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How to Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation

The mindfulness practice can improve your well-being, even in the face of conflict

Jon Kabat-Zinn
Aug 15, 2018 · 13 min read
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Loving-kindness, or metta in the Pali language, is one of four foundational practices, collectively known as the divine or heavenly abodes, taught by the Buddha. The four practices are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. All of these are rigorous meditation practices in their own right, used for the most part to cultivate samadhi, or one-pointed concentrated attention, out of which the powers of the evoked qualities emerge, transfiguring the heart. But the essence of all these practices is contained and accessible within all the mindfulness practices.

Even so, just naming these qualities of heart and making their role explicit in our practice may help us recognize them when they arise spontaneously during mindfulness practice, as well as help us incline the heart and mind in their direction more frequently, especially in difficult times. In fact, these practices can sometimes serve as a necessary and skillful antidote to mind states such as ferocious anger, which may at the time of their arising be simply too strong to attend to via direct observation unless one’s practice is fairly well developed.

At such times, formal loving-kindness practice can function to soften one’s relationship to such overwhelmingly afflictive mind states so that we can avoid succumbing completely to their energies. It also makes such mind states more approachable and less intractable. But with concerted and sustained practice, mindfulness itself can embrace any mind state, however afflictive or toxic, and in the seeing of it and the knowing of it within the openhearted, nonreactive, nonjudgmental embrace of awareness, we can see directly into the nature of the anger or grief or whatever it is, and in the seeing, in the embracing of it, in the knowing of it, that mind state attenuates, weakens, evaporates, very much like touching a soap bubble or like writing on water.

What emerges in such moments is nothing less than loving-kindness itself, arising naturally from extended silence, without any invitation, because it is never not already here.

Your own capacity for loving, whether you know it or not, is infinite.

In teaching or practicing formal loving-kindness meditation, I sometimes include imagery, emphasizing the direct feeling of loving-kindness rather than relying solely on the traditional phrases associated with evoking it. What follows is a guided loving-kindness meditation you might explore whenever you care to — even now.

In a sitting posture, or lying down or standing, whenever you are ready, bringing your awareness to the breath and the body as a whole breathing. Resting here for a period of time, establishing a relatively stable platform of moment-to-moment awareness, riding on the waves of the breath.

When you feel comfortable resting within the natural flowing of your breathing, picturing in your mind’s eye someone in your life who loves you or loved you totally and unconditionally. Recalling the feeling of the love and kindness they accorded you, the whole aura of their love for you. Breathing with these feelings, bathing in them, resting in their total acceptance and embracing of you just as you are or were. Noticing that you are loved and accepted without having to be different, without having to be worthy of their love, without having to be particularly deserving. In fact, you may not feel particularly worthy or deserving. That does not matter. In fact, it is irrelevant. The relevant fact is that you were or are loved wholeheartedly. Their love is or was for you just as you are, for who you are now, already, and perhaps always have been. It is truly unconditional.

Allowing your whole being to bask in these feelings right now, to be cradled in them, to be rocked moment by moment by the rhythmic swing of your own heartbeat, and in the flowing cadences of your own breathing, embraced by and bathing in this field of benevolence, this field of loving-kindness, in the total acceptance of who you are or were. And resting here in this feeling for as long as you like, or for as long as it lasts.

And if you are unable to bring to mind or conjure up such a person from memory, as is true for so many of us, then seeing if you can imagine someone treating you in that way. That works fine as well.

Now, whenever you feel ready, seeing if you can become the source as well as the receiver of these same feelings—in other words, taking on these very same loving feelings for yourself as if they were your own rather than those of another. Linger with the rhythmic beating of your own heart, inviting into your own heart these feelings of love and acceptance and kindness for yourself, beyond judgment of any kind, just basking in feelings of loving-kindness akin to the embrace of a mother for her child, where you are simultaneously both the mother and the child. Resting here in these feelings as best you can from moment to moment, breath by breath, bathing in your own kind regard and acceptance of yourself as you are. Letting this feeling be self-sustaining, natural, in no way forced or coerced. Even tiny tastes of it are balm and succor for all the negativity and self-criticism and self-loathing that can lie beneath the surface of our psyches.

In resting here in this field of loving-kindness, this embrace of loving-kindness, you may find it useful to whisper to yourself inwardly the following phrases, or hear them being whispered to you by the wind, by the air, by the breath, by the world:

May I be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm.

May I be happy and contented.

May I be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible.

May I experience ease of well-being…

At first, it may feel artificial to be saying such things to yourself, or even thinking them. After all, who is this “I” who is wishing this? And who is the “I” who is receiving these wishes? Ultimately, both vanish into the feeling of being safe and free from harm in this moment; into the feeling of being contented and happy in this moment; the feeling of being whole in this moment, since you already are whole; the feeling of resting in ease of well-being, far from the disease and fragmentation we endure so much of the time. This feeling is the essence of loving-kindness.

But, you might object, if this is a selfless practice, why am I focusing on myself, on my own feelings of safety and well-being, on my own happiness? One response: Because you are not separate from the universe that gave rise to you, and so you are as worthy a receiver of loving-kindness as anything else or anyone else. Your loving-kindness cannot be either loving or kind if it does not include yourself, can it? But at the same time, you don’t need to worry. It is not limited to yourself, because the field of loving-kindness is limitless. If you like, you can think of the loving-kindness practice as described up to this point as merely (but importantly) tuning your instrument before you play it out in the world. In this case, tuning the instrument is itself a huge act of love and kindness and wisdom in and of itself, not merely a means to an end.

The practice continues…

Once you have established a fairly stable field of loving-kindness around yourself — and it may feel different every time — and once you have lingered for a time in the feeling of being held and cradled and rocked in its embrace, you can intentionally expand the field of your own heart just as we have been learning to expand the field of awareness in the mindfulness practice. We can experiment with expanding the field of loving-kindness around our own heart and our own being, inviting other beings, either singly or en masse, into this growing embrace. This is not always so easy to do, and so it is helpful to start with one person for whom you naturally harbor feelings of loving-kindness.

We recognize how much we human beings, and all living creatures, are all united in our common aspiration to be happy and not to suffer.

So, whenever you are ready to try it, in your mind’s eye and in your heart, evoking the feeling or image of an individual for whom you have great affection, someone you are very close to emotionally, someone you can truly say you love. Can you hold this person in your heart with the same quality of loving-kindness that you have been directing toward yourself? Whether it is a child or a parent, a brother or a sister, a grandparent or other relative near or distant, a close friend or a cherished neighbor, singly or together, breathing with them in your heart, holding them in your heart, imaging them in your heart as best you can (although none of it needs to be very vivid for it to be effective), wishing them well:

May she, he, they be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm.

May she, he, they be happy and contented.

May she, he, they be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible.

May she, he, they experience ease of well-being…

Lingering moment by moment in this feeling of loving-kindness within your own heart, with these words or others as you voice them silently to yourself. And lingering even more with the feeling behind the words, repeating them over and over again silently to yourself, not mechanically, but mindfully, with full awareness, knowing what you are saying, feeling the intention behind the feeling, the intention and feeling behind each phrase, and how it is expressing itself in your body, in your heart in this moment.

From here, you can invite into the field of your own loving heart those you do not know so well, either singly or together; those for whom your relationship may be a lot more neutral; or even people you don’t know at all, or who you have only heard of secondhand—friends of your friends, for instance. And again, to whatever degree you care to, cradling him, her, or them in your heart, wishing them well:

May she, he, they be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm.

May she, he, they be happy and contented.

May she, he, they be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible.

May she, he, they experience ease of well-being…

From here, you can expand the field of awareness to include one or more individuals who may be problematic for you in one way or another, with whom perhaps you share a difficult past; who may have harmed you in one way or another; who, for whatever reason, you consider to be more of an adversary or an obstacle than a friend. This does not mean that you are being asked to forgive them for what they may have done to hurt you or to cause you or others harm. You are simply recognizing that they too are human beings, that they too have aspirations, that they too suffer from dis-ease and perhaps disease, that they too desire to be happy and safe. So, as best you can, and only to the degree that you feel ready for it or at least open to experimenting with it, you put your toe in the water ever so cautiously, with eyes wide open, extending loving-kindness to them as well, while still recognizing and honoring all the difficulties and problems lying between you:

May she, he, they be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm.

May she, he, they be happy and contented.

May she, he, they be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible.

May she, he, they experience ease of well-being…

To pause for a moment, you can see where this is going. Just as with the cultivation of mindfulness, where we can focus on one primary object of attention or expand the field to include a range of objects to attend to, so too in the loving-kindness practice can we linger for days, weeks, months, or years at differing levels of the practice, all of which are valid, and all of which, ultimately, include each other, because, after all, it is your own heart that is softening and becoming more inclusive. So, if you wish to cultivate loving-kindness and direct it only toward yourself during a particular sitting, or for many many sittings, that is perfectly fine. Or if you care to direct loving-kindness only toward those you know and love, or even one person over and over again, that is just fine too.

To engage in this way is to recognize and nurture your own humanity in all its beauty.

But over time, it is likely — since your own capacity for loving, whether you know it or not, is infinite (that is simply the nature of love; it is limitless and therefore in infinite supply) — that you will find yourself naturally drawn to invite more and more beings into the field of loving-kindness radiating from you in all directions, inwardly and outwardly — even insects, even birds, even mice, even snakes or toads.

Or you may find that at times they just slip in unbidden. This is interesting to note. If you are not consciously inviting them in, how come they are showing up anyway? And how are they getting in? Hmmm. Maybe your heart is bigger and wiser than you think.

In the spirit of the boundlessness of the heart and of love, we can expand the field of loving-kindness to include our neighbors and neighborhood, our community, our state, our country, the entire world. You can include your pets, all animal life, all plant life, all life, the entire biosphere, all sentient beings. You can also get very specific, and include specific people you don’t know, even political leaders, in the field of your loving-kindness, difficult as that may be if you differ strongly with them and find yourself judging them harshly and even doubting their basic humanity. All the more reason for including them. Being human, they too are worthy of loving-kindness and perhaps will respond to it by softening in ways your mind cannot possibly imagine. And perhaps the same goes for you as well.

You can also, if you care to, specifically include in the field of loving-kindness all those less fortunate than yourself, who are exploited at work or at home, who are victims of poverty or racism or “othering,” who are refugees from genocide; those who are imprisoned unjustly, as so many are; those who are at the mercy of or fleeing from endemic corruption, often legalized; those who have been traumatized, brutalized, or violated in any way. You can include all those who are presently hospitalized or sick or dying, all those who are caught up in chaos, who are living in fear, who are suffering in any way, shape, or form. Whatever brought them to this point in their lives, just as we do, they too want to experience ease of well-being rather than dis-ease and fragmentation and violence. Just as we do, they too want to be happy and contented; they too desire to be whole and healthy; they too desire to be safe and free from harm. In this way, we recognize how much we human beings, and all living creatures, are all united in our common aspiration to be happy and not to suffer, and so we wish them well:

May all beings near and far be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm.

May all beings near and far be happy and contented.

May all beings near and far be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible.

May all beings near and far experience ease of well-being…

And it need not stop here. Why not include the entire Earth in the field of loving-kindness? Why not embrace the very Earth that is our home, that is an organism in its own right, that is in a sense one body—a body that can be thrown off balance by our own actions, conscious and unconscious, in ways that create huge threats to the life it nurtures and to the intelligences embedded within all aspects of that life, animal and plant and mineral, that interact so seamlessly in the natural world?

And so we can expand the field of the loving heart, of our loving-kindness, to include the planet as a whole, and out beyond that, to the entirety of the universe in which even the sun is merely an atom and we…not even a quark.

May our planet and the whole universe be safe and protected and free from harm.

May our planet and the whole universe be happy and contented.

May our planet and the whole universe be healthy and whole.

May our planet and the whole universe experience ease of well-being…

It may seem a little silly, even animistic, to wish for the happiness of the planet or the whole universe, but why not? In the end, whether we are talking about individual people who are problematic for us or the entire universe, what is most important is that we incline our own heart toward inclusion rather than toward separation. In the end, whatever the consequences for others or for the planet or the universe, or any levels in between, the willingness to extend ourselves in this way, literally and metaphorically, to extend the reach of our own heart, has profound consequences for our own life and for our own capacity to live in the world in ways that embody wisdom and compassion, loving-kindness and equanimity, and, ultimately, that express the joy inherent in being alive and the essentially boundless joy inherent in freeing ourselves in any moment from the weight of our mindless conditioning and the suffering that conditioning engenders.

To engage in this way with the loving-kindness meditation is to recognize and nurture your own heart’s essential freedom and inclusiveness, your own humanity in all its beauty, not in some magical future, but here and now, with things exactly as they are in this moment. No doubt the world benefits in some small but not insignificant way and is purified from even one person’s offering of loving-kindness. We could say that the relationships within the lattice structure of reality and the web of all life are slightly but not inconsequentially shifted through our momentary or increasingly sustained openness of heart and through our willingness to let go of any rancor and ill will we might be harboring, however justified we may think it is.

At the same time, by our engagement in such a practice and our recognition and trusting in the deepest nature of our own hearts, we who have emerged out of the earth, out of the ongoing lifestream of humanity, out of the universe, are somehow blessed and purified and made whole by the generosity of the very gesture of the loving-kindness practice in and of itself, and by its effects on our own heart, which, for a moment at least, is no longer willing to harbor rancor and ill will. We who choose to practice and embody loving-kindness, formally or informally, if even just a little bit, are undisputedly its first but hardly its only beneficiaries.

From Falling Awake: How to Practice Mindfulness in Everday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

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