The meditation practice described below is called a mettā practice. Mettā translates roughly as “loving-kindness” from Pāli (a Sanskrit dialect). It’s one way to help yourself break out of the “autopilot” of self- (and other- ) criticism – the unconstructive kind.
In this mettā practice, you’re going to be practicing the intention for well-being in yourself, then going through a list of others for whom you also hold this intention. To yourself and others, you’ll be sending loving, positive intentions such as May you know peace and May you be happy. Keep in mind that this is a recommendation from my neuro-geek brain—not so much to promote world peace (though that would be good), but to help better integrate of your nervous system (especially the part in your head), which supports well-being in many ways. (Mindfulness practice in general has many scientifically-supported, brain-based benefits—compelling enough to me that I wrote a book about it.)
Practicing mettā meditation often seems like one of the easiest practices for new meditators, because it has specific things for you to be thinking about—but while your thoughts during mettā are somewhat more guided than in some other practices, it’s not about rote instruction following. It’s about paying attention to the intention of a heart and body experience of loving-kindness. If you find that all you’re doing is running through the script, you’ve missed the mark. To paraphrase George Carlin, “Ya gotta wanna.”
Now, fully allowing yourself to be aware of and intent upon feelings of love and kindness for yourself and for others is not what most people would call easy. So—and here’s the challenging part—as you experience difficulties with this, offer empathy to yourself. Tara Brach, PhD, instructs in Radical Acceptance, “Even if you do not immediately feel [it], your willingness alone can reconnect you to your loving heart.”
Ronald Siegel, PsyD, in The Mindfulness Solution, talks about “affectionate awareness.” As you practice mettā, you (being human, with all those competing needs and thoughts and feelings) will inevitably find yourself not only with a wandering mind—but oh, boy, you’re also going to bump into a not-so-loving-kindness mind! The object isn’t to slap a happy-face sticker over all of your feelings in order to radiate nothing but Love throughout the meditation. Your intention here is really what “counts” (although no one’s keeping score).
This is one of the places where people who tend to want to make others happy—but end up getting lost in the process—can get twisted tighter than a tornado. You can’t make someone else happy, well, or peaceful, but you might be vulnerable to getting sucked into trying. So, here, you get to practice staying with yourself—with your awareness of your own body—and to remember the wise words of Sharon Salzberg:
The intention is enough. . . . We form the intention in our mind for our happiness and the happiness of all. This is different from struggling to fabricate a certain feeling, to create it out of our will, to make it happen. We just settle back and plant the seeds without worrying about the immediate result.
A few notes before you begin:
In this practice, you’re going to be bringing to mind different people. It’s most helpful not to choose people who hold a particularly romantic or sexual charge for you (or who you think should do so), such as your spouse, partner, or secret crush. I find it best to focus on those who are living. I’ve found that it’s not as helpful (though it can be easier) to generate loving-kindness for those who can no longer annoy us. I also advise that you steer clear of bringing to mind people with whom you are having or have had intense or destructive connections, at least until you are much better grounded in your ability to hold on to yourself.
Keep in mind that this practice isn’t intended to work through complex issues such as previous trauma. You may want to enlist the help of a good psychotherapist if you think you might encounter feelings that seem overwhelming or too frightening.
First, settle into your body as in the Basic Mindfulness Meditation Introduction. Now, bring your awareness to having a feeling of calm kindness. It might help to be aware of softening the muscles around your eyes and imagining your mouth having an inward smile. I find it very helpful to place my hand over my heart (really on my heart, in the middle of my chest, not the polite place you might put your hand when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance).
Starting with yourself, focus your intention on sending out several positive, caring feelings—for example: May I be free. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy. May I be safe. The exact words aren’t important; choose phrases that feel right to you—although, as Sharon Salzberg points out, it’s better if it’s something “deeply felt and somewhat enduring (not something like ‘May I find a good show on television tonight’).”
As you slowly and gently direct these intentions, feel in your heart, in your belly, on your face, in your breath, your intention of loving-kindness. You’re aware of what your body is experiencing as you have these feelings and these thoughts. And when—not if—you find your mind wandering, consider adding the phrase, May I be kind to myself.
Now practice directing these intentions toward the people listed below, each in turn, settling into each as you go. With the same sweet patience you might have for that puppy I talk about in the meditation instructions, gently remind yourself, as your mind wanders off, or as your empathy takes a detour, to return your awareness to your intentions and to the feelings in your body.
• A mentor, a teacher, a benefactor. Choose someone who’s been kind and generous with you. It could be someone in your life now or someone from your past. It can even be someone whom you’ve never met—some people find it helpful to bring to mind a leader whom they respect and have learned much from. The only suggestion here is to choose someone who is not your spouse, not your lover, but still someone for whom you can easily generate a feeling of warmth and care. Again, feel a sense of loving-kindness toward this person, and bring your awareness what is taking place in your heart, your belly, and on your face. While you hold this person in your heart, repeat the phrases you said for yourself—May I be free. May I be peaceful and at ease, and so on —replacing “I” with “you”: May you be free. May you be peaceful and at ease . . .
• An acquaintance. Next, choose a “neutral” person—someone you might encounter often, such as the hostess in your neighborhood coffee shop, but whom you don’t know well, who evokes neither particularly positive nor particularly negative feelings. Again, holding this person in your heart, repeat your wishes of loving-kindness toward him or her.
• A person with whom you’ve had some difficulty. At first, it might be best to choose someone who isn’t heavily loaded in your experience (as noted above, steer clear of those who have been destructive or intensely troublesome until you have a lot more practice and grounding under your belt). Repeat your wishes of mettā while holding that person in your heart. When you begin to feel yourself losing your intention of loving-kindness here, welcome to the club! Forgive yourself, and allow yourself to return to someone “easy” until you feel grounded in your awareness and intention again.
• A group of people of which you’re a part. Choose, for example, the people who work on the same floor of your office building; your neighbors; your church community; the city or state in which you live. You could follow the classic instructions and go for “every sentient being in the universe,” but please remember to be kind to yourself. Don’t try to heal the world all at once, all on your own. Use this group as the focus of your loving-kindness phrase repetition.
• Back to yourself. Returning to loving-kindness of yourself before ending formal mettā practice, I find, is important in bringing you back to including yourself in your capacity for empathy. So, as your final part of this meditation, repeat the phrases with yourself as the focus—May I be free. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy. May I be safe.