Using Loving-Kindness Meditation to Overcome Resistance
Metta meditation can enliven your practice, get you unstuck, and quell the inner critic
I started meditating as a teenager. My journey took me to various teachers and meditation techniques — many incredibly helpful, some not so much. After several years of practice, I noticed that mindfulness meditation seemed to resonate with me more than other techniques, and it became an essential part of my daily practice.
By the time I graduated from college, however, I noticed I’d developed an incredible resistance to almost any change. Every project I embarked upon quickly fizzled out from procrastination. Grand plans never got past step one. I had my entire future ahead of me, yet I struggled to make any meaningful progress. I became very aware of an inner critic that seemed intent on causing me to fail.
Even my meditation practice was stuck. The simple act of observing my breath — something I’d been doing for years — was next to impossible. I struggled with focus and freeing myself from negative thoughts. I realized I needed to do something different.
I was aware of loving-kindness, or metta, meditation for some time but had never tried it. I felt like its focus on cultivating joy and happiness didn’t fit my cerebral nature, so I’d never seriously given it a try. However, stewing in inertia and self-loathing all day had gotten old, and I was willing to attempt anything to help me move forward.
Meditation can be a slow-burn, and its effects typically require some time to become aware of. However, only a few days after taking up metta as my regular practice, the difference was almost palpable. After one week, it was like some sunlight had broken through a thick layer of clouds in my life. After a few months, much of the despair I’d been feeling had left. I was happier, less lonely, and free of much of the anxiety I felt.
The harsh inner critic’s voice stayed, but my relationship to it had changed. I no longer paid attention to it, and I was able to treat it like anyone else telling me I wasn’t good enough: I ignored it.
The Science of Metta Meditation
Though it may seem my experience with loving-kindness is subjective, the benefits I experienced fall in line with what many researchers have discovered. In one study, participants who practiced loving-kindness meditation for 12 weeks reported increased levels of happiness, interconnectedness, joy, pride, awe, and self-esteem.
Metta meditation has been shown to have a significant impact on relieving feelings of anxiety and depression and healing past traumas. On a physical level, metta can help alleviate migraines, increase the amount of gray matter in the brain, improve sleep, and lengthen telomeres — the genetic markers closely linked to the aging process.
To explain what metta is, it’s helpful first to say what it isn’t. Metta is not a feeling of happiness, or of joy, or anything else for that matter. While these feelings are commonly associated with the practice, they are not the intended goal of it. Metta is an intention, a mindset, a way of viewing oneself and the world. Meditation teacher and author Shaila Catherine defines metta as “the universal wish for the welfare and happiness of all living beings.”
Loving-kindness is something we can use to cultivate happiness. It helps us to move past the fear and internal criticism that holds us back and opens up the door to developing our potential. Moving past these obstacles is useful for every person in the world, but creatives, with their sharp inner critics and tendencies toward perfectionism, can particularly benefit from practicing loving-kindness. When we practice metta, we can silence the harsh inner voice that says we’re not good enough, enabling us to focus on what’s at hand without indulging in feelings of fear and doubt.
Introducing Loving-Kindness Meditation
The practice of metta meditation is quite simple: you focus on the intention of loving-kindness towards oneself, and then to others. It can be done at any time of the day, as a sitting practice on its own, or added onto a meditation practice you already have. There are no hard rules to metta, as long as you can develop the intention of loving-kindness.
A concern many beginners to this practice have is that they’re not feeling anything special. I’ll emphasize again that metta is an intention-based practice and not about feeling a certain way. During this meditation, especially when first starting, you may be confronted with a whole array of feelings, ranging from unbridled joy to extreme anger and everywhere in between. When this happens, switch your focus back to the intention of loving-kindness without getting caught up in what you’re feeling.
How to Prepare for Metta Meditation
Metta meditation consists of five parts. The first part is directing metta inwards, focusing on self-compassion and self-love. From there, you direct the intention toward someone you love, then at someone with whom you’re neutral. After that, you direct loving-kindness toward someone with whom you’re having issues. Finally, you direct metta into the whole world, towards everyone and everything.
Before I break down the steps, I want to address a common issue that arises with people new to this practice. Often, especially for those of us who are especially critical of ourselves (a camp I fall into), it can be challenging to direct loving-kindness inward. The inner critic, feeling itself being threatened, rages out in revolt, telling you myriad nasty things. It’s quite uncomfortable, and for many people it can be downright scary, causing some to wonder whether this practice is right for them.
Many people have this experience when starting metta. With time, that obstacle is easily conquered. A good way to work around it is first to consider something or someone you feel unconditional love for. This focal point can be a person, a pet, or even be a plant you’re particularly fond of. Whatever works.
To start, get into a relaxed position, either sitting or lying down. Spend some time following your breath, letting yourself get into a meditative mindset.
After a few minutes, bring to mind that previous image of unconditional love. Imagine whatever or whoever you’ve chosen is perfectly happy and content. When I’ve done this, I’ve imagined my nephew laughing and smiling, or my beloved cat curled up in my lap. Some people may worry about their lack of visual imagination. I can safely say the quality of the image is secondary to how it makes you feel.
After spending a few moments with this image, repeat these words, directing them to your focal point:
May you be well.
May you be happy.
May you be peaceful.
May you be loved.
Some sources describe this affirmation differently. I’ve found that simplicity works best for most people, but also adding a few creative spins can be useful. The key here is sincerity. Metta is not about unforgiving rigidity, about doing something a certain way every time lest you be doomed for failure. Seek whatever helps you get into the zone of loving-kindness, and mean it when you say these words.
After repeating this phrase several times and sending metta towards your focal point, direct that same intention inward. Wish yourself to be well, to be happy, to be peaceful, to be loved. Understand that you’re worthy of all those things, that you’re deserving of the same love you felt for that person, for that pet, for that really awesome tree outside.
Sit with this intention and continue to repeat the affirmation as long as you see fit. Any amount of time is good. Some people go five minutes; others can keep at it for much longer. I believe ten minutes is a good time to aim at if you’re new to the practice, but do what works best for you.
In summary for this preparatory practice:
- Sit or lie down in a relaxed position. Observe your breath for a few minutes, getting into a meditative state.
- Think of someone or something you love unconditionally being pleased and content.
- Direct loving-kindness towards them while saying, “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be loved.” Repeat this affirmation several times, meaning it with your entire being.
- Direct loving-kindness towards yourself. Say “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be loved.” Repeat this affirmation with sincerity, understanding the truth to each sentence. Continue doing this for several minutes, or as long as you see fit.
I suggest doing this preparatory practice a few times before moving onto the more formal meditation. Its purpose is to help you get a good sense of what metta is, as well as see yourself as inherently worthy of receiving it, allowing you to give it to others. When you feel ready, you can move onto doing the full practice.
Practicing Metta Meditation
You can practice loving-kindness meditation at any time, wherever you are. I’ve practiced it on breaks at work, in waiting rooms, on airplanes and trains, in the park, and many other places. As long as you’re not driving a car or otherwise engaged, every time and place is suitable for a few minutes of practice.
That being said, setting aside a regular time each day to have a more formal sitting practice is incredibly valuable. Good times for this are in the morning before you start your day, or in the evening when you’re winding down. If you already have a meditation practice, you can switch it out for metta, or you can tack it onto what you’re already doing.
I typically practice metta in the evening, as I’ve found it to be an excellent way of dialing down before going to bed. I’ll also sometimes go several weeks practicing only this type of meditation. In a somewhat different way than mindfulness meditation, metta is also a form of developing concentration. Though not strictly a mindfulness practice, a lot of the “muscles” (so to speak) that concentration-based meditations use are also worked out while doing metta.
Just like in the preparatory practice, start this meditation in a relaxed state. Sit down, ensure you’re comfortable, and focus on your breathing for a few minutes. You’re not aiming to get into some “deep” place. Relax your body and give yourself permission to let go of whatever thoughts or worries you may have.
When you’re sufficiently relaxed, focus directing metta to yourself as before. Repeat the affirmation several times, feeling loving-kindness spread throughout your body.
May I be well.
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.
May I be loved.
There is no correct speed in which to do this, but try not to rush it. The number of times you recite these words also isn’t very important. Spend some time intending loving-kindness towards yourself, and don’t stress the specifics. I’ve noticed that most guided metta meditations recite the affirmation four or five times, and that’s a good number at which to aim.
Next, think of someone you love unconditionally. This person may be who you thought of during the preparatory practice, or someone different. I tend to cycle through people with each sit, but it’s also perfectly fine to focus on one person over many sits. Imagine that person being happy, absolutely enjoying their life, and direct loving-kindness to them with the affirmations from before. You’re speaking from the heart here. When you say “May you be well,” for example, really mean it, as if they were right before you.
May you be well.
May you be happy.
May you be peaceful.
May you be loved.
When you feel ready to move on, bring to mind someone neutral, someone you might see occasionally but don’t know anything about. This person can be anyone you come across during your daily life, who you see regularly, or who you’ve only met once. The key to whoever you choose here is that you don’t feel strongly about them in any particular way, positively or negatively. They’re simply a person who exists, with their own life experiences independent of yours.
Just like before, direct loving-kindness towards this person. Some people have a hard time feeling metta for this set of people, and that brings us to what was said earlier about this being an intention practice rather than something focused on developing a certain feeling. You simply intend that this person be well, be happy, be peaceful, and be loved. Understand that this person, regardless of the specifics, wants the same things as everyone else — to be happy and loved. Don’t worry about what that may be for them, and focus on sending loving-kindness.
After several rounds of repeating the affirmation and intending metta to the stranger, bring to mind someone with whom you’re having difficulties. Think of someone you don’t like. Just as before, however, spend some time sending them loving-kindness, repeating the affirmation several times.
I’ve noticed that these last two categories are also difficult for people new to this meditation. Sending loving-kindness to a person you’re not fond of can be particularly hard, especially if they’ve done some real damage in your life. Remember that this is a practice in the literal sense, something you’ll get better at over time. The real benefit of focusing loving-kindness on someone you don’t like is that you’re healing yourself from the resentment or anger you may harbor. This healing helps you move past traumas, leading you to a place of compassion and equanimity. No rule states you need to like the person, but holding onto negativity only hurts yourself. However, if there’s trauma that’s especially intense with someone, you may want to avoid bringing them into this practice.
Our days often bring us into contact with people who aren’t very kind, whether they’re rude on the phone or cut us off on the highway, and these are entirely suitable candidates for your metta practice.
If you feel like the words and intention fail to resonate, continue with the practice as usual. Aim to develop loving-kindness for everyone, even people you don’t care for. This practice may be a challenge for some people, but it’s something that, in time, will improve.
The last step is to send loving-kindness to every being in the world. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met everyone who populates this little planet of ours, nor can I bring them all to my mind. For metta, however, this isn’t necessary. Simply intend loving-kindness for every person. If you want to visualize metta flowing out of you and going in every direction, that’s great, but projecting the intention is all you need to do.
After repeating the affirmations several times, sit with your mind focused on loving-kindness. You don’t need to direct it anywhere now, just sit with it in whatever way is comfortable for you.
This entire practice can be as long or short as you want it to be, but ten to fifteen minutes is a good length to start with. The quality of the practice is more significant than how long you go. Just five minutes of practicing metta with good intent every day will yield better results than an hour of half-heartedly saying the words.
- Sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Spend a few minutes getting into a relaxed state.
- Direct loving-kindness towards yourself. Silently repeat, “May I be well. May I be happy. May I peaceful. May I be loved” several times.
- Bring to mind someone you love. Direct loving-kindness towards them, saying “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be loved” several times.
- Direct loving-kindness towards someone you feel neutral toward. Intend metta by saying, “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be loved.” Do this for several rounds.
- Bring to mind someone with whom you’re having difficulties, and repeat the affirmation. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be loved.”
- Direct loving-kindness to every being in the world. Say, “May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be peaceful. May all beings be loved” several times.
- Remain in loving-kindness. Focus on being consumed in the intention of metta, and let it take you over. After a few minutes, gently take yourself out of the meditation.
Going Further With Metta Meditation
This framework should serve as a guideline to a loving-kindness practice. The meditation described above should be considered fundamental rather than restrictive. As you move forward with this meditation, you’ll find opportunities to modify certain aspects of it.
Many Buddhist texts suggest that several individuals can be added to each category as you progress with metta. Instead of focusing on one person per section then moving on, you can project loving-kindness to several people in succession who fit into the respective category.
Another way of using this practice is to spend single sessions on just one section of the meditation. So one sit can be devoted solely to practicing metta on neutral people in your life, and then another session can be dedicated to challenging individuals. Sometimes you might want to focus just on yourself like in the preparatory practice I recommended earlier, and other times you may want to spend time projecting loving-kindness toward loved ones.
You can also add other categories into this meditation. A traditional group to add is influential teachers. The term “teacher” here doesn’t just mean teachers you had in school — it can refer to anyone who’s had a positive impact in your life, who’s been a good role model or mentor to you, or who’s positively changed your life in some way.
Another category you can add is people like world leaders, politicians, or others of that kind, especially ones with whom you disagree. This section is primarily for people who you believe are making the world a worse place somehow. Just like how you project metta to people you’re having difficulties with, you can do it to people you’ve never met but with whom you fundamentally disagree.
The basic categorical progression for this practice is to go from people who are easy to send metta to and then moving toward those you find more difficult. A category like “influential teachers” can be placed after your loved ones, for example, while the “problematic politicians” can go after those with a specifically more challenging presence in your life.
Other Methods of Loving-Kindness
A meditation practice is a great thing to have. However, metta isn’t relegated to sitting down and intending for everyone to be happy and loved. That’s one part of it, but the goal is to bring that intention to the forefront of your life.
There are many ways to do this, but I’ve found these to be especially effective:
- Start and end the day with metta: Before you get out of bed each morning, repeat the metta affirmations to yourself. Say these words a handful of times, intending your day to be filled with loving-kindness. You can also pick one person, whoever you feel like, and send them metta. Repeat this process at night before you fall asleep. This isn’t a formal meditation practice by any means, and it should only take a minute or two.
- Transform negative situations: If you catch yourself in a less than desirable situation during the day and you’re feeling anger swelling up, repeat the affirmations and direct metta toward the source. This takes some practice, but you’re not avoiding how you feel or pretending that you’re happy when you’re not. You’re acknowledging your feelings, but responding to them with loving-kindness. This may be one of the single most transformative techniques in your life, and it’s similar to methods found in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
- Accept suffering: So often we find ourselves turning away from suffering. When someone is hurting, instead of opening ourselves up to them, we close up and move away from the situation. This doesn’t help anyone, and, in many ways, it weakens us. Suffering is an unavoidable part of life, and if we turn away from small moments of it happening to someone, we’ll be blindsided when it appears in our own lives. When we accept suffering, it doesn’t mean that we give up in despair. Accepting suffering means that you accept that it exists, nothing more. This may occur if you’re watching the news and you see someone whose life has been turned upside down by some great tragedy. This may happen when you hear that someone has gotten a horrible diagnosis. Maybe you see an accident on the side of the road, or someone walking down the street slips and falls. The next time you’re confronted by suffering, open up to it. Repeat the metta affirmations, and turn towards it rather than away. This approach is a variant on the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, which is a valuable meditation on its own and a close cousin to metta.
- Be grateful for the joy of others: This is similar to the popular “gratitude list.” At the end of each day, compile a list of good things that happened to other people. Maybe your sister got a new car, or you saw a child enjoying a piece of candy. Perhaps your friend got a new job or is enjoying a romantic relationship. Maybe you saw someone attain some good fortune on TV, or heard about something good that happened to a friend of a friend. It doesn’t matter how seemingly big or small this event is, or how well you know the person, simply make a list of other people’s good fortune and feel genuine happiness for them. This simple exercise is incredibly powerful, and, especially if you’re susceptible to feeling a lot of envy or jealousy sometimes, can help you be a more sympathetic and open individual.
So many elements of our life are contingent on our levels of happiness. In a world that’s increasingly more automated, where social media interactions overshadow genuine connection, developing feelings of sympathy and empathy towards others may be more important now than ever.
Loving-kindness can have a marked effect on our creative work. It helps us focus on what’s in front of us, letting us move past much of the internal resistance that keeps us from producing what we want. It also opens us up to the world, allowing our work to reflect our feelings in an authentic way.
A loving-kindness practice can serve as the perfect antidote for resistance. The Stoic tenet of seeing things for what they are and understanding how our perceptions can radically change circumstances is a key benefit of practicing metta. Loving-kindness helps us accept the world, to cut through illusions of understanding and see what’s lying underneath. When we do this, we grow in wisdom, and when we grow in wisdom, the quality of our lives greatly improves, changing more than just ourselves.
Recommended further reading
Radical Acceptance, Brach, Tara
Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhana and Vipassana, Catherine, Shaila
When Things Fall Apart, Chodron, Pema
Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Salzberg, Sharon