What is Metta?

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.