Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June Daily Practice: Maitri/Metta Bhavana

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.

While many folk believe they can love others unconditionally, I have found that if you cannot open and accept yourself unconditionally, it is truly not possible to do so for others. Sadly, it is not even possible to receive such love from another if you do not first have it for yourself. The Buddha said there is no one more deserving of your love than yourself. In befriending yourself, you open the door to your heart so that others can abide within.

Preliminary Practice: Take some time to recall your own goodness; calling to mind a time we 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!

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.

The Phrases:
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.
May I be safe from harm.
May I be free from suffering.
May I have 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 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.
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. 

Please take up this practice this month, and share whatever effects you find coming up. Don't be alarmed if it feels like you cannot access this feeling. Sending love to a closed or defended 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.

poep sa frank jude


  1. Thank you for writing this particular practice down. I have participated in this, but I have not seen it written out to follow.

    An observation/clarification please. Under preliminary practice, you note: "Take some time to recall your own goodness; calling to mind a time we did or said something that was kind, generous, caring or loving."

    It seems to me that this could be construed as egotistical. "I am...good, kind, wonderful, etc. Or something that *I* may have thought was kind, caring or loving was done for egotistical purposes and perhaps, not so loving or kind to the recipents.

    Granted, I understand that one should be working toward Right Action and Right Effort, but it's separating ego from true action that becomes murkey in my opinon.

    And I could just be way over thinking this too. :)

    With regards.

  2. Kristen,

    Many students find it disconcerting to reflect on their good qualities. They think it is either 'self-centered,' 'egotistical' or in some other sense 'self-indulgent,' but the Buddha often exhorted his students to do so in order to fertilize the seed of love and happiness.

    Directly seeing the natural radiance of our heart/mind reminds us of our own loveliness. The word we translate as "mindfulness," actually means "remembering," and this is the kind of recollection encouraged by the Buddha. Recognizing our own power to love awakens us to this primordial brilliance Zen calls "our original face before we were born."

    Our potential to love is real, boundless and not destroyed no matter what we experience by way of mistakes, reactivity, pain we've caused or all the times we have suffered. Throughout "the full catastrophe," our potential to love remains intact and unspoiled.

    In a separate post, I have just posted the fuller explanation of the Preliminary Practice of "Remembering The Good Within You."

    Thank YOU for creating the opportunity to offer a fuller description and explanation!

    frank jude

  3. Thank you for this practice. I have been practicing ever since you brought this to the mind lab and have found it to be very transforming. I've noticed, for example that I don't have a very long list of benefactors and then as I pondered on that, realized there were many and am grateful. It also helps me want to be more of a benefactor to others knowing that is truely a benefit, guiding, helping in whatever way I can and to be true to myself in the process. Every morning before the sit I go through the list and am noticing relationships and how they can change. One day a person is beloved, the next day difficult and still wishing them well. I've been including animals in the beloved and sometimes in the difficult (when I was dog sitting for my mom's pit bull). I find that when I see these precious beings that I feel closer and sense so much love. Sending metta to groups is helping me to connect to the bigger world that has so much suffering. This is a very important practice. Thank you!!

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  5. Stephanie,

    Thanks for writing and for your question. I am sure there are many people who have similar questions.

    First, it sounds to me like you are dealing with the anger quite well, though perhaps your question comes from thinking you shouldn't feel anger? For instance, you say that you DO feel compassion for those you love who 'create pain in the lives of others' and then you say, "But I feel anger still."

    There's nothing wrong with feeling anger. And yes, anger IS painful. The Buddha says that when we feel anger, it's like a man who picks up a burning ember to throw at someone; the man gets burned and is the first one to suffer the pain!

    One thing you may want to look into: when we are angry with someone, we tend to fixate on them or the actions they did we think of as the cause of our anger. But this is inaccurate. The cause of our anger is within us! We all have seeds of anger (and fear, grief, mindfulness, love, joy, concentration, anxiety etc. etc.) and those 'seeds' are the real cause of our feeling anger. What someone says can at best be seen as a condition or perhaps secondary cause.

    For instance, the cause of an apple tree is the apple seed. BUT, without the proper conditions of sunlight, water, fertile earth and time, there can be no tree! And, with all the sunlight, water, fertile earth and time in the world, if there is no seed, no tree!

    SO, when you find yourself angry with someone, please place your attention on your own experience of anger. You'll find that it is indeed painful. Then you can cultivate compassion for yourself and your pain. With deepening insight, we also come to see that the anger is 'impersonal,' and thus we free ourselves and others from blame. Note, this does not free us from responsibility, just blame.

    The healing comes with the radical acceptance your final sentence points to. Cultivating love and compassion for others AND for yourself! Hold your anger like a crying child, with gentleness and interest, investigating how to lessen the causes of your anger. Once calmed, the insight leads to wisdom. If it's possible to express your feelings with the person who watered your seeds of anger through inappropriate action then do so. If not, it's important to remember that reconciliation begins within yourself. It may have to end there as well. :-)

    poep sa

  6. "AND for yourself!"

    It has always been easier for me to forgive others. I don't mind the pain of anger. I don't mind the pain of most things. But cultivating compassion for myself is not something that comes naturally to me :)

    Said very nicely: "Hold your anger like a crying child, with gentleness and interest, investigating how to lessen the causes of your anger."

    Thanks for your response.

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  9. Hello Stephanie,

    It is true that each individual and each individual situation requires it's own 'resolution,' which is not always the same thing as a 'solution.' Sometimes the 'change' is limited to one's own response to an untenable situation.

    My closing statement in my previous response to you, is that sometimes 'reconciliation begins within oneself, and sometimes it ends there too." This means that we may indeed love people, family and/or friends, with whom we need to keep a distance in order to protect ourselves from their destructive behaviors. Such compassionate action is NOT the same as indifference or aversive avoidance.

    Equanimity reminds us that we may love someone and wish with all their heart for them to be happy, and free from suffering, but that their happiness depends upon their own actions! This acknowledgment allow us to continue to love, without falling into despair and dejection.

    Please continue to cultivate love and compassion for yourself and then for those you love to are suffering. Be as available to and for them as you feel capable of being, but know that you may need to love from afar.


  10. Just like to thank you for posting.
    It's been very helpful on my personal practice.

    1. Jee,

      Great to hear it! I hope you are continuing the practice. Feel free to share at any time!