What is Metta?

| November 21, 2012 | 11 Comments

With good will for the entire cosmos,
Cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
Unobstructed, without hostility or hate
Whether standing, walking,
Sitting, or lying down,
As long as one is alert,
One should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding, here and now.

This is from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of chapter 9 of the Khuddakapatha, known to us as the Metta Sutta. It is repeated in section I.8 of the Sutta Nipata, and is used as the basis of a pericope in Majjhima Nikaya 21 and in several passages of the Anguttara Nikaya. The Khuddakapatha itself is a collection of texts that appear to have been composed to help novice monks memorize core doctrinal concepts. All these markers suggest that it is among the oldest texts in the Pali Canon; from the central importance ascribed to metta in the early verses and the influence these verses had on later suttas, it seems clear that the cultivation of metta was a central teaching of early Buddhism.

Why is metta – translated variously as “loving kindness” or “boundless friendliness” – so crucial to dharma practice? I think it goes to the heart of the project Gotama lays out for us in the Four Truths. The key to releasing the craving and grasping that are the source of our misery is to “fully know dukkha” – to embrace the painful, unsatisfactory nature of our lived experience. When we do so, we can recognize that the habitual patterns of desire and aversion that we turn to for comfort or escape can never satisfy us, and from this perspective there is the possibility for us to abandon those patterns.

Great idea – but how do we go about embracing suffering? Our vulnerability to sickness and death, our fears and anxieties, our persistent inability to have things go our way – these are the very things that drive us to grasping and aversion in the first place. Where will we find the courage to turn toward the things that we have spent our lives fearing and avoiding? What will motivate us to continue on this path that leads to the center of our pain?

Certainly, the mental stability and equanimity that we cultivate through meditation will help us take those steps into the darkness. But capacity is not motivation; and the first fruits of our mindfulness practice will be an enhanced ability to perceive our own pain and the suffering of those around us in exquisite detail. We need something more, something that will call us forward on the path and replenish our emotional resources as we walk it. Enter metta.

In its basic form, metta practice consists of imagining ourselves sending good wishes for happiness, health, safety and peace, to ourselves, to those close to us, to people we know but have no relationship to, to people we experience difficulty with, and finally to all beings everywhere. The most common form asks us to imagine the person, and then silently repeat phrases such as “May you be happy,” “May you be free from inner and outer harm,” “May you be at peace,” and the like, imagining the person can receive our good wishes. There are many variations on metta practice but they all involve this sense of sending wishes of kindness and good will to others.

I think one reason metta isn’t a more prominent practice among American Buddhists is that it can feel so tremendously strange and artificial the first few times you try it. We become painfully aware that we’re just playing a kind of game in our heads – the person we “send metta” to is unaware and unaffected. To people of a secular frame of mind, it can even evoke the dreaded sense of praying. To whom, they wonder, are we praying for these benefits? And sending metta to ourselves is nigh on impossible for some people. We are so programmed to see ourselves as undeserving; and even if we don’t feel undeserving of happiness, we can sense that wishing good things for ourselves is self-centered and narcissistic.

I’ll never forget my first try at metta practice. I had downloaded a guided metta meditation and plugged in my ear buds to start.   I didn’t feel any warmth as I repeated the phrases, but I did experience plenty of aversion.  What was silently chanting these insipid phrases of love for myself going to accomplish? On top of it, the British monk who was leading the practice struck me as having a Monty Pythonesque accent – “Mie eye be truly hahppy” — and with the resulting irritation I was preparing to abandon the exercise. But then the monk invited me to turn my awareness to someone who was easy for me to love. I thought of a close friend from whom I had recently been separated, and as I inwardly voiced the first metta phrases, a painful surge of emotion filled my chest, throat, eyes and sinuses. The stinging rush was so intense and so sudden that it scared the daylights out of me – I ripped the headphones off and sat there for a long time trying to collect my wits. I wasn’t sure what had happened or what it meant, but I had an increased respect for the power of simple good wishes.

According to neuropsychologist Daniel Siegel, practices like this tap into the “resonance circuit”, the connection between the cortical regions of our brain that provide analysis and interpretation and the evolutionarily older subcortical regions, such as the limbic system, that generate our emotional responses. These structures evolved in a social context; they enable us to attune to one another’s feelings and intentions, a process that was crucial to our mammalian ancestors’ ability to nurture their young, hunt in groups, and otherwise live in herds, packs and pods. Thanks to brain function imaging, we know that when we imagine interacting with others, we engage the same neural circuits we use in real interactions. When we engage them imaginatively, these circuits are reinforced and strengthened, making them more available to us in our contact with others. We can even learn to engage the resonance circuit to bring kind and careful attention to our own bodies and minds.

This is why we “send metta” – not to transmit a mysterious power, but to engage the social attunement circuits of our brain by imagining our relationships with others. The benefit of our practice for others lies in our enhanced ability to respond to those around us with kindness, patience and compassion, thereby helping to decrease the world’s supply of negative reactivity.

What are the benefits of metta? Speaking from my experience, the principle one is joy. While we may not always feel loving while we are doing the practice, by setting our intention to arouse metta, over time we do discover that a capacity for love and compassion is increasingly available to us. It is a joy filled with poignant meaning that arises from our recognition that we share our suffering and our happiness with everyone around us, the realization of an intimate connection with everyone we meet.

I like to do metta practice as I drive to work on my morning commute. As I approach the city, the people and their cars and buildings become more numerous, which helps me to grow and spread my sense of love and connection to an ever-widening circle of beings. IMHO, nothing feels better than a heart full of metta, and it is a genuine blessing to arrive at work feeling a joyful sense of connection.

Because this joy is based in our sense of shared humanity, metta practice is also effective in softening our perception of ourselves as isolated, threatened individuals. It is a tangible realization of the principle of not-self. And it is a joy that finds its foundation in our growing ability to accept ourselves and others just as they are – a prerequisite, it seems to me, for being able to fully experience the dukkha in our lives, which in turn, as the Four Truths tell us, is the key to awakening.

For me, metta is the juice of my mindfulness practice. It is what gets me to sangha meetings and urges me to bring mindful attention to every encounter I have with other people. And while it spurs my practice, it is also its own rich reward. It is indeed a sublime abiding, one that is available to each of us.

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About the Author ()

Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the religious trappings of Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

Comments (11)

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  1. Lyman Reed says:

    Thanks for this, Mark. I’m one of those who always thought of Metta practice as being a bit too much like prayer, or even sending “positive vibrations” out to others, which seemed pretty useless IMHO. I’ve got to constantly remind myself that it’s just another way to rewire my brain so that when I’m off the cushion (chair, actually) I can at least not cause suffering when I’m interacting with others, and at best maybe help to relieve a bit of the suffering that’s already out there.

    This article just gave me a bit more ammo to keep up the practice. Thanks again.

  2. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Thanks for the post, Mark. Metta is interesting: it’s a case where those of us with the western predilection for prayer are actually finding something supernatural there that the Buddha didn’t intend. I think it’s pretty clear in the suttas that the Buddha intended the practice primarily as a form of mental training, particularly to counteract negative mental states like hatred and ill-will.

    I also had a similar a priori distaste for the practice. But I was taught it by relatively secular teachers who only emphasized the mental training aspects. I have found it very psychologically useful. I even wrote up a blog post about a (serious but also somewhat tongue in cheek) suggestion that skekptics use metta in their practice.

    http://www.smithorbit.com/journal/2012/9/11/skepticism-and-kindness.html

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Thanks for the comments! Along with its many other benefits, one of the reasons I think SB ought to emphasize metta practice is to demonstrate that it is possible for skeptical atheists to live in joy and to cultivate compassion, and that supernatural carrots and sticks are not required in order to live the fullest possible human life. I think sometimes we have the notion that living without religion means living without a deeply sensed connection to the mysterious poignancy of life. If SB can help erode that stereotype, it will have accomplished something important.

  4. Speaking as a non-American I can safely say that Americans are exceptionally friendly, which is I think how most people describe this natural and finest of human qualities. Sure, it can be a little contrived at times, but an automated, “Have a great day” is better than a scowl any day, and who knows where it might lead?

  5. Caroline_Jones says:

    Excellent article, Mark. It rejuvenates my interest in incorporating metta into my daily practice. I also find John Peacock’s take on the significance of metta quite compelling.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Thanks, Caroline! Peacock’s series of dharma talks on metta also motivated me to make this practice a more regular part of my formal training. He does a great job of pointing out how all the other “sublime abodes” — equanimity, compassion, and joy — are rooted in metta. Anyone who has not heard them can find them at dharmaseed.org — just search Teachers for John Peacock.

  6. Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

    Mark,

    I started out with mindfulness practice, but I’m finding metta very rewarding. In in talks with Buddhist teachers, they speak of metta as equivalent to the non-judgmental, accepting element in mindfulness. So the two can be integrated.

    Ted has invited me to mention by secular metta video, which can be found at

    http://www.seeingtheroses.org/pages/show/love-now

    (note that my host is acting flakey today, Sunday, Nov 25, but this URL should work most of the time)

    One of the things I’ve done is to change the wording from “May I…” to “I’d like…”

    I think it’s the words “May I” that make it sound like a prayer. That is how the words have been translated into English, and it makes it sound like a petitionary prayer, since the hoped for reponse to “May I” is normally “Yes, you may” from a parent, authority or higher power.

    Buddhist teachers I’ve spoken to say that the words are really supposed to express an intention or a aspiration, so “I’d like” or “I wish” seem to capture this goal-setting without introducing an implicit higher power. I hope this form can make it easier for secular humanists to embrace.

    I also think that starting with the benfactor rather than the self makes it easier for skeptical people to abide. Starting with wishes for the self seems like overly cheery, Up With People approach. But considering a benefactor, especially one you haven’t though about in a while, can be quite moving.

    I too like to start the day with an informal metta practice, cultivating warm feelings to the people I encounter on my subway commute. I also find that metta can be helpful at work, when interacting with people in stressful situations.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Thanks for your post, Rick. You point out something very important — metta practice is not about following a prescribed form, it’s about finding what works for you to help open your heart. Changing the phrases is a good way, as is changing the order in which you take them. I’ve heard some teachers skip neutral and difficult people and go right from loved ones to all beings. A good way to get over skittishness about wishing one’s self well is to imagine one’s self as a child, perhaps visualizing a childhood photograph. What’s vital in metta practice is to honor your own experience and remember that the practice is about setting one’s intention for an open heart.

  7. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Excellent guided meditation last night, Mark, thank you again for leading the group.

    It was good to see you address here in the article that Metta practice is not what our first impressions make it out to be. It may seem that we’re practicing wishful thinking, but that’s a gross over simplification and is not correct. Yes, the practice does have lines we recite however silently to ourselves, and yes, those lines to progress from easy to more difficult as we aspire to have friendly thoughts towards those close to us, all the way to those we may consider the antagonists in our life.

    We need to remember that this is the entire practice, it includes all the stages with which we would aspire to become more versatile. We don’t *have* to wish well to strangers from the start, it’s enough to lay the foundation, brick by brick, and exercising that mind state. Because that’s what this practice is about — fostering a feeling tone that is utterly in our own mind. From that, as we know from experience, comes our words and actions.

    Oddly, metta isn’t about wishing well for others, it’s about ourselves at its core, and that positive benefit externally is a result of our effort.

  8. harderp says:

    Thanks for a lovely meditation last night. I think the discussion really helped me understand metta better (a practice that I have tended to avoid because I found it difficult for the reasons many have stated – too much like prayer, seems pointless because it really can’t affect others, etc.). But when I think of it in terms of increasing my own capacity for loving kindness, it really makes sense. I will be seeking out more of this type of mediation in the future. I didn’t get to the article until after the meditation, regrettably, but it was very helpful. Thanks again! your Canadian friend – Pauline.

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