There are many different meditative practices to be found in Buddhism, Yoga, or even in your local Mindfulness classes. The Metta Bhavana is one that is taught at my local Buddhist Centre, and its purpose is the cultivation (‘Bhavana’) of compassion and kindness (‘Metta’).
‘Metta’ is often translated as ‘loving kindness’, with elements of ‘goodwill’, ‘harmony’ and ‘friendliness’ added to the mix. It’s not a sexual thing, nor is it a mawkish, saccharine sentimentality. My own experience of Metta during meditation has always been of something incredibly strong, yet comforting and nourishing, but like most metaphysical concepts it’s difficult to describe in everyday words.
The Five Stages of The Metta Bhavana
There are five stages to the Metta Bhavana meditation:
- Metta and oneself
- Metta and a close friend
- Metta and someone you feel neutral about
- Metta and someone you find difficult to deal with
- Metta and everyone
Metta and oneself
In the first stage at the first bell, we meditate upon cultivating and experiencing metta towards ourselves. This is a very important step, as negative feelings towards ourselves can make us susceptible to projection of those negative feelings towards others, ‘martyrdom’ or general emotional burnout.
For some, this can be quite difficult. Some people I know use visualisations, such as sitting themselves in radiant golden sunshine, while others mentally repeat the phrase ‘may I be well, may I be happy, may I be free of suffering’.
I personally find it easiest to connect with a sense of metta by recalling times when I’ve experienced it, and bringing to mind those feelings, for example by thinking back to times when I’ve felt loved, well, and happy. I also try to recall times when I’ve felt kindness towards others to elicit that feeling, and bring it round to myself.
As an aside, I was once told to ‘transmit metta to myself’ for this stage. This begged an interesting metaphysical question which dogged me throughout that sitting: if I’m somehow cultivating metta within me, then I already have it, and so how can I transmit it to myself? Or does it somehow come from elsewhere? Sensing a logical loop coming on, I decided not to use the ‘transmit’ metaphor for this practise…
Metta and a close friend
For stage after the second bell, we develop the feelings of metta we have for a close friend. Some caveats are appropriate here! I would not recommend choosing a member of a gender or type you are habitually attracted to, as this can introduce all sorts of complications (such as sinking into a sexual fantasy – it happens…). For similar reasons a family member is not such a good idea either, as family dynamics can lead to distraction if they surface during meditation. Instead, choose a platonic friend, someone you feel comfortable generally being with.
Having chosen a suitable person, we meditate upon our sense of metta towards them. Again, visualisations can help, or reciting the phrases ‘may they be well, may they be happy, may they be free of suffering’.
Metta and a Neutral Person
After the third bell, we choose someone we can picture, but someone we don’t necessarily have any feelings for one way or another. Typical examples given could be your postman, or someone who serves you regularly in a shop, or a neighbour you don’t know too well.
Meditate upon your sense of metta towards them the same way you did your friend. See what feelings of goodwill you find for them inside you.
Shop assistants and postmen are the classic examples: see what happens if you try someone of higher social status and income than yourself, perhaps the manager of the marketing team in your company, or our boss’ boss.
Metta and a difficult person
After the fourth bell, we aim to cultivate metta for the difficult person. This should be someone that rubs us up the wrong way, perhaps challenges us, but to keep things simple should not be one’s mortal enemy. The more difficult the difficult person is, the more likely we are to poison the well with discursive thoughts about revenge, mentally rehearsed conversations, or even a sense that we’ll never feel good things for this person.
When things get tough I find imagining the person as a child helps. Or imagining them playing with their kids or their dog in a park. I bring to mind the fact that they’re a person just like me, with their own stresses and issues. They love, and are loved by, other people, who will experience them very differently to the way I do.
Metta and everyone
After the fifth bell, we endeavour to ‘equalise’ the metta. Mentally review your experiences of metta throughout the last four stages, and bring yourself and the three other individuals to mind. Bring your ‘best metta’ to all of them.
Gradually extend your metta outward, beyond the four individuals so far. Consider those sitting with you in the room, those walking past outside, anyone elsewhere in the building, in the street, the city, your district…
How far out can you spread your metta? To the rest of the country? The animals in the cities and countrysides… The stock traders on Wall Street… The farmers working fields outside Cambodian villages… Scientists on the ISS… Workers in the diamond mines of Botswana… Fishermen on the Junks outside Hong Kong… There are 7-going-on-8 billion people out there and trillions of animals
I have been doing this meditation now for a few years. It hasn’t turned me into a modern-day version of Jesus or Gandhi: I still snap at people when they bug me and occasionally lose my rag (especially when interrupted whilst in the middle of concentrating on something – this, apparently, is a characteristic introvert trait).
However I have found the practice to be emotionally restorative, and I feel it has contributed greatly to my positive disposition toward the human race in general. I have also found that if you think kindly towards people, they stress you out less.
I strongly believe that in our current world of online hostility, corporate sociopathy and increasing global inequality, cultivating our own kindness and compassion is possibly the most urgent and important thing we can do right now.
We need to take responsibility for our own little corners of the world, and tend our own small gardens, and so when we inevitably cross paths with those who hold different views to ours, or whose interests may be inimical to our own, it’s beneficial for all to act from a position of compassion and empathy.