Metta: The Internal Practice of Loving-Kindness

In the Western world, “love” is a word that has become so generic that it often loses its meaning. Simply saying we “love” someone is empty if we don’t show it through actions.

When we find ourselves struggling to understand what love really is, it might be best to look elsewhere for an answer. More specifically, we might look to the East — not necessarily in the geographical sense, but rather in regards to Eastern thought.

In Buddhism, there is a virtue known as Metta, which refers to benevolence, kindness, friendliness, and an active interest in others.

monk-184390_640The practice of Metta is done through meditation — also known as loving-kindness meditation. The goal of loving-kindness meditation is to direct compassion and well-wishes toward others in order to cultivate love and connection. It’s basically focusing your mind on other people and thinking positively about them.

We do this in our daily lives without realizing it. You may think of your mom and how she makes you happy, recall a good memory you had with your best friend, or think about a friend who is taking a test and hope that she does well. But Metta requires that we actually sit in those thoughts for a while to dwell on those thoughts and nothing else in that moment.

Another important factor in Metta is its three categories of people to meditate on:

  1. Dears: the people we are closest to and love the most (parents, children, spouse, grandparents, best friends).
  2. Neutrals: the people we don’t really have an opinion about one way or another. These could be strangers or acquaintances.
  3. Enemies: People we are at odds with; people who make us angry or who have wronged us.

Loving-kindness meditation begins with your dears, meditating on your love for them. Then, as you work up to it, the goal becomes to meditate on your neutrals with dear thoughts, eventually turning those neutrals into people you have a deep love for. And then, you would work up to turning your enemies into neutrals, and eventually into your dears.

The mindset seems radical and difficult to implement. It mirrors the common religious teaching of “love your enemies,” only with a couple of steps to get there, which is nice. Over time, with the help of focused thought, you can turn an enemy into a neutral, then you can turn that same person into a dear.

The goal of this practice is to eliminate anger and hate from our lives and to replace it with love.

You may say, “But no amount of inward reflection on my end changes the fact that she’s doing [this] to me externally.” That may be true, but Buddhism teaches that our inward reflection actually impacts external circumstances. Plus, according to Buddhist teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu, by implementing loving-kindness:

“One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The devas protect one. Neither fire, poison, nor weapons can touch one. One’s mind gains concentration quickly. One’s complexion is bright. One dies unconfused.”

Followers of Metta believe that putting positive energy toward another person, even just in our thoughts, actually does help mend the relationship. Stanford University did a study on the practice of loving-kindness and found that those who participated actually increased their social connectedness and decreased their anger, emotional pain, and even physical pain.

A suggested thought or mantra, if you want to try out this meditation, could be:

“May all beings be peaceful,
May all beings be happy,
May all beings be safe,
May all beings awaken to the light of their true nature,
May all beings be free.”

No matter what our religious affiliation, implementing Metta, or at least something like it, into our daily lives is worth trying. Showing love to others isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to our enemies. Practicing loving-kindness meditation is telling yourself, “I know that instinctively I want to hate this person, but my hate does nothing good for either of us. I am choosing to love someone, even in thought, because there is something bigger than myself at stake here.”

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