Practicing lovingkindness can help you become kinder to yourself (and your enemies too). Here's how to get started.
Want to develop more kindness for yourself, for your loved ones, even for people you can’t stand? Starting a practice of lovingkindness (known in the Buddhist tradition as metta), can help. The good news is you don’t have to be an expert meditator to try it; you can add it to your existing routine, or use it as an entry point into a new practice.
To learn more, we spoke with expert Sharon Salzberg. She’s a co-founder of the esteemed Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the best-selling author of many books, including Lovingkindness. (Her newest book, Real Love, comes out in June.)
We asked Salzberg about the benefits of lovingkindness meditation, and how it relates to mindfulness in general. “To be mindful means to have a kind of interested, balanced awareness of what’s happening to us,” she explains. “But because our inner critic may be very strong, mindfulness is not that easy to accomplish. For a lot of people, doing a practice like lovingkindness can change our default response from one of self-judgment, fear, or anger, to a sense of connection and greater spaciousness, and it can form a foundation for being able to practice mindfulness. It’s a great experiment to try.”
How to do it
Start by finding a quiet place to sit, closing your eyes, and drawing your awareness to the sensations in your body. You might feel your feet touching the floor, or your legs against the chair. Next, bring your attention to the in and out flow of your breathing at one spot. That could be the feeling of your belly rising and falling with each breath, or the sensation of air flowing through your nose. As you direct your attention to your breath, your mind will inevitably wander. When it does, simply notice it doing so, and without judgment, bring your attention back to your breathing. Try doing this for a few minutes to start, and gradually extend the length of your sessions until you can sit for 20 or so minutes at a time. It takes practice, but over time, you’ll begin to notice you feel calmer, more focused, and more aware of your moment-to-moment experience.
Once you get the hang of basic meditation, you can add lovingkindness by saying the following phrases, quietly to yourself or in your head:
“May I be happy of heart.
May I be free from suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I live with ease.”
You might even place your hand gently on your chest to invoke a connection to your heart.
Next, say the same four phrases again, this time directed toward a loved one, friend, or benefactor:
“May you be happy of heart.
May you be free from suffering.…”
Then try saying them for someone who you don’t know well but is a part of your daily life, someone to whom you have a neutral feeling. “Many of us are in the habit of going into that grocery store and looking right through the clerk instead of at him, even if you’ve seen him a million times,” Salzberg explains. “We often objectify people so they become like pieces of furniture to us, but through the offering of the phrases [to a neutral person] we’re learning to pay full attention to someone, rather than discounting them.”
Next, say the phrases for someone you have difficulty with. The person could be someone you know, someone you don’t, someone you consider an enemy.
This step can be challenging, but it’s worth trying. “We often categorize certain people as all bad, all the time, which may be our experience with them, but there is a rigidity to that way of thinking which keeps us afraid and cut off,” Salzberg says. “If we want to take some risks with our attention and try wishing for them to be free of suffering, things may begin to move within ourselves: You may still not like that person, you may still not want to bring them home with you, but you may be able to grow that sense that our lives have something to do with one another.”
If you’re having trouble really feeling lovingkindess for someone you consider an enemy, you can also try picturing them as a baby, or near death, or in an unusual setting. Salzberg explains: “Although the phrases can be helpful in building a base of concentration, lovingkindness is also a practice that engages our creative imagination. The truth is that we were all infants once, and were so helpless and subject to the actions around us. And the truth is we will all die, so you can tap into the kind of poignancy to life that we all share.”
If you’re practicing lovingkindness for someone who’s shown you bad behavior, you might also imagine them at a safe remove from yourself, such as on an island with no boat. As you work with them in mind, “it might help you feel safe, like this person’s not going to take advantage of me,” Salzberg explains.
Finally, say the phrases again for all living creatures everywhere:
“May all beings be happy of heart.
May all beings be free from suffering.…”
However we might like it to, the point of lovingkindess is not to magically change other people from afar. “One thing I usually emphasize,” Salzberg says, “is that the essence of metta practice, and using the phrases, is paying attention differently. It’s not trying to force yourself to feel something you don’t feel, and it’s not trying to cover over some difficult feelings you might have with a kind of veneer of being saccharine. Rather, it’s about transforming our own way of seeing ourselves and seeing others in the world.”
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When you’re ready to give it a try, work it into your next meditation session. Salzberg says you can do it right when you sit down to meditate, or toward the end of a sitting.
“Some people like it at the beginning because it creates a kind of warm environment so that you can go on to practicing mindfulness with a little more kindness toward yourself,” she explains. “Most people like to do it at the end, because it’s a reminder that the inner work we do when we mediate is not really just for ourselves, but it’s also about how we are with our families and friends and communities. It can serve as a really nice bridge between the inner life and actual life.”