metta bhavana

Learning to love ourselves

Young girl in a green jacket catching a bubble

It happens so often among spiritually-minded people. We give our all to love and care for others, and yet when it comes to ourselves, we’re full of criticism and judgment. Sunada shares her experience of working with the practice of loving kindness, specifically learning to love herself.

It’s important to note that when the Buddha taught how to practice compassion, he always began with ourselves. This isn’t selfish. After all, if we can’t trust and open our hearts to ourselves – the one person on this earth that we know the best and are closest to – how could we possibly know how to do it for others? Any reticence, anger, or doubt we carry — no matter how hidden – will color all our relationships. As a colleague aptly puts it, “we can’t be the solution until we stop being part of the problem.”

if we can’t trust and open our hearts to ourselves – the one person on this earth that we know the best and are closest to – how could we possibly know how to do it for others?

Somehow we’re never good enough. I admit I often think this, though I’m getting a lot better about it. I’ve spent many long hours on my meditation cushion learning to love myself. The practice I’ve done is called the metta bhavana, or the Development of Loving-kindness. And I’ve spent a lot of time on that all-important first stage, which focuses on myself. The whole practice has never been easy for me, and to this day I still find it generally more elusive than Mindfulness.

I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned through this practice. What I describe is something I did in the context of a formal meditation (and specifically as the first stage of the metta bhavana), but I think it could also be done as an informal contemplation outside of meditation.

We allow ourselves to fall into a comfortable, open state of mind and body. What’s interesting is that by doing this, we’re already practicing kindness toward ourselves.

First of all, it’s important that we find a time when we can quietly just sit and do nothing for a while. So don’t do this while jogging, doing yoga, or eating dinner. I mean we literally sit still with no other agenda.

We begin by bringing our awareness inward to ourselves. As a warm up, it’s helpful to start by sensing all the parts of your body from the inside, one by one, from your toes all the way up to your head. We allow ourselves to fall into a comfortable, relaxed, and open state of mind and body. What’s interesting is that by doing this, we’re already practicing kindness toward ourselves. This is a great start!

Next we notice how we’re feeling. Literally just notice. We don’t need to analyze, judge or change anything. Is it a good feeling – happy, easy, content, calm, or peaceful? Or an icky one – restless, angry, impatient, bored, or depressed? Or is it sort of gray or blank, with no particular feeling tone at all? Maybe you’re feeling “something,” but you can’t put words on it. That’s fine. Any of this is fine. We’re just noticing.

We … accept the feelings that have already happened, but then train ourselves to respond to ANYTHING that’s there in the kindest possible way. That’s the practice.

What we’re doing is opening up to and receiving whatever we’re feeling RIGHT NOW. The degree to which we can be mindfully aware of what state we’re presently in, the better off we’ll be. How clearly are we seeing it? How willing are we to be with it, and not try to push it away or fix it, judge it as “bad” or “good,” but just be openly present with it?

Because we think this is supposed to be a practice of loving ourselves, we might be tempted to try to make ourselves feel happier and more lovey. Or that we somehow shouldn’t be feeling any of the bad feelings that might be there. In the traditional method, it’s suggested that we repeat the phrase, “May I be happy” to ourselves. That’s never worked for me, because it feels like I’m trying to change whatever bad feelings that are there. So I don’t do it. We need to start by simply accepting ourselves right now, in this moment, as we are, in whatever way works for you. There is no right or wrong.

Every time we turn to ourselves with patience and forgiveness for our supposed “failures,” we’re training ourselves to be kind. I find a sense of relief in being honest and authentic with myself in this way.

Once we have a clear picture of what’s happening, then what’s our response? Is it kind, positive, helpful? When we practice the Metta Bhavana, on one level we’re learning to see the difference between what we can and can’t change. We need to accept the feelings that have already happened, but then train ourselves to respond to ANYTHING that’s there in the kindest possible way. That’s the practice.

So then what if we can’t stop the judgmental, critical thoughts, or that “I must fix this” sort of feeling? Well, how would we respond if we found our best friend in that state? Would we tell her she’s being bad? Or tell her to just stop it? I doubt it. I’d want to sit down with her and be supportive, find out what’s underneath all those thoughts, and why she’s feeling that way. I’d want to at least just listen and let her know I care. Can we do that for ourselves? Now THAT is a practice of kindness.

Every time we turn to ourselves with patience and forgiveness for our supposed “failures,” we’re training ourselves to be kind. I find a sense of relief in being honest and authentic with myself in this way. It’s not an admission of failure. I’m not condoning my critical thoughts, but I AM forgiving the person who is having those thoughts.

When we open up and receive life as it is – without adding anything to it — everything flows to its natural conclusion.

So the whole idea here is to learn how to BE kind, right now, and not to try to shape myself into some future-oriented image of what I think I should be. The more we practice the act of being kind now, the more it becomes natural to us. This is the practice.

The Buddha was right. He said that in all things, when we eliminate the cause, the result ceases to exist. When we stop our negative responses, our habitual negative tendencies begin to weaken and fade away. When we open up and receive life as it is – without adding anything to it — everything flows to its natural conclusion. Like water flowing downstream into a lake, it eventually settles to a naturally calm, clear, and peaceful state. Effortlessly.

And that’s how I’ve begun to learn how to love myself.

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Goals in the spiritual life

Lotus bud reaching upward for the light

Are spiritual goals dangerous triggers for grasping and selfish desire? Do we need to let go of goals in order to be truly free and happy? Sunada doesn’t think so. She argues that it’s not the goals themselves that are the problem, but how we approach them.

Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.
— Yoda

We all come to the spiritual life with some sort of goal in mind. Like wanting a calmer mind, less anxiety, a kinder heart – in short, to become a better person. Yes, spiritual practice can bring us all these things, and they’re entirely valid reasons for starting down that road.

But at some point we hit a wall. What happens is that TRYING to achieve these things only gets us so far. At some point, we find ourselves with the exact opposite of what we wanted – a lot of self-doubt and frustration.

 I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it.

I’ve often had people ask me whether I think they should let go of their goals – that maybe it’s a sort of grasping that has no place in the spiritual life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it. So then how do we navigate this process that seems so elusive?

The wise quote I bring in here is not from the Buddha, but a different wise man — er, creature — Yoda. When I first heard Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker 30 years ago, I thought it sounded like the ultimate parody of Zen-like wisdom. I couldn’t make any sense of it. But now many years later, I’ve discovered that it’s quite profoundly true. Yoda was a pretty wise being!

This is what happened. From very early on, I kept up a regular practice of the Metta Bhavana meditation (the development of loving–kindness). Even though I had a lot of difficulty with it, I did it because I was pretty sure it would help me to open up a heart that had shut down through years of depression. Besides, I had a sort of bulldog-ish attitude that if I kept at it, something would eventually break through.

Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it feels … out of reach.

And boy, did I struggle. My teachers would talk of feeling a warmth in my heart area, recalling kind thoughts and images, and wishing people well. But I sat there feeling blank and gray. Nothing. When the gentle approach didn’t work, I tried MAKING myself feel happier by sheer force of will. Not much success there either. It was all too forced and artificial, and I’d feel thrown right back to where I started.

I’ve since learned that this is a fairly common experience with the Metta Bhavana practice, so I now know it wasn’t just me! But everyone encouraged me to keep trying, that something would happen eventually.

And something did happen. It’s not that I changed in any objective way. Instead, it was my perspective that shifted. I started seeing my “problem” in a completely different way, and then it grew to no longer be a problem.

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The shift began with my decision to start every meditation session with an extensive period of a body scan (focusing on successive areas of my body to help bring my awareness to myself and the present moment). I also imagined what it feels like to come home from a long day at work and to relax — to sink into my favorite easy chair, feel proud of what I’ve accomplished today, knowing that I’ve done all I can — and now it was time to let go to the “ahhh….” feeling.

What doing this allowed me to experience, quite viscerally, was a sense of physical contentment in the here and now. In that moment, I was perfectly happy being just as I was. I didn’t need anything else to make me feel complete. It was the simple joy of being present. It didn’t mean I had gotten rid of my problems, and I was still the same imperfect person I always was. But in that moment, none of those things were weighing on me. I was content, plain and simple.

..when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching … In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly.

Once I contacted that very real, very authentic feeling of contentment, it was an easy step to move into the Metta Bhavana practice. For the first stage, I imagined myself wrapped in warm blankets of kindness, which made it easy to feel warm emotions toward myself. As long as I stayed connected with a genuine feeling of contentment and pleasure, moving toward each successive stage of the Metta practice came much more easily. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If I’m feeling positive about myself, and in touch with my own happiness, my good mood naturally spawns kind feelings toward others. It’s pretty elementary and obvious, now that I think about it.

On days that I was not feeling so good – feeling angry or depressed, for example – this technique worked just as well. I usually couldn’t make myself feel any better, but that was OK. By starting with a foundation of relaxation and physical contentment, I found I could lift myself out of my “poor me” self-absorption. I was able to wrap myself in sympathy and acceptance of how I was, even though I couldn’t change the ugly mood. So it was this kindly self-acceptance that I touched in that moment that I used as the foundation of my metta practice.

This experience helped me to understand that metta is a quality I always have within me, and it had nothing do to with how I’m feeling at the moment. Metta is not the opposite of anger or depression. Metta is an attitude of patient acceptance toward whatever is there – good, bad, or anything in between. It’s always accessible to me, as long as I care to notice it and call it up.

As I reflect on my experience with the Metta practice, I see lots of parallels to the whole idea of personal development off the cushion as well. Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it always feels like a reach, or perhaps even out of reach. This is what I assume Yoda meant by “trying.”

If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us.

But when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching. By simply turning our kind attention to its presence, it begins to grow on its own. We don’t have to “try” anything. In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly. We don’t grasp for something distant and off in the future. We appreciate and cultivate something joyful that we already have, and can readily touch.

Now I bet there are doubters out there among you that are wondering whether you have any inkling of the qualities you wish you had. If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us. It’s only our own self-doubt that keeps us from seeing them.

So if you’ve been trying to become a better person in some way, stop trying. Instead, look for all the ways that you already have those qualities in some small, nascent form. Trust that they are there, and think of ways to encourage those qualities to blossom. For example, if we want to become kinder, it’s important that we feel good physically – that we eat well, get enough sleep and rest, and have time to laugh and enjoy ourselves. We need to be kind to ourselves in the same way that we’d want to be kind to others, so that we begin to touch an authentic experience of our own kind heart. If we set these sorts of conditions, the kinder side of us can’t help but come out and grow stronger.

So the crux of the matter is in how we view our goals. Are we grasping for something off in the future in a way that denigrates our present experience and triggers a poverty mentality of lack, need, and desire? Or are we aspiring toward a higher ideal that’s on the same path we’re already on — while at the same time loving ourselves as we are now, and encouraging ourselves to feel whole, warm, abundant and blessed? It’s that switch in our state of mind that makes all the difference. That’s what sets the tone for what kind of future we create for ourselves.

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A student asks: In my metta bhavana practice, I can’t seem to feel anything toward the neutral and difficult person. Any advice?

In my metta bhavana practice, I can’t seem to feel anything toward the neutral and difficult person. Any advice?

Sunada replies: Oh yes, I’m familiar this problem because I struggled with it myself for quite a long time. How are we supposed to feel love for someone we don’t know, or harder still – someone we may not even like? I think the trap that many of us fall into is thinking that metta has to be a great uplifting feeling of love and affection. (In other words, if our meditation were a scene in a movie, we’d be expecting to hear romantic violins in the soundtrack! HA!) And when we don’t feel it in such a grand way, we assume that there is no metta present.

But I am 100% confident that you have plenty of metta in you. Everybody does. So let’s figure out how we can recognize its presence.

Let me start by reframing what metta is. It’s not only an emotion of love, but also more broadly an outlook, attitude, or intention of respect and kindness. It can be quite subtle — something that doesn’t feel much like an “emotion” at all.

So let’s try this experiment. Think of any recent or ongoing human tragedy that involved people you don’t know personally. Darfur. Hurricane Katrina. The 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. Sept 11 in New York. Thousands of people that you don’t know died or faced unspeakable hardship. Doesn’t it bring at least a little bit of a stab in your heart when you think about all the pain and suffering they went through and likely are still going through? Isn’t there a place in your heart that feels with conviction that all people have the right to safety and the chance to live with dignity and peace? Well, there you are. This is metta for a neutral person.

Or let’s take some more mundane situations. Do you hold doors open for strangers? Do you help people who are lost and stop you on the street to ask for directions? This is more evidence of metta for people you don’t know.

Now let’s think of your difficult person. Imagine for a moment that you are walking down the street one day and witness your difficult person getting into an accident and being badly injured. Would you have the heart to just walk away? Or would you rush in to help in any way you can, even if it’s just to call for emergency help? Well there you are again. This is metta for a difficult person.

You see, metta in its larger sense has little to do with knowing or even liking someone. To me, it’s about recognizing my very strong conviction about human rights — that everybody has a right to live in safety, to have basic needs provided for, to live happily, free from physical or emotional pain, and to be held in esteem by friends, family, and community. And our task, as members of this human race, is to work toward providing these needs for each other, as best we can, in an unpredictable and changing world. We don’t do this just for those we know and love. We work to contribute to the good of all, because we recognize that we are an interdependent web of humanity.

So when we practice metta toward our neutral and difficult person, keep these sorts of thoughts in mind. Remember that we DO care about them and want them to be happy and free from suffering. It doesn’t really matter if we don’t feel love and affection for them, since that’s not really the point here. It’s about recognizing our shared humanity. And even if we can’t sustain our feelings of conviction for an entire sit, just setting an intention of well-wishing is enough. Just that simple act alone is sufficient to begin cultivating the rich soil of metta in our hearts.

Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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Wildmind’s latest meditation CD to be launched October 16

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The Heart's Wisdom

We’re delighted to announce that Wildmind will be launching a new double CD of guided meditations on October 16, 2007.

The double CD is a guide to the four meditations known as the “Brahmaviharas” (Divine Abodes). These practices include the Development of Lovingkindness (Metta Bhavana), the Development of Compassion (Karuna Bhavana), the Development of Empathetic Joy (Mudita Bhavana), and the Development of Equanimity (Upekkha Bhavana). The meditations are led by Bodhipaksa.

To the best of our knowledge this is the first time that all four Brahmavihara meditations have appeared on CD.

The two CD set comes with a 12 page booklet with detailed instructions about the four practices.

The title, “The Heart’s Wisdom” refers to the insights we can gain through the practice of the Brahmavihara meditations, such as:

  • You cannot choose what happens to you in life, but you can learn to choose how you respond emotionally to those events.
  • All beings want to be happy and free from suffering
  • We can cultivate loving-kindness for a person regardless of whether we like them, dislike them, or have no feelings towards them at all
  • In sharing another’s suffering we find ourselves becoming more fulfilled
  • Approached with mindfulness pain becomes a skilled teacher, pointing out with exquisite clarity what’s wrong with our approach to life
    happiness arises from skillful thoughts, words, and actions
  • The less we cling to our expectations, the happier we will be
  • Equanimity is not indifference

The Brahmaviharas culminate in the Development of Equanimity, an insight meditation in which we contemplate the conditioned nature of happiness and suffering as we wish all beings well.

The meditations will be available as MP3 downloads in advance of the launch of the CD. The date of the launch will be announced in the blog.

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Metta in Motion (Yoga Journal)

Anne Cushman, Yoga Journal: Learn how to infuse your hatha yoga practice with the meditative quality of metta, or "lovingkindness."

Early last year, in the heart of a stormy winter during which the country was hurtling toward war and my own life felt like it was falling apart, I decided to use yoga to dive into an extended investigation of the Buddha’s teachings on the four brahmaviharas—literally, the “divine abodes” of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, which are also extolled in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

At the time, I was worried and brokenhearted. A funky left knee, an inflamed wrist, and chronic exhaustion as a toddler’s mother kept me from taking refuge in a sweaty, endorphin-inducing yoga flow. The brahmaviharas seemed to be exactly what I needed to focus on in my spiritual practice.

They also seemed, quite frankly, as remote as Jupiter. But the teachings of both yoga and Buddhism assured me that these luminous qualities were my true nature, a heavenly inner realm into which I could be reborn at any moment, and that my job in my spiritual practice was simply to find my way back to them…

Hatha yoga has always been one of my primary tools for conjuring up the qualities I want more of in my life. So I asked the students at a class I co-lead (along with several other yoga teachers and vipassana teacher Anna Douglas) at the Buddhist meditation center Spirit Rock to join me in an exploration: Could we infuse our asana practice with the spirit of the brahmaviharas? Could yoga’s physical techniques, in turn, induce an embodied experience of these spiritual qualities, which we could then express in the world? Could the brahmaviharas be touched through bones and muscle, blood and prana, in the midst of our ordinary lives of e-mails and diapers and credit-card bills and listening to NPR in freeway traffic?

The Basics of Metta

In the oldest forms of Buddhism, the first brahmavihara that practitioners work to cultivate—the cornerstone of all the rest—is metta, a Pali word translated as “love” or, more often, “lovingkindness.” Metta is not the emotional train-wreck version of love celebrated in Danielle Steel novels or television shows like Married By America. It’s not passion or sentimentality; it’s not laced with desire or possessiveness. Rather, metta is a kind of unconditional well-wishing, an openhearted nurturing of ourselves and others just as we all are. And—most crucially—it’s a quality that can be methodically cultivated through formal practice.

In traditional metta meditation, we systematically offer lovingkindness to ourselves and others through the silent repetition of classic phrases. We begin by offering metta to ourselves: May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be joyful. May I be free. We then extend the same wishes to others: first a dear friend or benefactor; then a neutral person, such as a checkout clerk at our local supermarket; then someone we find extremely difficult. (According to Patanjali, difficult people are especially suitable recipients of lovingkindness.) Ultimately, we extend metta to all beings everywhere, in an expansive blessing that takes in everyone and everything from the mosquito buzzing around our head to space aliens in distant galaxies.

Practice Metta on the Mat

To invite more metta into our hatha yoga practice, my students and I began taking five or 10 minutes, when we first came to our mats, to hold ourselves in the embrace of loving awareness. We’d set ourselves up in a receptive, nurturing posture; my personal favorite was Supta Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), a reclining supported backbend that gently opened my heart and belly. Then we would take some time to notice—without judgment—the emotional weather in our hearts and the precise physical sensations that accompanied it. Did our hearts feel like clenched fists, budding orchids, buzzing bees, ice cubes? Did we have a hard time finding them at all?

Next we’d set an intention to move through our yoga with lovingkindness. Sometimes we’d focus this intention with metta phrases: May I be peaceful and joyful. May my body be well. One student said it helped her to synchronize these phrases with her breath—she’d visualize flooding her body with metta as each breath poured in. Sometimes I found it helpful to use an image instead, such as rocking myself in my own arms the way I rock my son Skye when he wakes up crying. Some days, we’d direct our metta to body parts that particularly needed attention. We’d wrap our attention around our aching hip joints, our throbbing knees, our exhausted eyes. Then we’d direct our good wishes there: May you find ease and well-being.

As we began to move through our asana practice together, I’d invite my students to modify my suggested poses to cherish their own unique bodies, taking special care to support, not aggravate, any weaknesses or injuries. In my own practice, I tried to choose the postures and techniques that would nurture me most. This didn’t mean that I spent an hour just lolling around on the floor. If I came to my mat after a morning of answering e-mail, what felt kindest was a vigorous sequence of standing poses that wrung out the tension from my muscles and sent prana pulsing and coursing through my body. When Skye had kept me up all night with nightmares about dogs in his crib, it was kinder to drape myself over some bolsters and just breathe deeply.

To generate and intensify feelings of metta, my students and I found it particularly useful to explore poses that opened our heart chakras, such as backbends, side stretches, and twists. It was easier to send and receive love, we found, when our physical hearts were less constricted. Kindness came easier when our breaths were full and deep. We could come to our mats seething with resentment and yet leave after a vigorous vinyasa flow with our hearts singing.

As I focused on practicing with metta, I began to notice how much of my inner dialogue on the mat was subtly oriented toward critiquing what was wrong with my body and my practice: a subliminal commentary on my pooching belly, my wandering mind, the place where my hip froze during Revolved Triangle. I saw ways that my yoga practice had been reinforcing and refining my ability to criticize myself, rather than training my capacity to wish myself well.

Metta practice gave me a systematic way to shift this inner narrative.When I was struggling in a pose, I experimented with sending metta to the shoulder or hip or muscle that was squawking the loudest: May you be happy. Then I’d let the correct response arrive intuitively: whether to stay in the pose and continue to send metta, adjust it, or exit. One of the things I found useful about my metta exploration was that it was so nonprescriptive—it wasn’t dogma but an infinitely creative response to each situation.

Find Your Metta In Meditation

Cultivating lovingkindness in asanas felt like a good start, but I knew it was only scratching the surface of true metta practice, which aims to transform our relationship not just with ourselves but with the world. To build on the insights from our asana practice, my students and I would follow it with a period of seated metta meditation in which we practiced extending to others the lovingkindness we had been cultivating on the mat.

To link our meditation practice to our asana practice—and truly embody our insights—we tracked the effects of the metta meditation on our bodies. As we sent metta to ourselves and others, we observed the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our hearts contracted and released, the tightening or softening of our pelvic floors, the deepening or constriction of our breaths. As we explored sending metta to friends, acquaintances, and difficult people, we brought to mind how we responded to the pleasant, neutral, and difficult sensations in our asana practice. For instance, was there any similarity between the way I responded to my intransigent hip joint and the way I responded to the neighbor who was threatening to sue me for floodwater runoff into her yard?

Like many of my students, I quickly discovered that it was infinitely easier to generate a rush of warmth and tenderness toward a good friend than toward myself. One of the blessings of regular metta practice is that it puts me in touch with how many people I truly love—and feeling this love, I discovered, could be an immediate, somatic source of nourishment and joy, no matter how much stress I was under. Metta could connect me, in an instant, to people I cared about near and far—from my son, asleep in the next room, to his former baby-sitter, now volunteering on an organic mulberry farm in Laos. It could also connect me to people I’d never even met, like a child in Iraq whose face stared out at me from the front page of the Times. And this sense of connection flooded not just my heart but my whole body with positive sensations.

Certain days, my students and I discovered, our hearts felt full of lovingkindness; other days, we were anxious and agitated and angry, and doing metta seemed only to make us more upset. We tried not to use our metta practice as an excuse for beating ourselves up about not being more loving. As our vipassana teacher, Anna Douglas, noted, “Metta is a purification practice, so it often brings up its opposite.” Just as our attempts to focus on the breath illuminate, first of all, how unsteady our minds are, our attempts to contact our innate lovingkindness may immediately illuminate the ways in which we have been conditioned to be less than loving and kind. This does not mean that the practice is not working. On the contrary, it means it’s working perfectly.
The Meta of Metta

One of the delights of metta practice is that it’s so portable. I am finding it tailor-made to my current life as a mom, in which I spend more time reading Winnie-the-Pooh books and walking at a toddler’s pace to the park than I spend on the meditation cushion.

One of my students, a stay-at-home mom, told me she likes to send metta to her family while folding their laundry: May you be joyful, she says as she holds her daughter’s sock in one hand and vainly looks for its match. May you be safe.

Another friend tells me she pretends that her stationary bike at the gym is a Tibetan prayer wheel; instead of watching CNN, she pumps out metta to the recipient of her choice with every cycle of her legs. Someone else I know uses every stoplight or traffic jam as a signal to send metta to the person in the car in front of him.

One student reports she has been regularly practicing metta while watching various political leaders on the news. Instead of raging and arguing with the television set, she silently sends them metta: May you be happy. May you be well. “I figure that happy people rarely start wars,” she tells me.

And me? As I’m falling asleep, instead of retraveling the day’s peaks and swamps in my mind, I send metta to myself and the people I love. (I’ve found metta particularly helpful when struggling with insomnia at 2 in the morning.) Sending metta to strangers I read about in the paper has transformed the way I experience the headlines. And in the midst of an argument, I try to remember to take a few breaths and sense what’s going on in my heart and belly, just as I do on my yoga mat. I silently send metta to myself and the other person. Then I go on with the conversation and see if it proceeds differently.

Like most of the students in my class, I’ve found that consciously infusing my yoga practice with lovingkindness has given me greater access to it throughout my life—even when my life is not going precisely the way I’d like. Metta practice helps us not just understand but feel that we are woven into a great web of relationships, which we can light up through the power of our attention. And it helps us shift our focus from getting love to creating it, from improving our bodies to cherishing them, and from fixing life to embracing it.

See also Cultivate Goodness: How to Practice Lovingkindness

About our author

Anne Cushman is the author of Enlightenment for Idiots and From Here to Nirvana: A Guide to Spiritual India.
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