So what is “Metta Bhavana”? Metta is the Pali word for loving-kindness, goodwill, love or friendliness. Bhavana is the Pali word to cultivate, or to “make happen”. Metta Bhavana is thus the practice of cultivating loving-kindness.
The underlying idea here is that our emotions are choices. We aren’t just passive beings whose emotions spring up purely because of what happens to us. Instead, we can make choices about how we react and feel to what goes on around us. This is incredibly empowering. We don’t have to feel slaves to our emotions – we can learn to choose the emotions that are best for us.
Metta practice thus helps us get into the habit of choosing loving-kindness. This loving-kindness is special, in that it is unconditional. It is not dependent on how others behave, or what we hope to get in return. It just is.
Traditional Metta Bhavana practice goes through a specific series of steps. Here is an overview of the whole practice:
Calm your body and mind.
Take time to sit and relax in your posture, with a straight back and a firm connection with the chair or cushion. Allow your mind to calm, as thoughts arise acknowledge them and let them be.
Develop Metta for yourself.
We start by developing a feeling of loving-kindness or goodwill for ourselves. When you first start it may be helpful to start by recalling a time that you felt good about what you had achieved and your place in the world. Develop that positive feeling by repeating the mantra “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering”. Then acknowledge that you deserve to feel that for yourself even when things aren’t going so well, even if you feel lost or that you’ve messed up. Practice giving yourself Metta, unconditionally.
Develop Metta for a friend.
In the next step we bring to mind a friend, someone who is easy to feel positively about. When you start it is best to choose someone who you don’t have any ‘complex’ feelings for, so initially avoid anyone you are attracted to, or who is dead, or who you have complex family relationships with. Again, offer them Metta, reciting the mantra “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering”. As you do so, you will probably be reminded of some of their quirks or faults, but still offer them Metta, understanding that you give Metta not because of what they do, or what you personally get out of the relationship, but you give it unconditionally.
Develop Metta for a neutral person.
We now bring to mind a ‘neutral’ person, someone who we can recall, but who we know nothing or little about. Maybe it’s a person who works at the supermarket check-out, maybe it’s someone you pass on your way to work. Whoever it is, offer them Metta, again reciting the mantra “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering”. Remind yourself that this Metta is unconditional – you know nothing about this person, they could be a saint or a criminal, but you still offer them Metta unconditionally.
Develop Metta for a difficult person.
We now bring to mind a ‘difficult person’ – traditionally and ‘enemy’. This is someone who we find it hard to feel good about, for whatever reason. Yet we offer them Metta in the same way, unconditionally, regardless of what they have done or what the effects of their actions have been on us personally. Again we repeat the mantra “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering”. Again, it is unconditional.
Bring them all together.
We now bring all four players together, imagining that we are standing together with them in a room. Our self, the friend, the neutral person and the difficult person. We offer each person Metta in turn, noticing our feelings as we do so. We try to equalize the feeling between each person (including our self), so as to make it truly unconditional.
Spread Metta to all sentient beings.
The final stage of Meta practice is to gradually expand the circle of those who we are offering Metta to. We give Metta to those in the town we are in, then spread outward to the state, the country, all countries, the whole world, out to the whole universe, wishing that all sentient beings everywhere be well, happy and free from suffering – unconditionally.
Metta Bhavana practice is a very powerful practice, and as you work with it you will change the way you look at the world and interact with the people in it. It can be a difficult practice, so don’t feel discouraged if you struggle with any of the steps. Keep at it – you will slowly build a habit to “choose Metta”.