Lovingkindness meditation (metta bhavana) is a practice for cultivating kindness. It’s in five stages, which begin with us first developing empathy and kindness toward ourselves, and second toward a friend. In the third stage, which is the topic of this page, we learn how to develop kindness toward relative strangers. Often the relative stranger is called the “neutral person” because it’s someone we don’t have an established relationship with, and so they’re neither a friend, nor are we in conflict with them.
The comedian, Spike Milligan, wrote a rather serious little poem called “New Members Welcome.” In its entirety it reads:
Pull the blinds on your emotions
Switch off your face.
Put your love into neutral.
This way to the human race.
Most people in our lives fall into this category of being a relative stranger, or neutral person. If we walk along a city street or go onto a crowded store we encounter so many people that we are almost forced to put our emotions into neutral, and virtually ignore others.
Life is simply too full of other people for us to have real emotional engagement with all those we meet, and often people we’ve never met don’t seem really real to us because we’ve never connected with them.
But this becomes a habit. Sometimes we’re neutral when it would be more suitable for us to be empathetic. And neutrality can often tip over into negativity.
For example, when you’re queuing at the supermarket checkout, you probably mostly ignore the checkout operator and the people queuing in front of you. I’m sure you’re polite, most days. But what happens when the person in front of you has some complicated situation to work out — a damaged item that has to be replaced, or their card isn’t accepted? What happens if the checkout operator is struggling with something?
There’s a good chance in those circumstances that you aren’t very sympathetic. Your desire to get through the checkout process quickly can make you frustrated and impatient with others.
When we don’t have a basic sense of empathy toward people we’re in contact with, then any problem is likely to lead to irritability arising. And that’s unpleasant for everyone. Life goes much more smoothly when we’re patient, understanding, and supportive.
So in this practice we learn to take more seriously the well-being and the sufferings of those beings we habitually ignore and those that we habitually fail to connect with. We’re training ourselves to be more empathetic and kind toward anyone we happen to be in contact with.
Jump to a section:
- Cultivating Empathy and Kindness Toward a Stranger
- Guided Meditation
- What You Have In Common With Anyone
- Taking An Interest In Others
- Why Do We Have This Stage?
- Ways of Working in Stage Three
- Can’t Find Anyone You Feel Neutral About?
- Having Trouble Feeling Much for a Neutral Person?
- The Third Stage as Rehearsal
- What’s Next?
To recap, we’re exploring the third stage of this meditation that trains us to be kinder. So where we’ve been so far is:
Stage Zero: Sitting With Kindness
Stage Zero is the initial stage of meditation, before the stages proper, in which we set up conditions that help the meditation practice to go well. It’s not an optional extra. It’s where we start cultivating kindness by sitting with kindness, and by allowing ourselves to look with love.
In stage zero first settle into your meditation posture. If you’re not sure about meditation posture then check out our posture workshop. Sit in a way that is kind — that supports your long-term happiness and well-being. So, as best you can, let go of any unnecessary tensions in the body. Don’t sit rigidly, but let your muscles relax and soften with the out-breath. But also sit with dignity: upright, and open. This will help you feel confident and remain gently alert.
With kind eyes, meet everything that arises with kindness and tenderness, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Stage 1: Developing Kindness for Ourselves
Next become aware of your heart. Notice whatever feelings happen to be present. Whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant, or whether you don’t know what you’re feeling, meet everything with kind eyes.
Remind yourself that you are a feeling being; your feelings are important to you. Remember that your deepest desire is to escape or avoid suffering, and to find peace and joy. Remember also that you are doing a difficult thing in being human. It’s not easy to go through life, encountering less happiness and more suffering than we’d ideally want.
And because you are doing a difficult thing in being human, you need support. So offer support to yourself, by saying, over and over again, words such as these:
- May you be well.
- May you be at ease.
- May you be kind to yourself and others.
Continue to drop those words into the heart, gently, giving yourself time between the phrases to absorb any effects, for perhaps 5 to 10 minutes..
Stage 2: Strengthening Our Kindness for a Friend
In the second stage of the practice, think of a good friend, and wish them well. Decide in advance who you’re going to pick, otherwise you might waste time in indecision during the practice.
Remind yourself that they too are a feeling being, that they too desire happiness and freedom from suffering, and that they too need support. And so, offer them support in the same way as you did for yourself, by saying:
- May you be well.
- May you be at ease.
- May you be kind to yourself and others.
Now you’re ready to move on to the third stage.
Stage 3: Training Ourselves to be Kinder to Strangers
Next, call to mind someone you have little or no emotional connection with. Perhaps this is someone you see working in a store, or that you pass on the street.
It doesn’t matter if there is some feeling — the main thing is that you neither really like nor really dislike this person.
Once you’ve called this person to mind, remind yourself that they are just like you, and just like your friend.
They are a feeling being. Their feelings are as real to them as yours are to you. Their pain is just as vivid and just as painful. Their joys are just as enjoyable.
And just as for you, life for them is challenging. They want to be happy, but happiness is often elusive. They don’t want to suffer, and yet suffering often comes to them. So as they, just like you, are doing this difficult thing of being human, you can wish them well, just as you did for yourself and your friend, by saying:
- May you be well.
- May you be at ease.
- May you be kind to yourself and others.
You can listen to an MP3 guided meditation that will lead you through the first three stages of the practice by clicking on the player below:
In some ways, the third stage of this meditation practice is the hardest, since we’re trying to cultivate kindness for someone we feel little if anything for.
When we’re cultivating metta for a friend there’s a natural emotional engagement. There’s also a natural emotional engagement in the fourth stage, where we’re cultivating lovingkindness for someone we have difficulty with. In both cases we’re calling to mind a person that we have some kind of pre-existing interest in.
But in this stage of the meditation practice we’re calling a person to mind precisely because we have no interest or emotional engagement in them. It’s almost inevitable that at times we’re going to feel bored and restless while doing this stage.
But this is almost the archetypal stage of the metta bhavana practice — realizing that even perfect strangers are not perfectly strange, in that we all want to be happy and avoid suffering. That means that we know the most important thing about any human being before we even know them. We know that, just like us, they are a feeling being. We know that, just like us, they want to be happy and not to suffer. We know that, just like us, they are doing a difficult thing in being human.
We share all this with every living being on the planet.
A notable aspect of this stage of the meditation practice is the fact that, at least at first, we have no interest in the neutral person. Now the phrase “having an interest in” can mean different things. It can mean you have a desire to know (as in “I have a strong interest in movies from the 1920’s”), and it can mean you have something at stake (as in, “I have a personal interest in the outcome of the decision”).
Not only do we naturally tend to lack curiosity (at least initially) in the neutral person, but we also have nothing at stake. When I call to mind the friend I’m strengthening a bond that enriches my life. When I call to mind the person I have difficulties with I’m addressing a problem that adversely affects my well-being. But with the neutral person it can seem that I have little or nothing to benefit by cultivating metta towards them in meditation. And this is yet another reason why it can seem difficult to be emotionally engaged in this stage of the meditation.
Addressing the first kind of interest (having a desire to know) this practice enriches our lives because we become more interested in other beings as other beings. We find ourselves becoming more curious and more understanding. Other people become more real to us.
And this in turn addresses the second kind of interest (having a personal stake) as we realize that the lack of emotional engagement we feel towards others impoverishes our lives. And we also become increasingly aware that how we regard the vast mass of beings (and individuals from that mass that we happen upon in daily life) has a direct impact on our day-to-day states of mind. The more positively we regard others — even those we don’t know — the more content we are within ourselves.
Because this stage is so important, it’s worth spending some time practicing it and reflecting upon it. Pick a random stranger. This should not someone you find sexually appealing. In fact the less immediate attraction or even interest there is, the better.
Notice your own experience. You have feelings. You have thoughts. You have sensations arising within your body, and from the contact you’re making with the world of the senses. Now consider that this stranger is exactly the same. Try to visualize or feel, or in some way to understand that within them are feelings, thoughts, and sensations that are just as real as those within you. They’re feeling, thinking, and sensing different things from you, but in essence you and they are just the same.
Understanding that this person’s happiness is as real to them as yours is to you, and that their pain and unhappiness are as real to them as yours is to you, could you even conceive of doing something that would make them feel bad? Don’t you have a natural inclination to make them feel good? That impulse has a name. It’s called kindness.
We might have lots of friends. We might have a few people we don’t get on with. But most of the people in the world are “neutral” people — that is we don’t know them and don’t have any strong feelings towards them.
Sometimes that neutrality is simply because we don’t yet know someone. At other times it’s more of a cultural habit. We keep our emotions in check simply have a habit of not engaging with people unless we need to. This varies by culture, of course. Northern Europeans tend to be more reserved, while people from Mediterranean and Latin American cultures tend to be warmer and more outgoing.
In the days when most of us lived in villages, we’d know almost everyone we ever met. We’d probably have liked some of them and disliked others. If we saw someone we didn’t know we might either be very interested in them and pleased to see them, or maybe a bit suspicious — depending on the time and circumstances. We’d rarely meet someone and yet remain emotionally disconnected from them.
Nowadays though, we see hundreds or perhaps thousands of people in the streets, in cars, in restaurants, and buses and in stores. We can’t say “hi” to every one of them. So we switch our emotions into neutral as a kind of defense mechanism.
That’s probably a healthy response to an extreme situation, but have you noticed how we get stuck in neutral?
What happens when we’re in an elevator or sitting next to someone on a plane? Many times we try to pretend they don’t exist. Even when someone is serving us in a store (actually helping us!) we can behave towards them as if they were a sort of human vending machine.
What’s happened is that we’ve become stuck in a neutral state. We can become trapped inside ourselves, and sometimes even afraid to be human. This can be very painful, because we want to connect and know on some level that we’d benefit from it, but we’re afraid to because we’re unused to connecting and it seems risky to do so. This disconnection can become chronic, so that we can feel alone even while surrounded by other people.
Our emotional neutrality toward others can easily turn into negativity toward them. We can get frustrated and angry when a line in a store seems to be moving too slowly. We can end up being rude to a shop-assistant even although they’re already hassled. That’s unpleasant for both of us.
In the third stage of the lovingkindness practice, we’re learning to break out of neutral. We’re showing solidarity, one feeling being to another. We’re daring to care. We’re recognizing that the other person is a feeling being, but we’re also recognizing ourselves to be feeling beings as well. And so we’re reconnecting with ourselves and others. We’re reclaiming our full humanity by acknowledging our own humanity and that of others.
The third stage of the lovingkindness practice encourages us to develop a more kindly awareness of strangers. Sometimes when we’re in public—driving, walking, or shopping, for example—we don’t really consider others as feeling beings. We’re focused on the task we’re engaged in or otherwise wrapped up in our own stuff, and other people don’t register on our emotional radar unless something unusual happens, such as them doing something helpful for us or obstructing us somehow.
The quality of our experience changes dramatically, however, when we consciously remind ourselves that others are feeling beings, and that they desire happiness. Something as simple as bearing in mind the phrases “May you be well; may you be happy” when we see someone can help us to feel more connected, emotionally alive, and happier. Just saying those words reminds us that beneath the surface skin we see in front of us is a heart with feelings. We say, “May you be well,” and we realize, “Here is a real being.”
Try regarding your kindly attention as a kind of spotlight that you can direct toward others, as you keep up a stream of kindly thoughts. If you’re driving, then you can aim your “kindness ray” at an approaching driver, wishing them well until they pass. Or you can shine your kindness upon the driver in front of you.
You can do the same things when you’re walking down the street or through a store. When you’re waiting to have your groceries scanned you can beam your kindness toward the checkout operator or toward other people in the queue.
One of the other benefits of this practice is that it reduces the amount of rumination that you do. In the kinds of situations I’ve been using as examples — driving, walking, shopping — the mind has a tendency to wander. Often the thoughts we give rise to will concern things we’re resentful or angry about, things we’re anxious about, or will involve self-judgement and self-criticism. Those kinds of thinking create suffering. With the mind full of thoughts like “May you be well; may you be happy,” we do less of the kinds of thinking that make us unhappy.
Just as importantly, when you’re feeling happy and kind, this has a positive effect on others. When you interact directly with others, you’ll be friendlier and more aware of their well-being. And even if someone merely walks past you, they may find their lives brightened by your mindful, kind, and positive demeanor.
Some people are especially sensitive to others. If you’re one of those people then you might find that as soon as you call someone to mind in meditation you have some sort of feeling response towards them.
That’s great! It’s quite an asset to have such emotional responsiveness. That quality will probably make it easier for you to develop kindness in this meditation practice.
The point of this stage of the meditation is not to find someone that you are unable to feel anything for, but to take someone who is a representative of that huge mass of people that you don’t regard as being a personal friend and at the same time don’t have any sense of being in conflict with.
So if you’re concerned that you can’t find a neutral person then it’s OK. As long as that person is not a friend or an “enemy” then they’ll do. Just pick someone you don’t know.
This could perhaps be an acquaintance or someone who works in a store that you visit, or a post-office, or a library. Or perhaps you could pick someone that you pass regularly on the street or who works in the same building as you but that you’ve never really connected with.
For the purposes of this stage of the meditation practice that sort of person will do just fine.
Yes, it can be hard to take someone you don’t know and to wish them well. Because that person at first doesn’t really exist for us as an emotional being, there’s not much to work with. The neutral person can be as elusive as mist that slips through our fingers.
But a sense of emotional connectedness will come with practice. Keep working at it both inside and outside of meditation, and you can find ways of working in this stage.
One initial problem can be expectations: we can expect lovingkindness practice to be a sort of emotional firework display. The trouble is that in the third stage we discover our matches are damp! So get used to the fact that this stage might take time to develop. One way for us to be kind to ourselves is to accept that we can only start from where we are. If we’re not feeling much, that’s OK. We just accept that that’s the case. We don’t blame ourselves. We don’t try to force anything to happen. We just accept that, right now, what we’re feeling is this absence of feeling.
That doesn’t mean that things won’t change. If we simply remain aware of a neutral feeling, we’ll notice it change over time. Change is the nature of all things. And change will come if you engage with the practice. Look for a sense of acceptance that change will come at its own rate.
If you start with kindness and acceptance toward yourself, and to how you’re feeling, then this will start to affect how you regard the other person. Having established a basis of kindness and acceptance toward yourself, you’ll naturally find that you become kinder to them as well.
One thing I find useful is first to recognize that within me is arising a world of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. And then as I think of or look at another person — any person I have no existing emotional connection with — I recognize that within them is a similar world of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. What they sense, think, and feel is different from what I’m experiencing. But it’s as real and vivid to them as my own experiences are to me. There’s something magical about realizing this.
Another thing I find useful — and that I’ve discussed above — is to remember that both they and I are the same. We both want to be happy. We both dislike suffering. And we both go through life experiencing less happiness and more suffering than we would like. Considering both the reality of another person’s feelings and the difficulty they experience as a human being as they go through life, I feel a natural desire to support their desire for happiness and their desire to be free from suffering. In other words, an attitude of kindness arises quite naturally.
Still, this stage of the meditation practice might actually be a little boring at times. I suspect it’s actually meant to be at least slightly boring! What we’re learning to do is to remain present and to remain open and present, even when we don’t feel much for another person. We’re learning to find our way through uninterest, to kindness. We do this by cultivating an interest where none at first exists. And in order to do that we first have to acknowledge our initial lack of interest, our lack of feeling. The subjective experience of a lack of interest is boredom. This stage of the practice is therefore meant to be boring.
Because this stage can be a bit boring (although it’s not guaranteed that it will be) you might be tempted to keep changing the neutral person until you find someone who’s more interesting (i.e. not really neutral). The restless mind always assumes that the way to “fix” boredom is to find something more interesting to do. But actually the way to get rid of boredom is to remain open, and to trust in the mind’s ability to find what’s interesting in ordinary things.
Boredom is actually a very interesting phenomenon. I have a young nephew who, when we was younger, used to sit surrounded by gadgets, many of them very expensive electronic toys, and complain of being bored. Boredom isn’t about a lack of interesting things. It’s about not having yet found how to take an interest.
So, to get back to the meditation practice, it’s probably better to stick with the same neutral person for a good few sessions of meditation to allow yourself time to find a connection so that you can develop more of a feeling for them.
I like to think of the third stage of this meditation practice as being a sort of rehearsal for life. Say I think of someone that I see in the elevator most days. Right now, I tend to ignore them. Doesn’t that indicator panel become absolutely fascinating when we want to avoid interacting with another person? Look! The weight limit’s 420 pounds, or 13 people. Let’s see, 420 divided by 13 is…
Anyway, back in my daily meditation practice I call this person to mind, and imagine what might happen the next time we meet in the elevator. I imagine looking them in the face, smiling, and asking how they’re doing. I might imagine introducing myself, shaking their hand, getting to know their name and what they do. If it’s a Monday I might ask how their weekend went.
I’m building up a new pattern of behavior, starting in my imagination. Once you imagine doing something it becomes easier to actually do it.
Using mental rehearsal is a staple of personal development and of sports psychology in particular. And it really works! Did you know that if you just imagine using a muscle then that muscles becomes stronger? Just thinking about a muscles sends nerve impulses to it and new muscle fibers develop in response.
And according to a magazine I read, in one experiment a group of basketball players spent a half hour shooting hoops, while a second group spent the same time just imagining shooting baskets. The group that imagined the perfect shots showed more improvement. So sometimes rehearsing in the mind can have more effect than rehearsing in real life. What the basketball players were doing was a form of meditation practice.
The next time I meet this stranger in the elevator I might not actually do any of the things I imagined. It might not be appropriate, and I prefer to follow my instincts and respond intuitively. Some people value these moments of quiet time and prefer not to be disturbed by a stranger. Some people might even perceive it as threatening. (I’d almost certainly not try to initiate conversation with a woman if we were the only two people in an elevator, for example.) But having imagined interacting with the another in a friendly way makes it easier for me to have a sense of warmth toward them, and this can communicate itself to the other person through our body language and facial expressions.
I mentioned following my instincts. One of my students who had just learned the lovingkindness practice decided to practice being more friendly. Unfortunately the first person she picked — a young man who worked in a filling station — took it as a come-on, and then managed to get hold of her email address and started pestering her. It all ended well (no, they didn’t get married — I think she managed to shake him off somehow), but do be aware that your friendliness toward another person might be misinterpreted. Simply feeling friendly toward another person can have a positive effect on them. It might not always be helpful to start asking them personal questions, for example. So check out your gut feelings. Often if someone is not to be trusted we are aware of that at some level.
Having said that, sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate to connect personally with a stranger. I still keep in touch sometimes with a friend I met at a conference over 20 years ago. At lunchtime he was looking for a place to sit and eat, and he picked the chair next to mine because he thought I looked friendly. Soon we had a fascinating conversation about our lives and our work, and what was important to each of us. We ended up getting to know each other very well. And it all started with an attitude of friendliness.
If you’ve explored issues around cultivating kindness toward a relative stranger (and practiced the meditation) you might want to explore the next stage of lovingkindness practice, which involves cultivating kindness toward someone you have difficulties with.
You can also learn more about lovingkindness 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