Here’s a brief description of the stages of the Metta Bhavana practice to give an idea. Then follows a more detailed explanation. After that, we’ll discuss some related issues.
Prepare for the meditation. Sit quietly, settle down, connect with your body and with whatever you are feeling and thinking.
- cultivate metta for yourself. Consider your life and experience how it feels to be you. Feel the truth of your experience, perhaps joyous, perhaps sad. Acknowledging whatever feelings are present, wish yourself happiness. Maybe say to yourself, ‘May I be well and happy'. Then just keep re-setting your attention back on to that wish. (5+ minutes.)
- cultivate metta for a friend. Switch to the impression in your mind, whatever form that takes, of this friend – maybe an actual visual image, but a simple feeling is fine. They should be roughly your age, and not someone you particularly have sexual feelings for (keep it simple!) Experience your true response and wish them happiness as you did earlier for yourself. (5+ minutes.)
- cultivate metta for a ‘neutral’ person. Think of someone for whom you don't have any particular liking or dislike. What you feel when you bring them to mind may not be very clear, but stay with what's there and encourage a friendly response, wishing them happiness. It’s good training to maintain this in relation to someone you don’t naturally find interesting, so keep it up! (5+ minutes.)
- cultivate metta for a difficult person. Turn your attention to someone you’re not getting on with. Experience truthfully how you feel now, without being misled by how they ‘always’ make you feel. Cultivate a fresh response, wishing them real happiness, even though that might go against the grain. Real happiness makes everyone more likeable and has little connection with superficial pleasure or advantage. So let go any animosity or resentment you’re harbouring. (5+ minutes.)
- cultivate metta equally for each person. Now concentrate on all four people – that's yourself, your friend, the neutral person, and the difficult person – and develop metta as equally as you can towards each. From there, cultivate metta for all beings everywhere. Let your metta expand like the warmth of the sun towards all beings everywhere in the world. Here is one way. Start with those nearest you, in the same room or the same building. Then include everyone in the locality, then in the town, city, or geographical area you are in. Let your imagination take your good wishes out in ever-widening circles. Include everyone in the country, the continent, the other continents, the entire earth, the whole universe. Recall how all those beings – nonhuman as well as human – are undergoing every kind of experience, even as you are meditating. Think of them all with an equally strong love and kindness.
Start by sitting in a comfortable position. If you sit as physically still as possible it will help keep us focused on how you are feeling. Mindfulness is an important key to the Metta Bhavana. I mean especially mindfulness of feeling and emotion, but bodily awareness is also needed to experience feeling; emotional energy comes from opening up to what is there physically. Fully experience the pleasantness, or the unpleasantness, or just the absence of feeling that is present. If there are painful feelings, don’t pretend they don't exist, while on the other hand realise there’s no need to be angry or despondent because of them. The point is simply to experience them mindfully. It’s the same with pleasant feeling, a question of recognising and enjoying pleasure without getting over-involved. And if there seems to be no feeling at all, which is common enough, turn and face that space of (apparent) nothingness; actively experience it. It could be that you need to re-establish contact with your core experience, with the body and the senses, because you’ve lost touch; but it is just as likely that, quite naturally, your experience is somewhat neutral at the moment. Either way, to help engage with the meditation sit very still and simply ‘listen’, receptively, to the overall experience, even though it may feel there is nothing there. Rest attention within the body, on the breathing, the muscular relaxation or tension, and the general flow of physical energy.
So don't worry if feelings are weak or hardly noticeable; they are often subtle or uncertain in ways that also indicate meaning. Feeling just needs tuning in to. It doesn't have to be powerful and strong before you can do something with it. If you stay with the experience as it is, you can build metta effectively, even when feeling is subtle and barely perceptible. As often as not, you have to acknowledge pain. Human experience is a bittersweet mixture; is it ever one hundred percent pleasure? When feelings are pleasant, it is easy to be kind and friendly; but when they are painful you need to be patient and avoid reacting with emotions like denial, ill will, frustration, or self pity which easily become habitual. It is helpful, if you can, to continue experiencing them, patiently understanding that all feelings, pleasant and painful, are temporary and that your reactions to pain actually end up making it even more painful. So allow space for something new to enter; at first the response of loving-kindness may not be very strong, but once it gets started you can build on it.
1) In the first stage, cultivating metta for ourselves, you can explore and use any method you find helpful. It may help to say to yourself the traditional phrase, “May I be happy… may I be well… may I be free from suffering,” but avoid repeating it automatically. Consider the real meaning of happiness – clarifying this is essential to the meditation – and allow time for a response of some kind to emerge. Metta Bhavana works on the principle that wishes and intentions get stronger, clearer and more effective when you concentrate on them. So once you have contacted the need for happiness, and the more genuine benevolence that comes from perceiving that, focus putting your heartfelt energy behind it.
If you look, you’ll discover an image in your mind of what you are trying to do. This is not easily describable but it is a quite tangible sense or feeling that you can trust as being your true wish for happiness. It is something very simple. If you can rest fully in that, the feeling of metta will deepen and become more established. Then as the practice progresses, instead of getting lost in thoughts about what you’re doing, you can stay with that simple core and keep returning to it. This is where the practice can go deeper.
By the end of the first stage you’re likely to feel a little better towards yourself, or at least a bit more settled into the practice. But don’t be deterred if nothing much seems to have happened; that’s often how it is. Once the time is up, it’s best to move to the second stage without lingering in the hope of a more tangible result. The feeling that ‘not much is happening’ is common in the first stage of any kind of meditation, because we’re still warming up. In meditation practice generally the best approach is to tackle each stage as it comes without wasting energy judging one’s performance. In Metta Bhavana you are learning to tune in to your experience and to treat yourself with kindness and appreciation. It is a long term project and you can relax into it.
2) Next, remaining in touch with the feeling you already have, generate metta towards a good friend – anyone towards whom you already have natural friendly feelings. Just choose them fairly quickly, without dithering, and rest the attention on their image. The impression may be visual, a felt sense, a set of thoughts or something else again, but in whatever way you imagine them, stay as steady as you can with that image, trust it and return every time you notice that the mind has wandered. Using the methods already described, wish them true happiness. If it helps, you can apply to them the phrase I mentioned or use any method that evokes, deepens and refines your wish. In this you need to be emotionally truthful and experience the actual response that is aroused. Your responses change all the time – so maybe this time, despite the friendship, your friend’s image does not actually evoke strong friendliness at all (our best friends being the people we usually take most for granted). So recognise that situation as your working ground. In Metta Bhavana the art is to always to create something new out of how you actually feel, right now. You can expect to learn something every time about yourself and your relations to others.
3) Then, without losing touch with the changing feelings, transfer the metta towards your internal image of a neutral person. This is somebody for whom you have no particular feelings at the moment; you neither like nor dislike them. They may be someone you hardly know, perhaps someone you often see but never speak to, yet have an impression of. It could be the postman or a neighbour – or someone you know well and don’t dislike, but find uninteresting. Just as before, develop metta in response to the way you actually feel about them right at this moment. There’s an image of some kind. Most likely you’ll feel very little, in a similar way to when (seemingly) you feel nothing in the first stage. But if you trust the process of giving attention, over time you will eventually find more feeling, and that will start revealing subtler feelings of pleasure or pain, to which you’ll feel more able to respond with metta.
4) That extension of our emotional capacity takes a step towards the biggest challenge as, in the fourth stage, you direct metta towards someone you dislike, or who seems to dislike you. You can choose someone you’re not getting on with at the moment, with whom there is either some temporary misunderstanding or long term, habitual non-communication. You could indeed choose an out-and-out enemy - someone you really hate. However, it is best not to make the practice impossibly difficult, and remember that the whole point of the exercise is to generate loving-kindness for all beings: if your negative feelings are very powerful you’ll probably end up strengthening them.
As in the previous stages, remain aware of the actual feeling that arises. Whenever you get distracted, return to your core experience (body, sensation and feeling) together with the actual impression, the image you are holding of this person. Have the view that though you currently find them difficult to get along with, things can and do change. Reflect that their experience will differ from your perception and that, like you, they often experience frustration and real suffering. If you can see this, you can relax your perceptions (and perhaps a little pride) and genuinely wish for their happiness and wellbeing. If they were truly happy, you would surely perceive them differently; indeed you would almost certainly find them more likeable.
5) The final stage begins by imagining each of the four people in the practice – you, your good friend, the neutral person, and the difficult person – all together. Remaining with the core experience and the feeling of metta you’ve been building up, work to equalise the metta between all four persons. Direct metta equally strongly towards the friend and the neutral person, yourself and your difficult person, and the difficult person and your friend. Work with images as described; it needs plenty of practice and concentration to do this well and get fully engaged. The method is an effective way to sharpen awareness of all the feelings you have about all the people you know. If time is limited, or you’re just starting the practice, a simpler approach is just to let metta flow equally towards each person without analysis or comparison. Simply imagine that the metta is equal towards all.
Then take the practice out to include all beings. Equalizing the metta starts a process of opening it up, universalising it. Open out to include the entire world, way beyond yourself and your three companions.
In doing this you can use your imagination freely. For example you could try first developing loving kindness towards yourself and anyone else in the room you are in. Then start opening out to include everyone in the house, building, or wherever you happen to be. Once that’s established, include the area round about, then the whole town or city. Next imagine the county or state, the country, and expand the friendliness to include the whole continent. Then include the other continents too, until the wish is for everyone in the world without exception to be happy, well, and free from suffering. Whatever beings there are, human or non-human, connect with their lives and wish them happiness. Buddhist tradition is that there are life forms throughout the universe, so don't stop with planet earth – wish every being well. Finally, develop the metta not only towards all present life, but also towards whatever living beings there might be in the future. As you meditate, try to get a sense of totality, completeness: of all beings. Let go completely and expand the attitude, emotion and feeling beyond all conceivable limits.