Loving Kindness Meditation (aka Metta Meditation)
Loving kindness meditation is a form of meditation that is used to develop empathy, compassion, and, as you probably would never have guessed, loving kindness.
Loving kindness (or metta as it is known in Eastern psycho-spiritual traditions) is a feeling of warmth and goodwill that arises inside of us human beings (and probably many other kinds of animals as well). Have you ever seen a suffering being (human or otherwise) and felt a deeply emotional desire to make it feel better? That is an experience of empathy and compassionate love. This is the kind of feeling that we aim to develop with metta meditation, for in that feeling lie the roots of love, peace, kindness, and all that is “good” in human nature.
This article is intended as a practical “how-to” guide (skip to the “Practical Guide” at the bottom if you’re in a rush), so without going into too much depth about the “theory” behind metta meditation, here’s a basic idea of why we do this:
Metta Meditation increases our ability to love (and be loved by) others.
When you practice loving kindness meditation, you are essentially practicing generating feelings of empathy, compassion, and love in your own mind. They say “practice makes perfect,” and there’s a lot of depth to that tidbit of conventional wisdom. Most people think about practice in the way that they think about psychology; you are getting better at something by changing the way your mind works, getting used to something, becoming more knowledgable about something, etc. This is all true, of course, but the power of practice goes far deeper than that; in fact, it goes all the way down to the level of your brain cells.
When you practice loving kindness meditation, you actually change the structure of your brain. You strengthen the parts of your brain that are involved with empathy, compassion, and love. This brain-strengthening isn’t unique to metta meditation; it applies to all forms of meditation, and truly all forms of practice in general. To read more about how meditation changes the actual neurological structure of your brain, check out my article on meditation & neuroplasticity.
Now, if you’re one of those billions of lonely humans on this planet whose deepest, most secretest wish is to have people in your life who truly deeply unconditionally love you… well then you may be thinking “How will practicing generating empathy, compassion, and love get other people to love me? This isn’t one of those “magic law of attraction” things is it?” Well, no… it’s not magic, it’s human nature.
People love to be around people who love them. This is a pretty obvious psychological fact. If you could choose to be around someone who
(a) loves you and wants you to be happy… whose every facial expression, word, and action is coming from a desire to make you smile,
(b) doesn’t really care about your happiness and acts chiefly in accordance with his or her own self-interest, or
(c) someone who actively hates your guts (whether secretly or otherwise), whose behavior is (both consciously and unconsciously) intended to bring you down,
… which would you choose? I’d venture a guess and say you chose option (a). Gasp! How did I know that? Clearly, meditation has turned me into a psychic wizard.
Anyway, as you can see, being an empathetic, compassionate, loving person can help surround you with people who want to be near you. But wait, there’s more! Being surrounded by people who want to be near you for their own happiness doesn’t equal “being loved by others.” It’s more like “being needed by others.” So where does the lovin’ come in?
There’s a concept in pop psychology that goes something like “the people around you mirror your state.” The idea is that if you’re very anxious, the people around you will be more anxious. If you’re relaxed, the people around you will be more relaxed. If you’re more empathetic, compassionate, and loving, the people around you will be more empathetic, compassionate, and loving. This psychological truth is echoed in conventional western wisdom; something like “you get what you give” and “what you put out comes back to you.” Many people use the word “karma” to refer to this phenomenon. Of course, on a physiological level, it all boils down to neurobiology (as usual).
We humans have brain cells called “mirror neurons” whose basic function is to bring someone else’s psycho-physiological state into our own bodies through our sensory perceptions of that other person. So, if you see another person who looks anxious, your mirror neurons cause you to become anxious yourself. This part of our neurological programming is likely a result of our evolutionary trajectory as a herd-like, social species.
When you have trained your brain to generate love, you become a more loving person. When other people experience you, they experience psychological and physiological states of love. So, not only will practicing loving kindness meditation help you attract other people who just want to be around you for their own happiness, it will also help those people generate love in their own hearts & minds (physiologically: in their own brains & central nervous systems). So you kind of just end up surrounded by a bunch of people who love you deeply and want to be around you.
Metta Meditation increases our ability to love ourselves, and thereby increases our happiness levels.
Increasing your brain’s capacity for loving kindness doesn’t just make you more loving toward others, but also makes you more loving toward yourself. Your brain is simply producing more feelings of love. When you are focused on others, that love will be directed toward them. When you are focused on yourself, that love will be directed toward yourself.
Many people think that the term “self-love” means something like “thinking highly of yourself.” In truth, however, “thinking highly of yourself” is generally more closely related to “self esteem” or “self concept.” Self-love, on the other hand, is more of an active thing; loving one’s self as one might love another. Feeling a sense of compassion and goodwill toward yourself, wanting yourself to feel happy, wanting to make yourself smile and laugh… these are the hallmarks of self-love.
The more you love yourself, the happier your life becomes. When you love yourself, you make life decisions that are good for your happiness, you treat yourself gently and lovingly rather than harshly and critically, and you take time out of your day simply to make yourself happy. This is a very direct chain of cause and effect; practice metta meditation -> parts of your brain that generate feelings of love grow stronger through processes of neuroplasticity -> brain outputs more feelings of love -> you begin to love yourself (and everything else) more -> you are constantly making yourself happy -> your life fills with unbelievable amounts of happiness. It ain’t rocket science.
Metta Meditation increases our inclination toward acts of kindness.
Behavior follows mindset. As you might imagine, wanting people to be happy leads to actions that are intended to make other people happy and relieve the suffering of other conscious beings. When we generate love inside of ourselves, we generate acts of kindness that extend outside of our own bodies.
These acts of kindness not only improve the lives of the people around you, but they even improve your own life. Many studies have shown that acting kindly actually makes the kind person happier. Giving is often far more fulfilling than receiving.
Metta Meditation improves the way we interact with other conscious beings.
When we look at others with love, when we speak to others with compassion, when we act toward others with kindness, everyone around you becomes a “friend,” a “companion,” or a “lover.”
I’ve spent much of my life in cities like New York and Miami, and I can tell you from personal experience that many people (including my younger self) walk around surrounded by millions of people yet feeling completely and utterly alone. I remember feeling, on subway rides under Manhattan, that I couldn’t reach out and interact with the people around me. “Avoid eye contact with strangers” is kind of an unspoken rule of the subway, the street, and, one could say, NYC in general.
When I started practicing metta meditation, all of that changed dramatically. Instead of looking at my iPhone, I found myself looking around, with a peaceful & loving smile on my face, at all the beautiful people around me. I can tell you from personal experience that looking at people without love in your heart tends to make them uncomfortable, and this discomfort quickly spreads to you (the looker) as well. Looking at people with love in your heart, on the other hand, brings out a real, beautiful, genuine smile in a huge percentage of the people who see you looking at them. You can almost see the invisible barriers melting away as their facial expressions melt from boredom, indifference, and stress to happiness, connection, love and appreciation.
As I continued to practice metta meditation, I found more and more that those smiles would turn into greetings, those greetings would turn into conversations, and those conversations would turn into beautiful spiritual encounters, lasting friendships, and romantic relationships. Metta meditation really does change your relationship with all the people around you, which improves your life, their lives, and the society that surrounds us all.
Metta Meditation decreases violence in our societies, and increases feelings of love, unity, and brotherhood.
As you practice loving-kindness meditation, your interactions with the people around you transform from cold & distant to warm & loving. We humans are a social species, and emotions can ripple quickly through a herd. Just like in a herd of antelope, where one dude gets spooked by a shadow and the whole herd freaks out and stampedes away, our human herds (cities, countries, societies, civilizations) are very sensitive to what’s happening on the individual level.
Let’s use a simple example from the previous section; interactions on the subway. I have love in my heart, so I smile at the old man who walks into the train and give him my seat instead of pretending not to see him (like most of the other people are doing). The old man smiles. So do a bunch of people around us, even if they hide it by looking down at their shoes. These smiles, positive thoughts, and happy feelings release dopamine and serotonin (happy chemicals) in their brains. It lightens their moods. When these people get home, they are all in slightly better moods, which affects their interactions with their families and other assorted homies. Their family members and homies are thus put into slightly better moods, etc. The love ripples outward into the society. You can contrast this example in your mind with someone who comes into the train yelling and cursing at people, causing anxiety to dozens of people, stressing them out, releasing cortisol in their brains, and darkening their moods. When they get home in bad moods, they cause more anxiety for the people at home, etc etc.
In our human civilizations, each person’s emotions ripple outward. Ripples interact with other ripples, sometimes adding together, sometimes cancelling each other out, like waves in the ocean. By practicing metta meditation, your ripples become more love and less hate, more peace and less violence, more joy and less fear. If we really strive toward world peace, like Miss America always says, then we should focus more, as a society, on practicing metta meditation.
So! Without further ado, the guided meditation that you’ve been waiting for for your entire life (or at least since you started reading this article)… drum roll please…
A Practical Guide to Loving Kindness Meditation
Step 1: Settle into this moment, quiet your mind, and be at peace within yourself.
In order to fully concentrate on generating feelings of love, you must first let go of all the thoughts that are cluttering up your mind.
To do this, try paying attention to your breathing process for a few minutes.
You might notice your torso inflating and deflating as you inhale and exhale. Take a moment to notice that now.
You might notice that you can feel the air moving in and out of your nostrils. Take another moment to notice that now.
Keep watching your body breathe for another few minutes, with your eyes closed.
PRO TIP: When you close your eyes and try to pay attention to your breathing, you will most likely notice your mind get distracted by something (a thought or other sensation) and move away from the breath. This often happens within a few minutes (or even seconds) of closing your eyes to meditate! As a general rule, whatever catches your attention will tend to seem very, very important to you in that moment, and you will likely feel a very strong urge to focus on it. If you notice that happening, resist the urge to follow the thought! Just keep watching your breathing. You may even find yourself suddenly “remembering,” 10 minutes from now, that you had been trying to meditate, but your mind had taken you on a fantastic journey without you even noticing. This is all normal, so don’t worry about it! The mind has a tendency to wander. When it does, just keep watching your breathing. It’s really as simple as that (but nobody said it was easy). Whatever happens, just keep watching your breathing. This will quiet and concentrate your mind enough to move on to Step 2: Observe your feelings of peace and contentment.
Try it now: Watch yourself breathing for the next 5 minutes, with your eyes closed… and whatever happens, even if you drift into lala land and totally lose track of your breathing for 15 minutes… don’t worry about it… just keep watching your breathing.
Step 2: Observe your feelings of peace and contentment.
NOTE: If your mind wandered a lot, don’t worry about it. Just the act of trying to watch your breathing is meditation, even if your mind was wandering the whole time. Simply through the act of trying to keep your attention from wandering, you became more aware of your mind 🙂
Take this moment to rest, and enjoy the experience of this moment.
Keep watching your breathing, but feel your entire body at the same time.
Notice what you are hearing, by paying attention to your ears.
Notice what you are smelling, by paying attention to your nose.
Notice what you are seeing, by paying attention to your eyes.
Just be here now, in this moment, in this place, and enjoy the experience of being alive.
Close your eyes for a moment and observe the feelings of peace and contentment that arise from just being here, now, at peace. Just rest for a moment before Step 3.
Step 3: Think of somebody you don’t like.
Think of somebody you just can’t stand. Somebody who annoys you. Somebody you had a fight with, or somebody who hates you, or somebody who just overall stresses you out. Have you got somebody in mind? If not, take a minute to think of a few people who might fit the bill, and notice your emotional reactions when you think about each of them. Whoever inspires the strongest discomfort in you is the person you should use for this exercise.
Step 4: Remember how you felt when you had a negative encounter with that person.
If you have an uncomfortable relationship, think of how you feel when you’re around the person.
If you had a fight or an upsetting experience with the person, try to remember how angry, upset, anxious or afraid you felt in that moment.
Close your eyes for a moment and really, deeply remember how you felt.
Step 5: Generate compassion and love for yourself. Be kind to yourself 🙂
Think back to your past-self in that moment… an upset, angry, suffering human being.
Now, generate compassion for your past-self by sincerely wishing to relieve his/her suffering. Close your eyes and wish for your past-self to have felt peaceful and happy in that moment (kind of like the way you felt a few minutes ago in steps 1 and 2).
Step 6: Imagine the suffering the other person felt in your unpleasant encounter.
OK, now bring that person back into your mind again. That hated, evil, terrible, annoying, stressful person. Consider how he/she felt during your encounter, or when you were around each other. Really take a moment to close your eyes and consider how he/she feels all the time, what it’s like to be that person, to go through life as that person…
Step 7: Generate compassion and love for the other.
Take a moment to notice how you feel when you think about the suffering of that person.
Is it similar to the way you feel when you think about the suffering of your past-self?
Notice if you have any feeling of sadness for the person’s suffering.
Consider; would you like to help relieve that person’s suffering?
Imagine you’re like Professor X and you can use your mind to interact with other minds far away. Imagine you can beam feelings of peace and love and happiness and contentment to other people. Now, close your eyes and imagine sending a beam of peace, love, and happiness to that person. Smile while you do it 🙂 Know that just by healing your own negative feelings toward that person, you are healing your relationship with that person, which will ultimately ease his (or her) suffering, at least a little bit, and give him (or her) something to be happy about.
Imagine giving that person a big hug 🙂 Whether or not the person would reciprocate in real life, he or she would appreciate the gesture. Everybody loves to be loved.
Step 8: Realize that all conscious beings experience suffering and happiness, and wish peace & happiness upon them all 🙂
Use your Professor X mind-beam to send out feelings of peace and happiness to all the conscious beings on Earth, and throughout the whole of Existence!
Close your eyes and sit for a few minutes, just generating feelings of peace and love and happiness, and sending them out to all the suffering beings in the Universe 🙂 Enjoy!
Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed your meditation! By practicing metta meditation this one time, you’ve already increased your brain’s capacity for empathy, compassion, love, and kindness. Keep practicing, and see how much more powerful your love can grow!
May all beings be happy 🙂
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Meditation Magazine.