The development of loving-kindness.
This is a Buddhist meditation practise, illustrating the importance placed on the development of compassion in Mahayana Buddhism. ('Metta' means 'loving kindness' and 'bhavana' means 'cultivation').
When we practise this meditation, we start with ourselves. That is, we aim to feel more appreciative of ourselves first of all: more integrated and less prone to internal conflicts, before we attempt to develop positive feelings toward anyone else.
The basic psychological principle that Buddhists recognise here is that if we can't feel good about ourselves, then we are less likely to be able to feel good about other people.
So a metta bhavana meditation session leads from concern with oneself, to a concern for other sentient beings.
All sentient beings experience suffering in some degree. Here we focus on developing empathy for the difficulties that others may be experiencing: we wish them well, having 'their best interests at heart'.
The metta that we want to develop in our daily lives, as a result of the meditation practise, should not be a massiveley contrived state, however. Buddhist philosophy says that compassion can spring quite naturally from a recognition of the 'non-duality' of self and other: it is a state of 'engagement' in the world, a state of 'relating', where we feel for the experience of other people, and where we also focus on the good, positive, kind feelings we have so that we can spread that stuff around a bit...
The amount of time spent on each of the 'stages' of this practise is entirely optional, but perhaps 10 minutes for each stage would be a good average; less for beginners.
There's nothing to say that you can't whip through it on your own in a matter of seconds though- why not!
Choose a Posture you feel comfortable with.
If there is stress or tightness in any part of your body then just let that stress or tightness 'fall away'. Take your time. Allow yourself to become more relaxed.
When you're ready concentrate on the breath. Simply watch it come and go, allowing your breathing to become regular and a little deeper, without forcing anything.
If your mind wanders off in any direction, gently bring yourself back to an awareness of each breath you take. Try to maintain this simple awareness for a few minutes. Breath comes in, and breath goes out.
Now shift your attention to the body as a whole, focussing on any emotions that you may be experiencing within yourself just now. From now on, and for the rest of the meditation, if you find yourself distracted in any way, then gently 'bring yourself back' to your body and the current state of your emotions.
The 'transformation' or 'education' of the emotions is an important part of the mettta bhavana practise, so always come back to focus on the emotional aspect of yourself when you find yourself going off in some other direction, but don't forget that all parts are related. Positive thoughts can give rise to positive emotions and negative thoughts can give rise to negative emotions, and at other times we will want to work primarily with 'thought', but not now: so if you can, just tune in to your feelings and try to maintain that awareness. OK that's the preamble over!
The first stage of the practise proper involves developing good feelings for ourselves: something within us that we can draw on, to extend to others.
[Technique 1:] Look into your memory to find a time when you were particularly happy, when you experienced feelings of joy, felt glad to be alive, felt warm and positive. Explore those memories for a little while, and every now and again say 'may I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering'.
[Technique 2:] Imagine that with each breath, along with the air of each breath we take in, there is a subtle, life-force energy or 'prana', and that just as you absorb the oxygen from the air, so on some subtle level your body also gathers and stores up the pranic energy. Visualise the body as a whole with your heart at the centre. Imagine the field of your body's subtle energy surrounding you like a cocoon of yellow-orange light. Don't worry about whether this is 'true' or not. Suspend your disbelief if you have problems believing in this kind of 'subtle energy'. Now imagine that as your awareness rests on your physical and subtle bodies, so healing takes place. Your energies become more integrated: you feel good! As you explore these positive, energetic feelings for a little while, every now and again you say to yourself 'may I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering', and each time you say this the light of the subtle energy surrounding you grows brighter and stronger.
[Technique 3:] What is it that other people like about you? What do you think you are good at? What achievements are you particularly pleased with? Hold these good qualities in your mind for a little while, and feel good about yourself. Every now and again repeat to yourself 'may I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering'.
Try and really tune into each part of the repeating phrase, so that when you say 'may I be well' and 'may I be happy' and 'may I be free from suffering' to yourself you are receptive to any effect the words may be having. Be calm and be respectful towards yourself: listen to what's going on in there. Be your own friend, be your own healer. Accept yourself fully.
The second stage is about cultivating metta towards a friend.
There are a few 'rules of thumb' about who to pick that it may be useful to bear in mind at first: it may be best to choose someone who is alive, whose age is within a few years of your own, to whom you feel friendship rather than physical attraction.
The aim here is to strengthen the metta that we already have for our friend. We already feel considerate towards them, we already care about their wellbeing, we already want them to be happy.
Tune in to those feelings and if possible let them become deeper, stronger, but please don't use too much force!. You might not feel much at all at this moment. You might even have some negative feelings towards your friend. If so, don't worry about it. Be gentle with yourself, be kind, and allow new feelings to grow at their own pace.
[Technique 1:] Picture this friend in your mind's eye and imagine that they are happy: imagine them smiling, imagine them laughing. Say 'may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering' to them, or simply wish them well in your thoughts.
[Technique 2:] Imagine your friend's body of subtle energy surrounding them like a cocoon of yellow-orange light. Imagine that this web of prana or life-force is centred around your friend's heart, and that as you say 'may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering', so healing takes place: the energy surrounding them becomes brighter in terms of colour and stronger in terms of energy. It also becomes more integrated in terms of the balance between different parts. If you get a strong feeling that you shouldn't be attempting this, then don't do it. Choose another of the methods described here with which you feel comfortable.
[Technique 3:] What is it that you like about your friend? What do you think they are good at in particular? What do you think they should be most pleased with? Hold these good qualities in your mind for a little while, and feel good about your friend. Every now and again in your mind's eye say to them 'may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering'.
Again try and tune in to each part of the phrase 'may you be well', 'may you be happy' and 'may you be free from suffering', with a calm and respectful towards your friend. You want to be aware of their needs, and you want to be able to do the right thing to help them.
Stage three is about developing metta for a 'neutral' person, that is, a person for whom you have no particular strong feelings in either direction.
Focussing on some kind of 'acquaintance' that you hardly know is probably best. Try not to choose a complete stranger.
Why do we want to try and extend metta to a 'neutral' person? So that we can remind ourselves that we all want to be happy and avoid suffering: These predilections are shared by pretty much everyone. This is true of the people we hardly know, just as it is true of complete strangers.
We don't have the energy to really take on board the sufferings of every person on the planet, but at least we can try to push back the envelope of our indifference a little here by choosing to concentrate on one person that we don't usually think about. Let's try and care about this one person that we barely know for a change.
Most of us have a 'shell' of indifference toward people we hardly know, in some ways because this can make life 'easier' for us: but too often acting from the shell becomes a habit, where we shut off from our fellow-travellers, even when it's not a necessity for us to do this. Sometimes the self-protective shell that we develop can cause us to be rude to strangers, and sometimes it can make us numb to the extreme forms of suffering that people we come into contact with may be experiencing.
We are not going to attempt to fully empathise with everyone right now. We are going to try and extend loving kindness to one person that we do not usually have any kind of feeling for.
Ask yourself what motivates this person. What kind of food do they like, do you think? What kind of films, or books, or TV programmes? Do you think they have friends and family living nearby that they can look to for support when times are hard?
Try and break out of the indifference that you felt before: in your mind's eye at least, try and connect with the person you have chosen, and share their humanity.
If you can, and without forcing it, feel 'solidarity' with them, knowing that most of the pains that they have suffered in the past, or are suffering now, are pains that you have experienced yourself. As you empathise with them, so let the good feelings that you have tapped in to already in this meditation, flow out to this 'nuetral' person. Say 'may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering', and as you say it, try and tune in to this other person, so that if your good intentions have any effect, try and be sensitive to that. If they seem to 'perk up' in any way, be happy for them.
If you don't feel much at all at this stage, don't worry about it. It may take time for you to be able to feel positive feelings for people with whom you have no kind of emotional bond. This is probably just 'how it is' for most of us unless we do a metta-bhavana-like practise perhaps for quite some time. But that's the point: to work at it.
The fourth stage of the metta bhavana practise is about cultivating metta towards someone that you find 'difficult'.
This may be someone whose behaviour you find mildly problematical, or they may be someone you consider to be a real enemy, who you feel does not have your best interests at heart. It's up to you. But, if you're new to the practise, and you are wondering wheteher to choose someone for this stage where there is real and intense conflict, then you may instead want to 'work up' gradually to being able to feel compassion for that person. Don't try and push yourself too hard. It's better that you're honest about how you feel and that you're not unrealistically ambitious for what you can achieve right now. If the potential person you're thinking of arouses very very strong feelings of anger or hostility in you then it may be a good idea to leave them out of stage four of the practise until such time as you can find a little more equanimity!
OK, you've chosen a person to focus on. If you feel anger, feel anger, or if you feel fear, feel fear, at least for a moment. If you want to argue with them, then be aware of that too, but don't indulge in any of these feelings. Watch as they rise up, and then let them go . Don't jump on every emotional train that comes along: this time let's choose to step back a little, not energising the parts of ourselves that would only deepen the conflict, in the way that probably we usually do.
Do you think that the extent to which they are 'difficult' comes from difficulties in their own life? If so, then be aware of that: feel for them.
Make a mental note that in future dealings with this person you do not get drawn any further into conflict with them, but instead find the most perfect Buddhist 'right means' in your actions in relation to this person.
[Technique 1:] Picture them in your mind's eye and imagine that they are happy: imagine them smiling, imagine them laughing. Say 'may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering' to them, or simply wish them well in your thoughts.
[Technique 2:] Think about what you have in common with this person. You share a common humanity, at the very least, with all of the 'thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to'. In your mind's eye say to them 'may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering'. Wish them well in your thoughts.
[Technique 3:] What good qualities does this person have? They must have some! What do you think they are good at in particular? What do you think they should be most pleased with about themselves? Assuming you can think of good qualities like this, then hold those things in your mind for a while, while trying to cultivate good feelings for the difficult person you have chosen. Every now and again in your mind's eye (even if you can't think of anything good to say about them) say 'may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering', and imagine that as you visualise in this way, so the conflict between you lessens.
Before we go on the fifth and final stage, come back to a simple awareness of your body and whatever emotions you can sense are active there. Allow yourself to be calm and relaxed.
In stage five we broaden the focus of our awareness, aiming to shine metta out toward many other sentient beings.
First of all we need to contact the really good feelings again. Tune back in if you can to the happiness that you felt earlier, in 'stage one' and remain with those feelings for a while.
Imagine those positive feelings manifesting as a sphere of orange-yellow 'light' surrounding you, with your heart at the centre. All sentient beings want to be happy. All sentient beings generally want to avoid suffering. And if it feels OK for you, right now you want all sentient beings to know something of the happiness that you have felt.
If it feels OK for you, you also want all beings that are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain to be released from suffering.
This well-wishing is metta. The sphere of light that surrounds you is metta. So, shining like a sun, you give out light in all directions, giving warmth, friendliness and support to everything that is touched by your light.
Extend that light to all corners of the earth, sending metta to all people on the earth. As you do this, say 'may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering'. Extend goodwill to all people on earth in your thoughts.
Then consider all of the animals on the earth.
Then all of the plants.
Then consider the earth as a whole, as an entity in itself.
If it feels good, then shine that metta out into the universe beyond the earth, to beings on other planetary systems, far out in space.
In two minutes we will start to bring things to a close.
When you are ready, slowly come back to earth. Come back to normal everyday consciousness and come out of the meditation in your own time.