and at ease, and letting go of unnecessary tensions.
At the same time let the body’s posture be upright, open, and confident. Both the qualities of relaxation and the qualities of uprightness are important supports for our long-term happiness and well-being.
A word that sums this up is dignity. So see if you can sit with a sense of poise and dignity.
Now, let the muscles around the eyes soften, and let the focus in the eyes be soft, almost as if your eyes were slightly out of focus.
And remember a time when you looked with love. You may have looked with love at a beloved child, or a partner, a friend, or even a pet. As you recall this experience, notice the sensations that arise in and around the eyes. Perhaps they are sensations of warmth, softness, tenderness, or cherishing. Let those feelings become established as you continue to recall this memory.
Now, begin to turn your attention back toward your own body, and the feelings it contains, and notice how those feelings of tenderness, warmth, and kindness in your physical sense of vision also pervade your inner awareness of yourself, so that you can observe with kindness everything that’s arising within you.
Allow yourself to settle into an awareness of the sensations arising in your body, including the rise and fall of your breathing, the beating of your heart, and the contact your body is making with your seat, the floor, and your clothing.
Now, become aware of how you are feeling. What is the feeling-tone of your overall experience? Are you at ease, or are there signs of emotional tension, stress, or turmoil? Are there specific feelings arising in the heart, solar plexus, or gut? You don’t necessarily have to label these feelings, just be aware they are there.
Recognize that you are a feeling being — that your feelings of well-being and suffering are important to you.
Also recall that you’re doing a difficult thing in being human, and wish yourself well by saying:
“May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be kind to yourself and others.”
Continue wishing yourself well, practicing self-kindness for a few minutes, and then gently allow your awareness to return to the outside world again, letting the body begin to move and the eyes to open.
Friendship with one’s self is all important, because without it one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.
Eleanor Roosevelt expresses a psychological truth that the Buddhist tradition has upheld for two and a half millennia — that our attitude towards ourselves conditions our attitude towards others. It’s for that reason that in the development of lovingkindness meditation practice we begin by cultivating metta first for ourselves. Self-kindness leads to kindness for others.
The Dalai Lama expressed something similar when he said the following:
We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.
Cultivating kindness toward ourselves is therefore not something we do for ourselves only. It’s imperative that we learn to be kind to ourselves if we are to learn not to inflict our inner conflicts on others, and instead be kind, compassionate, appreciative, and supportive of them.
This is why the meditation practice for developing kindness begins with ourselves.
I suggest learning this meditation practice one stage at a time, spending some time learning to cultivate self-kindness before moving on. After all, there’s no hurry. This website is not going to go away.
Sometimes people assume that learning a skill is same as learning information. Much of what we learn in school is information — facts that we memorize and recall. We’ve all no doubt had the experience of “cramming” before an exam and forcing ourselves to read and recall (with varying degrees of success) large amounts of information. Often we forget that information as soon as the exam’s over, but it is possible to learn a large amount of information in a short period of time.
But that doesn’t translate when it comes to learning the skills of meditation. Skills take practice. Meditation involves unlearning old habits and training the mind to work in a different way. This takes time.
So why not spend a few days just exploring Stage One for just five to ten minutes? You might even want to do it for short periods more than once a day — the more often you do it, the more effect it will have.
Listening to the guided meditations will support you in developing a regular practice and help you develop the skills of being kinder to yourself.
You can also explore some of the sections of this page. They will give you valuable information about the first stage of the practice.
You can listen to an MP3 guided meditation that will lead you through this stage of the practice by clicking on the player below:
Think of it like this. Every thought you have has an effect on how you feel. Those effects are often subtle, so one thought may have very little perceptible effect. But thoughts are like drips of water falling on stone. Over time they carve deep channels. So the effects of all these thoughts, even if they seem barely perceptible , are cumulative. Over time our thoughts strongly affect our habits, our behavior, and our personalities.
Most of the time we’re not even particularly conscious of what we’re thinking, never mind what effect it has on our emotions and attitudes. This is why also doing the other main meditation practice we teach on this site — the Mindfulness of Breathing — is so important. We need mindfulness so that we can learn to observe how our mind works — how, for example, thoughts and emotions arise and affect each other. Does our thinking lead to kindness (and self-kindness) or to unkindness toward others and ourselves? These are the kinds of channels the dripping water of our thoughts forms.
In the Metta Bhavana meditation practice we consciously aim to create neural pathways and habits of kindness. We consciously tap into the power of words, phrases, images, and memories to reinforce our innate kindness and to help us to let go of unkind ways of thinking and acting.
This has the short term effect of altering our moods (we can lighten up for a while) and the long-term effect of altering our personalities so that we become less prone to anger and despondency, and more prone to love, empathy, confidence and contentment.
Neuroscience shows us that the repeated practice of skills helps to rewire the brain. This is directly relevant to meditation. Through practicing meditation you build new pathways in the brain and actually develop more brain tissue in the parts of the brain connected with kindness and empathy. And, interestingly, when we’re kinder and more compassionate the parts of the brain connected with having a sense of well-being become larger and more active as well.
This all takes time, of course. Those drips have to wear away at the stone of our established habits. But practice works. Dripping water is inexorable. Water is stronger than stone. All we have to do is to keep the water dripping by practicing daily. “Drop by drop is the water-pot filled,” as the Buddha said, when talking about how we develop habits.
If you start the first stage and don’t feel much (or any) kindness towards yourself, then don’t panic. Keep calm and carry on breathing. I remember when I was first learning meditation I spiraled down into a pit of despair because I couldn’t see any warmth or kindness for myself. Later I learned the important principle that whatever you feel, it’s OK. If you don’t feel anything, or if you’re experiencing uncomfortable feelings, that’s fine. That’s just what you’re working with.
The practice of learning to be accepting of and comfortable with whatever arises is itself an important part of learning to be kinder to ourselves. Accepting that we’re not perfect and aren’t always going to be kind is also an important way for us to develop kindness.
Loving yourself has a bad press in the West. We often associate it with being self-centered and not caring about others.
In fact, many of us have a tendency to want to put ourselves down to avoid being thought of as self-centered. If someone offers us praise for having done something well, for example, we may well shrug it off: “Really, it was nothing.”
But in the Buddhist tradition, which has produced countless outstandingly generous and selfless individuals, there is an emphasis on developing love (in the sense of kindness) for ourselves as an indispensable prerequisite for loving others.
We can also bear in mind that in the Christian tradition the injunction is to “love others as yourself.” It’s not “love others, not yourself.” In fact “love others as yourself” implies that we already do (or should) love ourselves and that we need to extend that love to others. It’s ironic, then, that people often think that loving themselves is sinful.
Buddhism has exactly the same perspective. The Buddha assumed that we already cherish ourselves and that our task is to expand that love to include others. Buddhist teachings assume that that if you don’t love yourself, then it’s hard, if not impossible, for you to love other people. And if you think about it you might find you already suspect that some of the most selfish people you know really, deep down, don’t like themselves. Their selfishness is a compensatory mechanism.
On the other hand, many warm and generous and loving people are able to be at ease with themselves without being at all narcissistic or selfish. If you think about it, you have a limited amount of time and energy. The more your time and energy are tied up in inner conflict and self-hatred, the less it’s available for others. So the person who is kind to themselves and at ease with themselves is more available for others.
If there are aspects of yourself that you hate, the tendency will be to dislike those same things in others. In fact psychologists talk about “projection” where we dislike some part of our personality so much that we actually refuse to admit it exists (if you think only other people do this then you’re projecting right now!).
But we still see the same characteristic in others that we despise and deny in ourselves, and so our self-hatred is “projected” out onto them. So a lot of our ill-will towards others is actually a dislike of ourselves. It stands to reason that if we want to improve our relationship with other people, we have to also improve our relationship with ourselves.
Of course, if our kindness started and ended with ourselves then it wouldn’t really be kindness — it would be narcissistic selfishness. So although the first stage of the practice begins with ourselves it moves on to others in the remaining four stages.
It’s important to make sure you do the first stage (don’t skip it — if it’s hard then that means you need to do it). The cosmos will not award you extra “brownie points” for leaving yourself out. But also make sure you do the other stages as well.
Many of us find the first stage of the Metta Bhavana the hardest to do, probably because some of our societal conditioning trains us to think that liking ourselves is bad.
The first thing to know is that we don’t need to like ourselves. Or at least not all of ourselves. Despite many years of practice, I still sometimes get crabby when I’m tired or stressed. To like something means to respond with pleasure and approval. I don’t like getting crabby. It doesn’t bring me pleasure and I don’t approve of it. I don’t like my own crabbiness and irritability. I’m not even going to try taking pleasure from them or giving them my approval.
What I can do, however, is to be kind to the crabby side of myself. That doesn’t mean giving it free rein, so that I encourage my crabbiness. I’m going to continue to work at being kinder, and that means becoming less crabby.
One thing that being kind means here is recognizing that crabbiness, irritability, and so on are evolved defensive mechanisms. They aim to protect me when I’m overwhelmed. I can at least respect that, and respect also they’re not fundamentally evil, even if I don’t like what they do. I can see them as misguided rather than bad. They’re like the archetypal Boy Scout insisting on helping the old lady across the road even though she doesn’t want to go there.
Also, I didn’t choose to have crabbiness and other such defensive mechanisms. So there’s no point in my hating myself for possessing those qualities — which, in any case, would only add more hatred into the mix that is me. Instead I can learn to be kind to parts of me that I don’t like.
To the extent that we don’t learn to have love and kindness toward every part of ourselves, we’ll never truly have love and kindness toward others. Because the hatred we have for ourselves, or parts of ourselves, will inevitably be directed against others too.
We need to learn to be kind to ourselves if we don’t want to go through life creating turmoil for other people.
So never skip the first stage of the lovingkindness practice. Always do it.
The most common way to cultivate kindness (or metta) in meditation is to repeat phrases. Those I currently use and teach are “May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be kind to yourself and others.” Properly used, those phrases can evoke a sense of softening and kindness. But sometimes people focus more on the words than on the emerging kindness the words are meant to evoke. And when this happens our meditation can become stale or even unpleasant.
We need a balance of activity and receptivity in the lovingkindness practice. Activity is what we’re doing to help awaken and exercise our innate kindness. Receptivity is where we’re being mindful of whatever effects our activity is having.
The Pool and the Flowers
When you’re meditating, think of your feelings and emotions as a still pool of water in a forest. The water is alive and vibrant; ready to quiver at the slightest touch.
Think of the phrases you’re repeating — “May I be kind to myself and others,” and so on — as flowers that you’re dropping into the pool.
Drop each flower slowly and reverentially. Watch it fall. Watch it land on the water. Watch and feel the ripples spread through the water, until they begin to fade away.
Only then, let the next flower fall, slowly, toward the pool’s surface.
In this way we find a balance of activity and receptivity.
Without receptivity — without an awareness of the effect of what we’re doing in the practice — we’re simply repeating phrases mechanically. Little joy or benefit arises from doing this.
Developing and Sustaining Receptivity
To develop receptivity, we need first to connect with our experience. With soft eyes we can become more receptive, opening up to whatever is arising within us. With kind eyes we can meet everything that’s arising with tenderness. We can be accepting and curious, rather than judgemental. We can simply be with whatever we find, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, or even if we’re not sure how we’re feeling. All of this helps us develop receptivity as we begin the lovingkindness meditation practice.
But we also need to sustain this receptivity as we work on cultivating our innate kindness. An over-reliance on “doing” — for example when we repeat the metta phrases in a heavy-handed way — tends to stop us from being receptive.
Pacing Your Activity
I’ve already suggested that one thing that can help you find this balance between activity and receptivity is to use the breathing to space out the phrases you’re dropping into the heart, and to give you time to notice the effects of what you’re doing.
So you can say “May I be well.” Then breathe in, and out, and in again. And then say “May I be at ease” on the exhale. Then breathing in, and out, and in once more. And then “May I be kind to myself and others” on the next out-breath. You’re dropping these word-flowers reverentially and mindfully into your being.
In the silent pauses, where you’re breathing in, out, and in again, you can simply observe what’s happening without trying to make anything happen. What might you observe? There may be ripples of warmth, tenderness, and pleasure in your being. You might notice a heightened sense of caring for yourself or for others. These periods of receptivity help the practice be more effective, so that our kindness flourishes.
To Develop Kindness, Work Kindly
In fact, what I’ve described is the act of working kindly with ourselves. Kindness is not just something you look for in meditation. Kindness is what you do in meditation. It’s the way you work. And by acting kindly within ourselves, we cultivate kindness.
Please feel free to bring this image of dropping flowers into a still forest pool into your practice. Doing so can be very helpful. It can help you establish and maintain a state of receptive awareness. It can help you work within yourself in a way that’s gentle and kind.
Be patient with yourself as you drop the flowers of well-wishing into your being. Don’t demand that the waters of your being start vibrating on command. Don’t expect anything. Don’t try to feel anything or to make anything happen. Just drop the flowers of words gently into your being, and then watch, feel, and listen with kindness. If you do this, kindness is already developing, because you are being kind.
Working with how we feel, which is what we do in the lovingkindness practice, requires that we be receptive. We need to open up and see what’s there.
It’s common for newcomers to this form of meditation to try connecting with their experience only to find that there isn’t much experience there. They look for feelings and there doesn’t seem to be anything happening. And that lack of feeling can give rise to doubt and despair: “Why am I not feeling anything? Maybe there’s something wrong with me?”
Usually though, connecting with how we feel is just a question of patience, persistence, and gentleness of effort.
Think what it would be like to go charging noisily into a forest that’s full of shy birds and other wild animals. What would we see? Probably not a lot. If we go crashing through the undergrowth then when we finally stop and listen and look around, the forest will seem like a pretty dead and bleak place. Maybe you start yelling, “Where are you, wild animals?” That just makes things worse.
But what if we were to creep very quietly into the forest, and just wait, and watch, and listen. What if we were to be so still that we blended into the background. Well, at first our mere presence might still make some of the more shy creatures a bit evasive. But eventually, if we have enough patience and remain still, we’ll begin to see the deer, and foxes, and birds that were there all along.
Any action we take in the mind causes some disturbance, making it harder for us to become aware of our experience. The harder we try to connect with ourselves, the less it seems there is for us to connect with. Our “trying” is just making things harder.
So think of your emotions as being like very shy creatures that you’ll only see if you are patient and quietly receptive. When you meditate, think of your awareness very quietly walking into the forest of your being and standing patiently among the trees, being patient, still, and watchful. In a little while, you’ll see some of the “wildlife” that is your own emotional life.
As you practice being kinder to yourself, you change. And some might not like you changing.
Procrustes was a character from Greek mythology who had a bed that he claimed would fit anyone – no matter how tall or short you were. And he was right, in a way. If you were too long for the bed then your feet would be chopped off, and if you were too short for the bed, then you’d be stretched until you were the same length the bed was. This was the ancient Greek equivalent of “one size fits all”.
The world that is around us can be like that bed. Our environments can evolve into a particular “shape” that will accept us as long as we in turn continue to fit that mold. We talk about this kind of thing when we say that someone is like a “square peg in a round hole”. This can be very painful when it happens to us, especially when the corners of our personalities are brought into conflict with our environment.
The Procrustean bed (or the round hole) is partly composed of other people, who have developed expectations of how we will behave. They’ve usually based these expectations on how we’ve behaved in the past, so in a way we’ve created our own environment.
Usually people will happily accept those changes. If we’ve become a bit happier and friendlier, then few people are likely to complain. There are times when changes that seem important to us will meet with indifference or puzzlement from others, which might be disappointing. So we cannot assume that there will be support or enthusiasm from others, even from those others who are most dear to us. As the poet David Whyte said, “In my experience, the more true we are to our own creative gifts the less there is any outer reassurance or help at the beginning.”
Then there are certain circumstances in which people may react with suspicion and hostility to our changing – and this includes times when we are developing more of the assertiveness that comes with increased self-esteem. By “assertiveness”, I don’t mean aggressive behavior; I mean standing up for ourselves in a kind way – a way that respects the needs of both ourselves and others. For example, if someone has become used to being unkind to us or to in some way treating us as if we don’t matter, they won’t like it when we let them know that their way of behaving toward us is no longer acceptable. They may well act like Procrustes and try to “cut us down to size”.
Diane, one of my students from San Francisco, who is the very dynamic director of a research institute, had mentioned that self metta had caused her problems in the past. I was curious and asked her to say more.
You asked about how self-love hadn’t worked for me. Obviously that is not actually the case, self-love can’t actually cause harm, but how it has always appeared to me was that any time I ever tried to act in my own behalf, or feel some self-respect, or proud of myself, I have been smacked down or reminded in some way – either directly or indirectly – “Who do you think you are?” [This happened] either verbally, or the situation I was in turned on me, or whatever.
This was very interesting as an example of how other people can resist our desire to be treated with respect. But what was even more interesting was Diane’s insight that she’d constructed this Procrustean bed for herself:
After years of reflecting on this, I have come to believe that this is an inside job. In other words, I think it’s always been more about my attitude than about what others were actually doing to me. I think my self-regard was so low that (a) it probably ended up manifesting itself as arrogance, and (b) push-back from any quarter was enough to make me retreat back into self-loathing, with every situation re-proving to me that … I was in fact worthless except as some kind of slave to work or other people or to my own dysfunction and that I might as well not try.
When Diane had inadvertently constructed a Procrustean bed for herself. When she tried to assert herself, she sometimes became aggressively arrogant rather than truly assertive, and that, not surprisingly, caused reactions in the people around her. If we’ve behaved passively in the past, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll exhibit some compensatory aggression on the way to becoming more assertive.
But even when Diane was being kindly assertive, standing up for herself in a respectful way, others would respond aggressively to her in an attempt to limit the change that she was undergoing. I mention all this because some of you have probably constructed Procrustean beds for yourselves, and may experience resistance from others as you change.
So how might we deal with this?
Let’s come back to that quote by David Whyte: “In my experience, the more true we are to our own creative gifts the less there is any outer reassurance or help at the beginning.”
David White qualifies his statement about the lack of outer reassurance that follows from us being true to ourselves by saying that this happens “at the beginning.” Later on, as our confidence in ourselves becomes more outwardly visible, other people are more likely to help us than to oppose us. But at first, our changes may meet resistance, and at those times I would counsel you to beware of the danger of retreating back into the limited form that people are trying to keep you in.
It may well be that you need extra support at such times. You may need to talk to friends or a counselor. You may feel an extra need for prayer or meditation. You may even want to think about changing your environment, which might mean changing jobs or ending a relationship. Sometimes our growth – even our very survival – can require such drastic steps and the extraordinary courage that these steps may require.
Ultimately, you are responsible for your own happiness. You have a choice about how you respond to others’ reactions to you. As Diane wisely pointed out, she came to realize that her capitulation to others’ hostility was “an inside job”. In the end, you are confined not by others – not by Procrustes’ bed – but by your own fears and low expectations of life and of what you are capable of.
Only you have the power to create the conditions that you need for happiness, and this means you should be prepared to respond as creatively as possible to others’ objections to your changing.
He who finds no way to rest cannot long survive the battle.
Reflect on the way you live your life. Do you look after others, but let yourself get run down? Have you taken on board views that lead you to sacrifice yourself? This is very common.
Imagine then a field of wheat. Every year the field gives abundantly, but nothing is ever put back into the soil. For a few years the field gives good yields and sustains others, but eventually the crops become more and more meager. If the field continues giving without receiving then it will, at some point, turn into a dust-bowl.
It’s good to give. Giving creates deep connections of love and gratitude. But in order to give on a long-term basis you need nourishment yourself. Just as a field needs to be fertilized, so you need to feed yourself with self-kindness.
You are as important as anyone else.
You deserve your own kindness.
These are phrases that you might want to drop in to the mind as you cultivate kindness to yourself, both within the first stage of the lovingkindness practice and in odd moments of your daily life:
“May I be well. I am as important as anyone else.”
“May I be at ease. I deserve my own kindness.”
“May I be kind to myself and others and remember that I matter.”
Sometimes people will say to me things like “I’m too kind,” or “I think about other people too much.” I disagree with this idea that we can have too much of a good quality. I don’t think it’s possible to be too kind, too generous, or too compassionate, and I think this diagnosis misses the point, which is that we lack some necessary quality to balance out the love, generosity, compassion, or whatever quality it is that we have in such abundance.
When someone says they are “too generous” my perspective is that they have a well-developed ability to give, but lack the ability to sense when they need to give to themselves, or lack the ability to make their needs known to others. It’s the lack of these complementary skills that is the problem, and it’s those skills that need to be developed.
I really don’t think we can have “too much of a good thing.”
As you might have gathered above, there’s a lot we can explore simply in cultivating kindness toward ourselves. So please feel free to linger a while on this first stage of the lovingkindness practice.
At the same time, cultivating kindness for others helps us to be happier and more fulfilled, because connecting in a meaningful way with others is one of our deepest needs. Therefore it might also be helpful for you to also learn and practice the second stage of the practice, where we cultivate kindness for a friend.
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