Archive for metta practice

The Practice of Lovingkindness Meditation

In 2011, I had the good fortune to attend the Spiritual Directors International’s (SDI) Conference in Atlanta, GA.  Without really knowing many of the presenters, I chose to sign up for a three-hour session on what I thought was compassion.  Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who I had experienced briefly at an Academy for Spiritual Formation conference, was the teacher.  The presentation was an eye opener for me to a whole other way of practicing meditation and prayer. 

Rabbi Shapiro presented from his book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice.  One of the practices he taught us was called Metta or Lovingkindness Meditation.  Metta is a Pali word, which can be translated as love. The best translation of this type of love in Christian terminology is agape. It is a love that is unconditional: open and unobstructed.  According to Sharon Salzberg, who is the cofounder of Insight Meditation Society,

Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world.  Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves.  We can open to everything with the healing forces of love.

Metta has two root meanings; gentle and friend.  It is likened to a gentle rain that, without choosing or selecting, falls indiscriminately.  This reminds me of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).  The practice of metta begins with us gently befriending ourselves.  This is sometimes even harder for us then praying for our enemies.  We are more likely to judge ourselves harshly and not spend much time in self-compassion. With the metta practice, we can uncover the possibility of truly respecting and loving ourselves as part of the human race. 

There are various phrases that meditation teachers use for this practice but the overall flow of the practice is the same.  One begins by taking a comfortable posture, either sitting in a chair, on the floor or lying down.  In metta, we always start by saying the phrases for ourselves.  We focus on our breath and imagine our heart being open and welcoming.  We then say some phrases that are a variation on the following traditional phrases (some alternatives are in the parentheses):

  • May I be free from danger (May I have safety, May I be free from fear)
  • May I have mental happiness (May I be peaceful, May I be liberated)
  • May I have physical happiness (May I be healed, May I be healthy)
  • May I have ease of well-being (May I dwell in peace, May I live with ease)

I prefer to use Rami Shapiro’s phrasing as it resonates with our American life for me. His suggestions are:

  • May I be free from fear
  • May I be free from compulsions
  • May I be blessed with love
  • May I be blessed with peace

One suggestion that Rabbi Shapiro made when we pray for ourselves is to invite a mental image of ourselves as a young child, especially if there is one that is wounded within us.  As we say this prayer, we say it to that child. And then we get an images in a progressive sequence of our teen age self, our middle age self and one of ourselves when we are much older than we currently are, ending with one when we are on our deathbed.  As we say this prayer to each image, we begin to feel the warmth of compassion extending to all various selves we carry within us.  This can allow real healing to take place.

After praying this prayer in a repetitive fashion for ourselves, we move on to say it for a person close to us whom we love or are friendly towards.  Next we extend it to a person we know but not very well, such as the person we buy our coffee from daily.  Lastly, we bring to mind the image of “an enemy” or a person with whom we are currently in a conflict situation.  We say the same phrases to them without anger or judgment but with an open and loving heart.  It can change the attitude we have towards them and thus be a change agent in the conflict situation.  We can also extend this metta prayer to include all living beings and our world. 

This practice has been a life changer for me, especially in the current state of the world that is full of divisiveness and hate.  If I seriously pray with an open heart for those who I feel are “enemy,” I can begin to look at them though other eyes.  I can see them as humans with fears and compulsions.  I can see that their desires are similar to mine: for peace, acceptance, and love.   I will be honest, for some people, I have to repeat this prayer over and over again before I begin to feel a shift in my own attitude.  That is all that I have any real control to change—my attitude.  This practice gives me the spaciousness of heart that allows acceptance of reality.  It helps to connect me to the oneness that connects us all, which I know stems from the heartbeat of God.  It is in that oneness that I know that Julian of Norwich’s statement is true; “all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”

Resources:

Shapiro, Rami. The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice

Salzberg, Sharon. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree/loving-kindness

https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-on-lovingkindness/

https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditation-loving-kindness/

Compassionate Heart

As I listen to the news lately, I hear yet another story of killing in Syria or Afghanistan.   The reporter then switches to a story about a mass murder at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and I begin to feel overwhelmed by all the violence that exists in our world.  How does one remain open to the suffering that occurs daily without developing a numbness or a cold heart that makes the suffering of others as distant as possible?  Do we just have to “turn the other cheek” and allow the brutal people of the world take over?  How can we remain compassionate, open to the pain of others without letting ourselves become a doormat or our hearts to be hardened into a narrow minded focus that cares only for ourselves and our immediate companions?

And what if in the past someone has abused us or taken advantage of us in an unfair way?  Are we who are striving for a compassionate heart supposed to forgive and forget?  Are we to let them continue to hurt us?  Do we have to continue to relate to them without setting any limits on their behavior?

For answers, I turn to two great spiritual leaders, Jesus and Buddha.  Both urged their followers to have a compassionate heart and to love one another as brothers and sisters.  Jesus is quoted as saying, “You know you have been taught, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you.  When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek.” (Matthew 5: 38-39)

What is meant by this statement?   If we look only at the surface of the statement from Matthew we might think Jesus was urging us to be passive and not resist evil when we face it.  In fact, this scripture has been used to oppress people and keep them in a one down position.  Dr. Walter Wink, in his book, Engaging the Powers, sheds light on what these words probably meant, given the social context of the day. According to Dr. Wink, no one in that culture would use their left hand to strike anyone as it was considered the unclean hand.  So in order to slap the person’s right cheek,  he had to use the back of his right hand.  This gesture was meant to be demeaning to the one receiving the blow.  Masters would backhand slave and Romans would do so to Jews.  If you present the other check, the person must still use his right hand and then he will have to use his fist or palm. That was a gesture used only between equals.  Thus, by turning the other cheek a person would be communicating that he or she refused to be humiliated and must be treated as an equal.  It was a non-violent but non passive response to the other person’s grasp for power.*

Buddha says,”Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another.  Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world…”(part of the Metta Sutta).  How does one cherish all living beings when some seem so bent on perpetuating evil in the world?  According to Sharon Salzberg in her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “Sometimes we think that to develop an open heart, to be truly loving and compassionate, means that we need to be passive, to allow others to abuse us, to smile and let anyone do what they want with us  Yet this is not what is meant by compassion. Quite the contrary.  Compassion is not at all weak.  It is the strength that arise out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal…Compassion can lead to a very forceful action without any anger or aversion in it.”  We need to be open to exploring the context out of which the negative behavior arises before we judge the person who commits the act.  If we can see what lead up to the behavior, we can hold an open heart towards the person while still not condoning the act.

A practice that has helped me remain more open to others and to develop a compassionate heart is that of metta.  In doing metta practice, we gently repeat phrases that are meaningful in terms of what we wish for ourselves and others.  We always begin with ourselves as any practice of lovingkindness that based on self hatred or depreciation cannot sustain itself.  We are called to love one another as we love ourselves which means we need to love ourselves first.

Sharon Salzberg’s book gives an in- depth look at how to do this practice and the benefit from making it a daily routine.  Briefly, we repeat four phrases that state our wish to  be free from danger, to have mental and physical happiness and ease of well-being.  The phrases I like to use are taken from Rami Shapiro and are

  • May I be free from fear,
  • May I be free from compulsions,
  • May I be blessed with love,
  • May I be blessed by peace.

I always start with myself but then call to mind images of people that I love and state the same phrases for them.  I then move to someone I am having a hard time loving or with whom I have a conflict.   After this I expand it to the world or particular world leaders.   The last step is to pray this for all beings, animal and human.

So, this is my prayer for you, dear reader:

May you be free from fear.

May you be free from compulsions.

May you be blessed with love.

May you be blessed by peace.

*For a more in-depth discussion of this passage and others like it, read Don’t Forgive Too Soon by Denis, Sheila and Matthew Linn