The practice of Metta Bhavana or 'Cultivation of Lovingkindness' is a powerful one, but for most of us the key part is to experience - not just understand - what Metta truly is. I say 'experience' because it's not just about knowing some definitions or having an intellectual understanding of the word 'Metta,' but is about allowing an unconditional form of love to permeate your being.
The word 'love' for us is a tricky one, as it is so overloaded. From the sticky-sweet Facebook meme version of love through romantic love to my love of spicy food - it is used for so many different things that it has become almost meaningless.
For this reason Metta is often translated as 'goodwill' or 'lovingkindness' - but deep down it is simply genuinely wishing the best for someone, regardless of who they are or what they have done. While it is hard to put in words it is something we can all learn through the practice.
The great thing about the traditional form of Metta Bhavana is that it is so practical. It doesn't assume you know what Metta means, nor does it make any assumptions about your situation right now. Instead it invites you to practice wishing the best for yourself right now in this place - and then to see what it is like to wish exactly the same for a number of other people - those you know and those you don't, those you like and those you dislike. And each of these people is a real person, not a generalization. It is all too easy to say 'I wish all beings to be well,' but a completely different proposition to say 'I wish this person who hurt me to be well.' Metta practice is specific, practical and empirical. We learn what it is like to wish a person we can't stand to be well. We learn and explore the edges of our goodwill.
One of the 'tools' we use in the practice are the Metta phrases, prayers or mantras. These are simple sentences wishing the best for yourself or for another. In our group we usually use this simple formulation:
May I be well,These short phrases are fairly traditional, and are a great starting place for beginning to cultivate goodwill. We first direct the phrases to our own self - recognizing the messiness of our lives but none the less practicing unconditional goodwill - not getting caught up in whether we 'deserve' these things but simply wishing them for our self. We then change them to be 'May you...' and work with specific other people - the friend, the unknown, the enemy - and wish exactly the same for them. And, as I often say, if it's hard then we are probably doing it right. It will be hard with some individuals - and sometimes with our self - and that is the practice.
May I be happy,
May I be free from suffering.
One of the things that is often recommended is that we experiment with these phrases - try differing phrases wishing our self well, and then using exactly the same wish for others. This can be a wonderful way to learn some of the subtleties of true Metta. And once we have a phrase or two that resonates, we can use that phrase in our life as we meet with and interact with others, holding an intention of Metta as we speak and act.
I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation where we explore and experiment with different Metta phrases. Feel free to use it in your own practice if you wish, or to explore different ways of expressing goodwill on your own.
Apologies for the poor audio quality, I am having microphone difficulties!