on sitting with compassion and loving- kindness

Buddhas at bazaar in Kabul, Afghanistan, by Sarah Eyre, 2008. All rights reserved.

I’ve been spending a lot of time working on metta meditation lately.

Metta is hard, especially for “western” *** students. It involves extending compassion, both in the specific and in general, and while that seems like it would be all puppies and sunshine, it’s really very rough, warrior work. When I would teach metta meditation it was almost inevitable that one of my students would cry, and when I’d speak with them afterward I found that the students who cried in class would almost always be new to the practice. This was natural, and normal, I’d explain: all part of the process. It’s difficult, challenging work, but it feels hardest in those first few sittings: those initial experiences are raw.

I’ve been working with metta for years now, and I still struggle with it. I can be doing just fine with it for weeks, and then hit a wall, going nowhere, fighting with myself. I’ll get up from my session, frustrated and bewildered: why is this so hard today? We aren’t always built for compassion.

The Metta Suttra, translated, reads:

May all beings
be happy and safe,
and may their hearts
be filled with joy.
May all beings live
in security and peace,
whether weak or strong,
large or small,
near or far away,
visible or invisible,
already born
or yet to be born,
May all of them dwell
in perfect tranquillity.

That seems pretty simple, right? Who doesn’t want that? I want that. That’s great. Everyone should live in safety and joy. Hell yeah, I want that. Until it gets specific. I want that, except that guy who cut me off in traffic this afternoon while I was driving with my daughter in the car, he’s a real asshole. I want everyone to be happy and safe, but that woman who made me feel stupid and small at the MVA, what’s her problem? I want all beings to be filled with joy, but politicians are real pricks and they need to start helping people already.

It gets tricky. Anger gets in the way. The monkey mind clouds your vision.

My simplified, beginner’s version of a metta practice is a bit long to read, but it’s really just a matter of repetition.

Metta is a call to compassion. The practitioner is meditating on four simple, universal wishes: to live happily and free of hostility, affliction, or distress. Metta can be performed anywhere- as part of a seated practice, while walking (preferably without a set destination), while engaged in creative work- any space or time can become part of a metta meditation.

To begin, just give yourself a few moments to settle your mind. Focus your attention on experiencing quiet joy and benevolence. Go to your happy place, wherever that is- a room full of puppies, ponycorns, that night when a supercute Somebody smiled at you in a crowded room, whatever it is that fills you up- go there and be with it for a few moments. If distracting thoughts come into your mind, acknowledge them (hi there, I don’t need you right now!), set them aside, and move forward with your practice.

Metta is first offered to yourself. Say the following phrases to yourself at a steady pace, and focus on extending that feeling of joy and peace that you’ve brought up to the subject you’re meditating upon. As you imagine them, picture wrapping them up in that peace and happiness.

May I be safe and protected.
May I be peaceful and happy.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I have ease of well- being, and accept all the conditions of the world.

Continue to recite these phrases in the first person.

Once this is comfortable to you, offer metta to someone you love. Picturing this person in your mind can be helpful.

May ______ be safe and protected.
May ______ be peaceful and happy.
May ______ be healthy and strong.
May ______ have ease of well- being, and accept all the conditions of the world.

Next, start offering metta to someone in your life who is a source of support and kindness. This person might be a mentor, a teacher, or an awesome friend. It can help to imagine this person as you meditate.

May ______ be safe and protected.
May ______ be peaceful and happy.
May ______ be healthy and strong.
May ______ have ease of well- being, and accept all the conditions of the world.

Now that you’ve got a flow going, offer Metta to someone that you neither like nor dislike- someone you know, but don’t really have feelings for either way.

May ______ be safe and protected.
May ______ be peaceful and happy.
May ______ be healthy and strong.
May ______ have ease of well- being, and accept all the conditions of the world.

Next up, you offer metta to someone who has hurt you. This hurt can be large or small: take on what you can handle right now. Picture this person in your mind.

May ______ be safe and protected.
May ______ be peaceful and happy.
May ______ be healthy and strong.
May ______ have ease of well- being, and accept all the conditions of the world.

You close the practice by extending metta to all beings. Some folks like to break this into smaller pieces, such as all adults, all children, people who are happy, people who are unhappy, etc.

May all beings be safe and protected.
May all beings be peaceful and happy.
May all beings be healthy and strong.
May all beings have ease of well- being, and accept all the conditions of the world.

— Okay, that seems like a lot to remember. The pocket version:

  • Self.
  • Someone you love.
  • A friendly acquaintance.
  • A neutral person, someone you neither like nor dislike.
  • A challenging person. This can be hard in the beginning, so start gently.
  • All beings. If you have a lot of time, you can break this into subcategories: all adults, then all children; all beings who are happy, then all beings who are unhappy, etc.

Compassion isn’t easy.

Anger comes more easily, but even in looking at my anger, some days, I can sit and find my answers. I was so angry recently, dealing with the ways in which someone had hurt me, and frustrated with the high road. It isn’t always easy to just walk away. I don’t always want to just walk away. Most days I do well enough just remembering that everything that has happened has led me to this life that I love, which logically means that even the hurts are something to be grateful for: they aren’t awesome, and I don’t want to welcome those folks back into my life, but hey, they brought me here, and here is terrific, so I’ve released them.

On my off days, I’ll have a random thought rise up and spark me into fury, though. I’ll want retribution, justice, answers. Why? I’ll think. Or just: I want to break something. That isn’t productive. It’s actually the direct opposite— it’s straight- up destructive. I’ll pace, and drink coffee, and pace some more, and eventually sit down, and try to clear my mind, and eventually, something will happen.

In this case, it was metta.

The best/worst thing I can hope for those who have harmed me is that they become better people.

Now, let’s be honest here. It began as a vindictive thought- to become a genuinely good person would mean the people who had harmed me would be hurt to see what they have done to me and other people- but as I sat, the thought changed. If what really offended me was that there were people who are doing things that are wrong- and it is- then what I really want is for it to stop. If they became good people, those actions would stop.

This gave me something positive to focus on; a form of forgiveness that is genuine in that it isn’t blind, forgetful, or some version of “Oh, nevermind, I’m SO OVER IT NOW.” It’s a way to set my anger and hurt down but not aside. I can’t make them good people. Wishing that they become good people isn’t going to make them good people, either- this isn’t The Secret, it doesn’t work that way. The only thing this changes is how I personally engage with the world.

This gives me the ability to be kind, to be calm, to be compassionate, to set something reactive like anger to the side and to view the world through more balanced eyes. It keeps me from settling into old resentments and being caught in the trap of useless old emotions: you only get so many days, after all. There are wonderful things in the past, of course, and I don’t want to forget them- and lessons, too- but I don’t want to get caught there. I don’t want to miss the fantastic things that are happening right now, and the practice of loving- kindness- of metta- it helps me be present for the now.

*** I really dislike the word “western”. It always means “American, Canadian, and European”, but honestly, let’s get real: WEST OF WHAT, GUYS? There’s an inherent perception bias in this term that’s based in British Colonialism that drives me batty, but I’m lacking a better word here. Anyone have a suggestion? I’d kill for a substitution.

  One thought on “on sitting with compassion and loving- kindness

  1. MaryjoO
    July 24, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    thank you so much for this. It is all on “one page” — to think about, to mediate on, and to try and put in practice.

  2. July 24, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    instead of Western, can you try and substitute Linear ones – those who proceed from A, to B, to C, etc., without foraying on to the byways that beckon and may be ignored as not the “proper ” way to proceed on?
    Very good post, and i thank you. G

  3. Savitri Ananda
    July 25, 2012 at 2:49 am

    Thanks for the detailed explanation. I think that visualization (like you mention) is key to a practice like this.

  4. Linda Loba
    July 26, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Just drop it altogether: “metta can be difficult for some.” …Simple is almost always the way to go.
    Namaste, Sarah 🙂


    • July 26, 2012 at 7:02 pm

      Linda, I like your suggestion best of all. Simplicity is always the best solution. 🙂

  5. November 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    I am unfamiliar with meditation but I really like the idea of this. Could use it, too. Sometimes that anger is a weird righteous comfort, but that does not make it good.

  6. Maarten
    October 14, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    For me Metta is the easiest of the different types of meditation. I often have to cry during metta meditation, but those are tears of joy! 🙂

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