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Lovingkindness: What is it and how do we practice?

Lovingkindness, or metta in Pali, is an ancient meditation practice taught by the Buddha.

According to the story, the Buddha sent his monks to practice meditation all night in a haunted forest. The forest spirits frightened the monks so badly that they ran back to the Buddha in terror. The Buddha then taught them metta practice and sent them back into the woods, where they discovered that the spirits had become friendly. From then on the monks were no longer afraid, and they experienced peace and ease.

We all have frightening and disturbing spirits that live in our minds – voices of fear, worry, depression, shame, self-doubt, and animosity towards ourselves and others. The pervasive unease of the human predicament seems heightened in today’s global atmosphere of calamity, strife and uncertainty. Metta practice rests on the understanding that every human harbors seeds of lovingkindness, even when these seeds seem dormant.  Our minds have a deeply conditioned survival mechanism of focusing on danger and negativity. Metta practice helps us reconnect to our seeds of kindness, and incline our minds and hearts towards our innate capacity for love, acceptance, and unconditional friendliness.

The mechanics of the practice are simple- begin by sitting quietly, grounded in your body and breath. Spend a few moments reminding yourself of the feeling of lovingkindness, perhaps remembering a time when you felt loved by another being. Then offer metta to yourself. Traditionally, we silently repeat phrases such as “May I be safe.”, “May I be happy.”, “May I be healthy.”, and “May I live with ease.” Or you can make up your own phrases that feel meaningful. You can use images or gestures such as placing a hand over your heart or on your cheek.  Then move on to offer metta to other people you care about – someone who has helped you, a dear friend. Then stretch your heart further by offering metta to someone you don’t know well – an acquaintance, someone you see in passing but don’t know at all. Stretching even further, offer metta to someone in your life who is difficult. Eventually expand your circle of metta to include all sentient beings.

Simple but Powerful

This practice is simple but powerful. The traditional Buddhist texts list eleven benefits of practicing metta: You will sleep easily; You will wake easily; You will have pleasant dreams; People will love you; Devas (gods or angels) and animals will love you; Devas will protect you; External dangers, such as poisons, weapons, and fire, will not harm you; Your face will be radiant; Your mind will be serene; You will die unconfused; You will be re-born in happy realms. Contemporary research on metta meditation has supported the following benefits: Increased positive emotions; Quieting of inner critic; Increased empathy and compassion; Fewer migraines; Increased telomere length (a biological marker of aging).

written by Miv London

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