Metta meditation is also known as lovingkindness meditation, but how many of you wouldn’t have made it past the title if the combination of loving and kindness had been the focus point?
I’ve heard Tim Ferris talk on his podcast about his struggle with just how saccharine and off-putting the phrase lovingkindness sounds and feels. I’ve heard Dan Harris of Ten Percent Happier fame echo the sentiment and tell of how he squirms using words that include loving and heart. (I feel like he may have even jokingly banned the word heart from his podcast, or did I imagine that?)
And yet we’re all savvy enough to realise how important it is to be loving towards others. We know that kindness is noble and, well, kind.
Although it can still be hard at times, it’s generally easier to be at least a little loving and kind in our personal lives. In the same breath, those closest to us often get the worst of us too.
And what about in our work lives? Are you quick to snap at a tardy employee without understanding the bigger picture? Do you quickly let your business partner’s foul mood impact your own? What attitude do you bring to the workplace each day? How might that impact those on your team?
There’s every chance that you’re not even aware of much of this. Typically, most of us aren’t.
But once we do become aware, things can start to shift. Things can improve.
Metta meditation is no panacea for life’s stresses and woes, but it can certainly help us to experience less stress and frustration, both in our work and at home.
And it can do something much more than that too.
What is metta meditation?
Metta meditation is an ancient practice designed to train our minds to be more compassionate. Not only can it improve our ability to be compassionate, it also has some really interesting – and scientifically validated – physical and mental side effects.
Metta meditation has many names. It is also referred to as lovingkindness meditation, compassion meditation, compassion training, and more.1,2 It comes from a specific Buddhist meditation practice that aims to cultivate unconditional kindness towards yourself and others.3
Generating compassion towards all living beings (which includes you, by the way!) is essentially the purpose of metta meditation.2 It is said to provide four emotional benefits:
- You are warm, kind and friendly towards others without expecting or looking for anything in return,
- You make a concerted effort to help others in need (to ease their suffering),
- You feel genuine happiness and joy when you witness other people’s happiness and fortune (AKA sympathetic joy, or mudita)
- You experience equanimity, calm and inner wisdom.3
How to practise metta meditation
The way metta is practised varies across traditions. The common threads, however, focus on generating kind intentions toward a target by repeating select phrases. Who you target with these phrases is also usually in a specific sequence.2,3
The sequence usually starts with sending kind thoughts to yourself, followed by someone you love (or even a pet), then someone neutral (think an acquaintance or somebody you see at the supermarket checkout or bump into at a conference), then someone you have a difficult time with (which might be a snidey employee who bothers you, or a family member who has hurt you),and then finally, all beings(humans, animals, whatever you want to include here).2,3
Sharon Salzberg, one of the most known meditation teachers of today, suggests that sometimes it’s enough to just focus on yourself.4
Say you start with the first part of this meditation where you focus on yourself and it feels challenging, well then maybe continue only with that part of the meditation because you’re clearly in need of some love and compassion. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you’re going through a particularly stressful life event.
You definitely need some love and compassion. So start with you. The other people will be easier to come to and focus on once you’ve worked through some of your own stuff.
But on the flipside, if starting with yourself feels impossible, esteemed meditation teacher Jack Kornfield suggests you skip straight to someone else.’5 He says:
When metta meditation isn’t the right fit
Equally, I’ve heard many meditation teachers talk about the part where you focus on someone difficult in your life. Sometimes it would be wise to skip over this part and head straight to sending good thoughts to all beings, rather than to that difficult person.
Some of us have unfortunately come into contact with people who have harmed us in the past. Some of us have people in our lives who have caused us so much pain that we live with deep – and often unresolved – trauma.
An individual metta meditation practice may not be the safe space we need to let go or process or find acceptance with these people. In this instance, a safer space may well be with a psychologist, counsellor or other qualified therapist who can help guide that process.
In this instance, you might stay with yourself as the recipient of lovingkindness throughout the entire meditation, or otherwise skip the bit where you might otherwise include that challenging person.
Typical metta/lovingkindness phrases
Typical phrases in lovingkindness meditation follow along the lines of may you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be happy, may you be free from all suffering.
Because I tend to visualise things (and because my mind is often busy and initially needs some structure), I often link this to a box shape and then connect this all to the breath. So the first part of the meditation looks like this:
- In breath, up the left side of the box: may I be safe,
- Out breath, across the top of the box: may I be healthy,
- In breath, down the right side of the box: may I be happy,
- Out breath, across the bottom of the box: may I be at ease in the world.
Or the up/down visualisation that also connects to the breath:
- In breath, up: may I be safe,
- Out breath, down: may I be healthy,
- In breath, up: may I be happy,
- Out breath, down: may I be at ease in the world.
And then when I’m more easily still and able to stay focused without too much effort, I settle into something where I feel myself expanding out on the in breath and letting go on the out breath.
This last rhythm is a happy place. It’s the sweet spot. It feels present and connected, – to self, to others, even to something bigger.
Aside from the usual wording and sequencing, I’m not aware of there being a particular ‘right’ way to practice metta meditation, but I’m pretty sure some meditation teachers will see this as a mixing of techniques.
But this is where I’ve landed with it. This is what helps me focus when I’m more easily distracted.
Learn the rules, understand them, then walk your own path.
Is there any scientific evidence that metta meditation works?
Despite the fact that metta meditation is an ancient practice that’s been passed down through centuries of teachings, today many of us require more robust evidence to convince us of its efficacy.
So meditators (and non-meditators alike) have been brought into the labs, hooked up to machines of all sorts and tested to see whether there’s actually something going on in their brains and bodies when they practise metta meditation.
And it turns out that from a scientific standpoint, there is something going on.
Early systematic reviews of the research showed metta (lovingkindness) meditation interventions can moderately increase compassion and self-compassion, while also decreasing depression.1
A 2008 study that compared the brains of expert meditators against a control group found similar results. In this study, they found that both novice and expert participants experienced increased activation in the anterior insula (AI) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) throughout the meditative process.6
Both the AI and ACC regions of the brain are associated with feelings and mood. These findings suggest that when you generate compassionate thoughts, you enhance empathetic responses in the brain.6
This is also supported by the observation that the AI was larger in experts, and they were more susceptible to cues that triggered negative responses, indicating that they are more sensitive to the suffering of others in distress.6
So the more regularly you practise metta meditation, the more you’ll able to tap into those empathetic thoughts and feelings.
More recent research has since supported the observation that lovingkindness meditation truly does improve prosocial behaviours, including empathy and compassion.7
Compassion leads to happiness
Though becoming more compassionate is surely a worthwhile outcome, the benefits do not end there.
A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis strongly suggests that metta meditation improves positive emotions in practitioners, though the nuances of these changes are still not well understood.3
What has been confirmed – and you’re unlikely to be hugely surprised by this – is that being kind to others and yourself, alongside observing kindness from others, is a very real way to increase your own happiness levels.8
This in turn leads to the idea that by honing your ability to be empathetic and compassionate towards others, you will also create opportunity for there to be more happiness in your life.
How metta meditation is good for everyone
Metta meditation, then, leads into a positive feedback loop.
Some researchers theorise that by improving socioemotional wellbeing, you improve prosocial behaviors.7 So when you practice metta meditation, your brain becomes more capable of processing empathetic stimuli, and you become happier as a result of the compassion you experience.
And it doesn’t stop there.
As your emotional wellbeing improves, so too does your willingness and capability to be prosocial and kind to others, thereby allowing you to spread more kindness and experience more happiness indirectly as they too start their own cycles.
It becomes a positively vicious cycle of love and good intention.
With rose-coloured glasses on, I’m seeing this spread throughout your family, at work, in your community. I’m seeing collaboration, enthusiasm and drive.
I’m seeing you arriving at work and your good energy brushing off on everyone else and you finishing work on time – maybe even early – to get home to play with your kids before enjoying a present and connecting dinner and chat with your spouse before heading to bed feeling good about the day and your interactions.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The metta meditation challenge
There’s undoubtedly something powerful going on here. There’s definite potential here to at least shift things in a positive direction.
Monks and meditators have known this secret for far longer than we have, and sure they may find it easier to enter into those blissful states that can have blissful societal consequences, but we can tap into this space too.
This isn’t only for those chosen few.
This is a powerful, practical practice that you can adopt to improve your wellbeing, the wellbeing of those around you and the relationships between you.
So my challenge to you is to give metta meditation a go for two weeks. Even ten minutes a day for two weeks is a’okay.
And then report back.
I’ll be surprised if there’s anything negative to report.
References and further resources
- Galante J & Galante I & Bekkers MJ & Gallacher J. (2014). Effect of Kindness-Based Meditation on Health and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 82. 10.1037/a0037249.
- Engel Y, Ramesh A, Steiner N. Powered by compassion: The effect of loving-kindness meditation on entrepreneurs’ sustainable decision-making. Journal of Business Venturing. 2020;35(6):105986. doi:10.1016/j.jbusvent.2019.105986
- Zeng X, Chiu CPK, Wang R, Oei TPS, Leung FYK. The effect of loving-kindness meditation on positive emotions: A meta-analytic review. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015;6(NOV):1-14. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01693
- Insight Timer. Lovingkindness Meditation by Sharon Salzberg. Available at https://insighttimer.com/sharonsalzberg/guided-meditations/lovingkindness-meditation. Accessed 12 Feb 2021.
- The Tim Ferriss Show (2018). Jack Kornfield — Finding Freedom, Love, and Joy in the Present (#300) [PODCAST]. Available at https://tim.blog/2018/03/05/jack-kornfield. Accessed 12 Feb 2021.
- Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. Baune B, ed. PLoS ONE. 2008;3(3):e1897. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001897
- Luberto CM, Shinday N, Song R, et al. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behaviors. Mindfulness. 2018;9(3):708-724. doi:10.1007/s12671-017-0841-8
- Rowland L, Curry OS. A range of kindness activities boost happiness. Journal of Social Psychology. 2019;159(3):340-343. doi:10.1080/00224545.2018.1469461
- Robinson B. 2020. Forbes. ABC News Anchor Dan Harris On How Meditation Changed His Personal Life And Built A New Business. Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryanrobinson/2020/11/04/abc-news-anchor-dan-harris-on-how-meditation-changed-his-personal-life-and-built-a-new-business. Accessed 12 Feb 2021.