A lovingkindness meditation
Metta (lovingkindness) is that sense of openness when we feel connected to everyone and everything in the world. In some ways, it’s a natural outgrowth of mindfulness practice and just the general cultivation of happiness in our lives. When the Buddha talks about lovingkindness, he’s clearly pointing to something different from what we usually call “love.” In fact, his teachings point to the problems with selective love, and how that leads to clinging and ultimately suffering as things change. The Metta Sutta tells us to spread love over the entire world to everyone, no matter what we think or feel about them. This is unconditional love, love that doesn’t expect or need a return, love that sees past the petty differences and disputes in life to the universal longings for happiness that we all share. In practicing lovingkindness, we are faced with our clinging, our judgments, and our selective caring. We see that what we usually call love may have a lot of conditions tied up with it: “I’ll love you as long as you love me” or “as long as you give me what I want.” And, further, we see that the love we have for our dear ones makes us vulnerable to grief and loss.
Traditionally, metta practice focuses on three categories: those we love, those we are neutral or have no strong feelings about, and those we have difficulties with. Before we work with these categories, the practice suggests we first focus on a benefactor or beloved person (or even a pet). When we spend time sending lovingkindness to this beloved, we accomplish a couple of things: first, we soften ourselves up a bit, so that we are ready to send love to others; and second, we get a clear sense of what love feels like so that we establish that kind of baseline.
After connecting with the beloved, we then try to send love to ourselves. Many people find this to be one of the most difficult aspects of the metta practice. At least in our culture, many of us have complicated, and often negative, feelings about ourselves. To see ourselves as just another person deserving love is a valuable exercise. Here we start to disidentify with ourselves, see ourselves in more objective terms. When we can see ourselves as just another imperfect human, equally deserving of love as anyone else, it becomes easier to offer love to ourselves.
Moving from focus on ourselves to focus on all the rest of the people we care about—family, friends, intimates, and partner—the heart tends to open more easily. Now we might feel ourselves getting into the flow of lovingkindness. Without obstruction, and using the phrases, feelings, and visualizations of the practice, the mind can become quite focused and concentrated, so that, not only do we enjoy the pleasant feeling of love, but also the powerful feeling of concentration, called samadhi, that comes with deeper meditation practices.
We then try to carry these two qualities, the openheartedness and the focus, into giving metta to a neutral person or persons. For many people, this seems to be an awkward practice at first, but I think it has great potential in terms of growing a broad sense of lovingkindness for all beings.
A neutral person is someone we don’t have strong feelings about, either positive or negative. I’ve used people like the clerk in the video store and the security guard at the bank. These are people I can visualize pretty easily because I’ve seen them many times, but I certainly don’t like or dislike them in any meaningful way.
At first, and naturally enough, it might be hard to feel much about these people, but the practice gives us a form we can simply follow without worrying about the results. You see the person in your mind, you say the lovingkindness phrases to yourself, and you try to connect in your heart. What helps me in doing this practice is contemplating the universal desire for happiness and freedom from suffering. Even though I don’t really know this neutral person, I know that, just like me, they want happiness. So, in a sense, I’m connecting with my own wish for happiness and just projecting it onto them…