The Buddha taught that cultivating a kind and loving heart with a love for all creation is the most important dimension of our spiritual practice. The Pali word metta (Sanskrit: maitri) has two root meanings. The first is “gentle” as in a gentle misty rain that in falling, does not pick and choose where it falls. It simply falls with no discrimination. The second root is “friend.” A good and true friend is one who is constant in good times and bad. The culmination of metta is to become a good friend to all of life.
The Buddha often talked about the central importance of cultivating a deep sense of well-regard for others saying: "Putting down all barriers, let your mind be full of love, Let it pervade all the quarters of the world so that the whole wide world, above, below, and all around, is pervaded with love. Let it be sublime and beyond measure so that it abounds everywhere." Here, metta is being translated as "love," and it is most often translated as "loving-kindness," but as "friend" is the etymological root of the word metta, I like the term "friendliness."
Think of how you feel when you think of one of your besties... There's that sense of warmth, how thinking of them just makes you feel tender and accepted as you know you accept them: warts and all, they are your friend. Not, as a practice, metta-bhavana is literally the cultivation of that feeling expanding out -- as the Buddha says -- in all directions. And that's about all he said in regards to the practice of cultivation. Over time, a more formal practice has evolved that has radically transformed the affective or emotional relationship to human experience for many, many people. You might like to try it for yourself.
Preliminary Practice: Take some time to recall your own goodness; calling to mind a time you did or said something that was kind, generous, caring or loving. If nothing comes to mind, reflect on some skill or talent that you possess. It could be something as apparently insignificant as making a great pasta sauce! If still nothing comes to mind, simply reflect on the basic “rightness” of our innate wish to be happy. The fact is, this practice is truly accessible and available to all of us! And in fact, can serve as a separate practice as described in this earlier post.
Basic Practice: After settling in on the breath and having completed several minutes of preliminary practice, begin to repeat the following phrases, or others of your own choosing, that express what you most deeply wish for yourself. You can coordinate the phrases with your breath or not, as you prefer. Let the pacing and tone be gentle. When the mind wanders, or if difficult feelings arise, simply notice in a spirit of kind acceptance, and gently come back to repeating the phrases.
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.
May I be safe from harm.
May I hold myself patiently with kindness and care.
May I be free from the suffering caused by clinging and aversion.
May I feel the ease and joy of well-being.
The "Traditional" Sequence of Metta-Bhavana:
1. To Ourselves. This is the essential foundation for being able to offer genuine love to others.
2. A Benefactor. This is someone who has been very good to us, for whom we feel respect and gratitude. I had a blind student who would send metta to her guide-dog, so truly any being who has benefited or supported you in any way can be included here.
3. A Beloved Friend. This can include family members as well and also companion animals.
4. A Neutral Person. This is someone we have no strong feelings for one way or the other. Perhaps someone we see in the neighborhood but do not know. It can be hard to find someone we truly feel neutral toward, as we so quickly assess and judge others when we meet them, so try to find someone truly neutral!
5. A Difficult Person.* This is someone with whom we have experienced conflict; someone toward whom we feel anger, fear, or a lack of forgiveness. Someone we perceive as having hurt us in some way. It's advised not to begin with the most difficult or abusive person in your life. Start with the small irritating folk! Some students find that they themselves are the difficult person, or some aspect of their personality fits the bill.
6. Groups or Categories of Beings including animals, those in prison, those who are hungry, people with AIDS etc. This can be truly any group of beings for whom you feel a sense of solidarity.
7. All Beings Everywhere
* Be very patient and gentle when working with a difficult person. If difficult feelings arise, you may need to return to directing metta to yourself. Go back and forth between yourself and the difficult person, reflecting upon how much pain holding onto these feelings is causing you.
If you are moved to investigate this practice for yourself, please feel free to share your experience. Don't be alarmed if it feels like you cannot access this feeling. Sending love to a closed or protected heart is also part of the practice. Also, as a purifying practice, be aware that unpleasant feelings and thoughts may arise. Simply continue with the phrases, and if you ever feel like you are growing overwhelmed, return to the calming breath awareness practice.
When you finish practicing, sit quietly for a few minutes, simply opening yourself to your experience, without analyzing or judging it.
This practice is done as a formal meditation, but you can also do 'on-the-spot metta,' sending it to anyone around you as you walk down the street, sit in a bus or on a train etc. I've enjoyed adding it to my "people watching" while sitting at a cafe. Have fun!