After my freshman year of college, I went on a 10-day meditation retreat with my boyfriend at the time. A budding meditator himself, he hoped the experience would offer me the inner tranquility it was beginning to offer him.
During those 10 days, I squirmed and struggled to sit and observe my breath fluttering in and out of my nostrils for hours on end. One morning, I couldn’t take it anymore. When no one was watching, I darted out of the meditation center and ran to the deserted country road nearby.
Not a vehicle in sight. Just cows. I don’t know what I was hoping—maybe that a police car would drive by so I could wave it down, jump in, and get whisked out of there. That’s how difficult it was for me to calm my monkey mind and just be with myself.
I’ve matured since then, of course, but I still find meditation incredibly challenging. I lose patience with the non-doing nature of it. While I understand its benefits, I struggle to take advantage of them regularly, simply because focusing on my breath like a laser beam while endeavoring to notice my thoughts and let them pass (rather than go on a joyride with them) isn’t a scintillating-enough activity.
Recently, though, Sam Chase, my latest Kripalu Perspectives guest, encouraged me to try metta meditation. (“Metta” means “loving-kindness” in Pali, the traditional language of Buddhism.)
“One of the advantages of metta meditation,” says Sam, “is that it’s a bit more active than traditional breath meditation or mindfulness. Because breath is so habitual, and mindfulness can feel so passive, they tend to expose a lot of mind wandering, which can be pretty frustrating for some people. Metta meditation gives the mind something to do, which can make it easier to focus on and stick with, especially in the beginning.”
How to Practice
Metta meditation is about extending compassion first to yourself (a common place to start, though there’s no right or wrong way to begin) and then to others. Settling into a comfortable position, you begin by focusing on the inhale and exhale of your breath, just as you would in many forms of meditation. When you notice your mind wandering, you gently guide it back to your breath. Then, when you feel ready, you begin sending compassion to yourself, quietly saying:
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be free from suffering.
May I be at peace.
Another common version is:
May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live with ease.
After you feel complete with yourself, you send compassion outward, saying internally, “May you be happy. May you be healthy,” and so on. You might start by offering metta to a benefactor (like a teacher or relative) or a friend; move to a neutral person (the cashier at the supermarket maybe); choose a challenging person in your life; and, finally, offer metta to all of humanity, with the phrases, “May we all be safe. May we all be happy,” etc.
Sam says you can imagine holding the object of your compassion in your heart, or you can send energy or emotion through your breath to wherever that person may be. “If it helps to give it a color or texture, that’s okay,” he explains, “but the intent is simply the emotion of compassion.” When sending compassion to all of humanity, Sam says he imagines his awareness “expanding like a sphere, across land and water and space, until it becomes impossibly huge enough to hold everyone.”
I did a metta meditation for 20 minutes the other day and was shocked when my alarm rang to signal the end of the practice. Normally, I’m checking the clock throughout. Jolted back into reality, I felt my body and mind yearning to return to the warm and centered feeling I’d generated through the meditation. I felt calmer, more grounded, more at peace.
Scientific Validation for Metta Meditation
Sam says regular metta meditation has been shown to decrease stress levels and increase immune function. Some incipient studies suggest it might even slow the aging process by replenishing the length of telomeres, which allows cells to survive longer. (Telomeres are the caps on each strand of DNA that shorten as cells divide, leading cells to eventually stop growing and ultimately die. The length of telomeres is generally associated with the health or “youth” of a cell).
Interestingly, though, Sam notes that the most compelling benefits of metta meditation are social. “We have numerous studies showing ways in which metta meditation strengthens social relationships—even relationships with people that aren’t the explicit focus of the meditation,” Sam notes, adding that the quality of our social relationships is the single greatest predictor of personal happiness.
The Power of Loving-Kindness
An incident Sam experienced beautifully illustrates his point. “Last year,” he recalls, “I got sideswiped in a Brooklyn crosswalk by a woman who was texting while driving. She swerved to miss me, but her side mirror caught my shoulder and shattered, and I hit the ground hard. She came out of her car shaking and sobbing, so distraught. I thought I was okay, but we called an ambulance just in case. Everything checked out. They said I got really lucky, and I didn’t want to go to the hospital. But when I got out of the ambulance, this woman who’d hit me was still hysterical. Without really thinking about it, I came over to her, gave her a hug and said, ‘This could have gone way worse for both of us. I want you to look at me and hear that I’m okay and promise me that you’re going to stop texting while you drive and that you’re not going to let this ruin your day, because I’m not going to let it ruin mine.’ And then we both went on our way. Halfway home, I remembered how I’d handled a similar accident a decade before, and, honestly, I attribute the difference almost entirely to years of practicing metta in between.”
It’s a compelling story of the power of compassion. If I’d been practicing metta meditation decades ago at that meditation center in the middle of nowhere, I don’t think I’d have fled. I think I’d have had more compassion for myself. I might even have developed a regular practice in time. It’s never too late, though. Practicing metta meditation, I might not only be able to sit longer, I might actually enjoy it—and others might unknowingly reap the rewards.
Originally published by Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health