What is Metta? – Metta Practice, Meditations, and Explanation
You may have heard the term metta or metta bhavana before in a meditation group, on social media, or in a dharma talk. It’s an important and foundational practice in Buddhist meditation traditions, and something about which we receive a lot of questions. As the first of the four brahma-viharas, or heart practices, it’s a practice worth integrating into both our meditation practice and daily lives. We’ve created this introductory guide to the practice to help answer a few questions:
–What is metta?
–Why is metta important?
–How do we practice metta?
This is an introduction to metta, and we encourage you to give the practices a shot! We answer a few common questions we receive about this practice as well toward the end.
Let’s start with the word itself. Metta is a Pali word that is most often translated as “loving kindness.” This is by far the most common translation of the term, but it’s not our favorite definition of the term. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk & scholar in San Diego, is known for using the term “goodwill” as the appropriate translation. Thanissaro Bhikkhu makes the point that metta is not necessarily about a feeling of love, but more about wishing well for others. Although “goodwill” is a bit dry compared to “loving kindness,” it may more accurately describe what metta is.
Gil Fronsdal, a teacher in Northern California, has been known to use the term “gentle friendliness,” which is the translation we most often use. The Pali word metta shares roots with the words gentleness and friendliness, and the belief is that metta is actually a combination of these Pali terms.
Obviously we can’t provide a single definitive metta defintion, but we find it to be a combination of both “gentle friendliness” and “goodwill.” Metta is the quality of mind and heart in which we wish for others to be happy. This doesn’t mean we are responsible for their happiness; rather, it is the wishing for the other person to be well and do what needs to be done to find such happiness.
To sum up what exactly metta is as concisely as possible, I’d say metta is caring for the wellbeing of others and responding with a gentle and aware heart. Metta is both a practice and a quality of the heart, and they’re different (more on this in a bit). As a quality, metta is the state in which we see others as living and breathing beings and care for their happiness.
History of Metta
The practice of metta comes from the Karaniya Metta Sutta, which you can read by clicking the image. The metta sutta, or discourse, is believe to be the Buddha’s words on this practice. It’s a beautiful and short read (at least we think so). You can read it line by line and reflect on each statement individually.
Metta was not one of the practices that the Buddha originally taught his followers. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha sent a group of monks into a forest to practice for a few months. When the monks arrived, they found that the forest was haunted by all kinds of ghosts and tree spirits. The monks ran back to the Buddha and told him of the experience. This is where the Buddha offered his monks the practice of metta, encouraging them to offer metta to these “evil” spirits.
When the monks returned to the forest, they sat in metta meditation. They found that the spirits stopped haunting them, and actually grew to protect the monks. Now, this may be a true story or it may be an allegory. I wasn’t there myself, so I cant’ be sure. What I do know is that this is a beautiful example of how we can bring metta to difficult beings and situations that cause fear to arise in order to change our relationships to them.
In the 5th century CE in Sri Lanka, Buddhagosa wrote the Visuddhimagga. Widely considered the most important Buddhist text in Theravada Buddhism outside of the original Pali Canon, the Visuddhimagga gave us many teachings and practices. One of these is the way in which we often practice metta today, the repeated offering of phrases.
Visual Story of Metta
This is a video we made a while ago with the story of metta!
The Quality of Heart
Before we dive into the cultivation of metta through meditation practices, we have to understand the quality we are working to cultivate. There’s so much we can say about metta and what it is as a quality of the heart, but we don’t want to cause any overwhelm. As a heart quality, metta is a state in which we are present for beings. You can think of a time in which somebody has been a friend for you. Maybe they showed up when you needed support, maybe somebody held a door open for you, or perhaps a friend listened to you wholeheartedly when you were telling them something.
This is metta. It’s important to recognize that it is not a quality we are trying to bring in from outside ourselves. We all have lived with metta in moments of our lives, whether or not we’ve directly practiced its cultivation in meditation. We all also know the warmth and contentment of having somebody else show up and be a friend to us. Metta is just that: the quality of the heart that allows us to show up with care for others.
Why is it Important?
Metta practice is important for many reasons, but there are a few that stand out. First, metta helps us cultivate a gentleness both in and out of our meditation practice. As we practice cultivating metta, we can bring it to our mindfulness practices and other meditations. We respond with less reactivity and more gentleness toward our own thoughts, emotions, and experiences.
It’s wonderful to be able to bring awareness to our experience, but if we do so with judgement and reactivity we often are getting in our own way. Metta helps us in these mindfulness practices to tune into experience with some kindness and gentleness. In my experience, metta deeply impacts my level of awareness and insight. As I tune into experience with more gentleness, I am able to see it more clearly.
Metta of course helps us in daily life and our interactions with others as well. We respond with more care and attention to those around us, have more patience, and perhaps see others as living, feeling beings. This comes from cultivating metta in meditation and from cultivating metta in daily life. After practicing consistently, we begin to see our relationships with others change, especially in our own responses.
Furthermore, metta practice is really a concentration practice, helping us to build the ability to focus. Instead of using the breath, we use the phrases of metta as the object of our concentration. Although it’s a different way to practice, metta can lead us to deep states of concentration and ease in meditation.
According to the Mettanisamsa Sutta, the Buddha offered 11 benefits of metta practice:
1. He sleeps in comfort.
2. He awakes in comfort.
3. He sees no evil dreams.
4. He is dear to human beings.
5. He is dear to non-human beings.
6. Devas (gods) protect him.
7. Fire, poison, and sword cannot touch him.
8. His mind can concentrate quickly.
9. His countenance is serene.
10. He dies without being confused in mind.
11. If he fails to attain arahantship (the highest sanctity) here and now, he will be reborn in the brahma-world.
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So how do we cultivate this quality of the heart? Here are a few tips, some phrases to use, a script if you wish to read or lead the practice, and a few guided meditations you can stream freely!
How to Practice Metta
Metta is cultivated in formal meditation practice, although we can also offer phrases at any point during our daily lives. It’s traditionally done by repeating a few phrases toward groups of people in our lives. Through the repetition of these phrases, we are tuning into our natural capacity to care for a pay attention to others. We concentrate on this intention of caring, and cultivate it through dedicated practice. Like other meditation practices, metta takes time and consistency. Check out some scripts and guided meditations below!
Metta Meditation Script
Here is a script for a metta meditation. You can read it yourself before or during practice, or you can use it to lead a group. If you have any questions, you’re always welcome to reach out to us at [email protected]! You can also find more meditation scripts on our guided meditation scripts page.Metta Meditation Script
Metta Meditation Phrases
There are many phrases people use in metta practice, and we’ve found it helpful to investigate different phrases and what works for each person. Here are a few traditional phrases you can investigate in your practice and a few different ones we like to use as well. Feel free to try your own phrases and see what works for you. Note that although we’ve put the “you” version of the phrases below, these can be used to practice metta toward ourselves as well!
“May you be happy.”
“May you be healthy.”
“May you be safe.”
“May you be at ease.”
Other Metta Meditation Phrases
“I love you.”
“I love you, keep going.”
“May your mind be at ease.”
“May your body be at ease.”
“May your heart be at ease.”
“May you feel loved.”
“May you feel cared for.”
“May you experience moments of ease.”
Guided Metta Meditations
Feel free to listen to these meditations and share them! You can also check out our collection of Guided Meditations on the Heart Practices available in our store!
Questions about Metta
Here are a few common questions we receive about metta practice, both online and in our groups. If you have a question for us, you can always reach out and we will do our best to answer!
What if I don’t feel loving and kind?
We hear this quite a bit and get it. In metta practice, we don’t always “feel” metta. Sometimes it’s dry and boring, and sometimes we come up against frustration or ill-will. It’s important that we remember there is a difference between metta practice and metta as a quality. In practice, we’re working to cultivate metta. If you already lived in a state of metta, you wouldn’t need the practice. Allow yourself some room to grow!
Also, as we work on this purification of the heart, part of the process is a purge. It’s natural that we come up against the “far enemy” of metta. The far enemy of a brahma-vihara is the quality that is opposite to the desired quality. In metta’s case, the far enemy is ill-will or hatred. As we practice metta toward someone, we may come into contact with the things that get in the way of our metta such as judgement, anger, ill-will, or a number of other unpleasant feelings. You can notice them, and return to the intention of metta as many times as necessary.
Is metta a prayer?
We hear this quite a bit. Metta can feel a bit like prayer. For some people, this can be a turn off. For others, seeing metta as prayer is familiar and comforting. The short answer though is no, it is not a prayer. A prayer in its general usage means asking someone or something else for something. In metta practice, we’re not asking for anything and we’re not asking anyone else. We’re simply setting the intention to open our own hearts. Studies have shown that this actually works, as Elizabeth discusses in her post Compassion Meditation Works.
This is a great question and one that we are continually investigating ourselves. It seems to be super relevant in today’s political world, as we’re often asked this question in reference to specific political leaders. Let’s take an example though that doesn’t cause much division among our readers: Jeffrey Dahmer. A famed serial killer, this person seemed to gain some happiness from causing great harm to many people and their loved ones. How do we work with that and offer metta?
First, we return to the fact that we don’t need to dive into the stories of what makes someone happy. In extending metta toward this person, you’re not condoning their behavior or standing by while someone causes harm. Rather, we can wish for this person to be at ease and to do themselves what needs to be done to free themselves from suffering. Perhaps with someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, we can offer a phrase like, “May you find peace with your mind.” People that cause this kind of harm are often suffering themselves, and it may be best to switch to some compassion practice or try some forgiveness exercises.
Is metta an emotion or feeling?
Ah, this is perhaps one of my favorite questions and investigations related to metta! What exactly is metta? We’ve called it a quality of the heart, but what in the world does that actually mean? Metta is not an emotion or feeling in my experience. It’s also not a thought. Rather, metta is more like a mental state or affect. It is a lens through which we experience thoughts, emotions, interactions, and sensations. Essentially, metta comes before an emotion.
Let’s take an example. You have a teenage child who pushes some of your buttons. Like humans do sometimes, you react and snap at them. This comes from a mental state of irritation or frustration hijacking the mind/body experience. Now, let’s say you’re a super metta-ful person who has been cultivating metta. Your teenager pushes some of your buttons and you have a mental state of metta through which you’re viewing the situation. The irritation or frustration comes up in your experience and you’re able to see it and let it come and go. Instead of snapping, you bite your tongue and respond a little more gently or wisely.