Think about a piano or any musical instrument. After a little bit of time instruments become off-key, and so you need to tune them. Metta meditation is a way to tune our minds and meet everyone in our lives—whether a barista, a spouse, a parent, a colleague, a child—with kindness.
Metta is a Pali word that translates as loving kindness, friendliness, and goodwill. It is one of the four sublime states of Theravāda Buddhism (the other three are compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity). Although most associated with Buddhism, the word originally comes from the Vedic wisdom on which Hinduism is based.
Carrying around metta is carrying with you an attitude of kindness and hope for the happiness of others and yourself. As we navigate a world that feels increasingly hostile and divided, metta can be a key ingredient to living with less anger and fear and even expanding our personal power. We know we have the choice to maintain our peace throughout the day even if we encounter people who are not kind to us.
Practicing loving kindness in this way may not feel automatic or natural, especially in the Western world. But the good news is that we can train our minds to operate with more loving kindness.
Sharon Salzberg, the teacher renowned for bringing this style of meditation from Myanmar and India and popularizing it in the Western world, cites research that found that practicing metta actually changes our brains. If people practice even six minutes of metta meditation each day for two months, their brains look different, with more gray matter in the part of the brain that helps regulate emotions.
In her book Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, Salzberg teaches that “love is a verb.” Love doesn’t arrive on your doorstep like a package; it's something we bring into our lives through our daily encounters. Metta teaches us how to tune our minds and to act, throughout our day, with more love and kindness, both for strangers and people close to us.
Mind the “Awareness Gap”
Dina Kaplan is founder and CEO of the mediation school The Path. She is a proponent of metta meditation as a source of both personal and social transformation.
“One of the most valuable reasons to practice metta today is that it allows us to transcend what I am coining ‘the awareness gap,’” Kaplan says. “This is when you have a limited ability to see the impact of your words and actions on other people.”
Awareness gaps, she says, separate us and limit our ability to communicate. Metta cultivates in us an awareness of the impact of our words and actions on others. It encourages us to extend goodwill toward others when they tell us how we’ve impacted them and toward ourselves when we learn that the impact of our actions didn’t match our intentions.
“We might say things that we think are kind and friendly and full of goodwill, but especially at this time in the world, we must also cultivate an awareness of how those words will land,” Kaplan says. “It’s like the excellent pollster Frank Luntz says—it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”
The awareness gap can also occur when someone says or does something to you that feels thoughtless. Their words or actions hit you in a way that makes you upset, sad, frustrated, crying, ruminating, or angry. The other person might not have meant it in that way, but they have an awareness gap.
In this case, too, metta can help us label and move beyond that awareness gap. It is a way for us to notice and name something (“Oh, there's an awareness gap—perhaps they meant well”). Then, Kaplan says, we can choose to wish that person well and move on with our day instead of harboring anger, frustration, or sadness long after the interaction.
Let's say you have a difficult boss. It's tempting to be angry at them all the time or even to label them as a bad person.
Every month, every week, and maybe even every day, you may witness how badly this person treats you and others. But holding onto that anger is not helpful. It's the opposite of living with loving kindness and loving friendliness.
Another way to look at that situation is to think, “Wow, this person probably had a tough childhood or perhaps a tough year, certainly a tough week or a tough day. On a day that they acted really badly, perhaps I can find compassion for them.”
Kaplan cites the adage that it’s usually hurt people who hurt people. If the barista making coffee for you in the morning snaps at you, she suggests we choose to look at their words and actions with kindness and feel compassion for them—and then just move on with your day, That's one major benefit to living with loving friendliness: not letting a toxic person ruin your day.
If the person is someone in your life, you may still have to engage with this person, but you can hold what they're doing at a distance. And at the end of that interaction, you can move on.
Metta, in the end, is about us being in control of our lives and being powerful.
“We can live our lives with loving kindness but also be discerning,” Kaplan says. “What I think the Buddha would say if he were alive in today's world is to live with no judgment, to be kind and compassionate, loving and friendly, but you can also be discerning about how you spend your time.
What I mean by this is: Live lightly and with joy—and edit your life. Live in a discerning way so that you move towards the people who are good for you and away from the people who are not good for you—but with no anger or bitterness.
Think of yourself as being like water flowing. You can flow away from a person without judging them.”
She adds, “I live a very happy life. I'm not perfect, but I'm aware of the people around me. I'm sure I mess up, but I think a lot about the impact of my words and actions on others. So, my loving friendliness is met with more loving friendliness because I'm walking around with a smile and lots of good energy around me. I have forgiven everyone in my life, so I'm not angry at anyone. People can sense that energy, and they want to be around that.
It's a wonderful way to live, holding on to zero anger, resentments, or bitterness. And that is the path of living with metta.”
None of us will practice metta perfectly all the time. But it is a path we can continually walk, and it is something to always work towards—especially during time of friction and upheaval.
Kaplan shares this story from her own life and practice.
“When I started practicing metta meditation, I did it for a year straight. When you do this type of meditation, you send good wishes to yourself, then someone you adore, then someone who’s neutral for you, and then a difficult person. I had the same difficult person for the entire year, a former business partner. By the end of that year I had no negative feelings toward him at all. Literally none.
“One year later I saw him across the street, and I smiled and called out to him and waved! He was looking behind him, thinking I must have been talking to someone else, but then he smiled and came over, and we had a nice conversation. It felt incredible to just let go of all that negative energy. This is what living with metta can do. It can make you feel powerful—and kind and free. Because why not live without negative feelings towards others? It is our choice and our power to do this.”
Jack Kornfield, a well-known teacher of mindfulness in the Western world, says that when we are angry, it is we who swallow the poison pill. Holding onto anger is like giving someone your power.
We don’t need to do things we don’t want to do. You can say no without being judgmental or angry. You can respond however you want, however you think is compassionate and wise. Kaplan suggests looking at the nuances of each moment, each situation, and choosing the response that is right exactly for you.
The Buddha spoke about balancing being wise and compassionate. Choosing to live and act with loving kindness makes us both—and that combination makes us powerful.
Read more about metta meditation: “A Practice to Heal Prejudice”