June 11, 2012

Metta: The Practice of Loving Kindness. ~ Barry H. Gillespie

Metta is one of the four great virtues.

Along with compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upeka), the Buddha encouraged everyone to perfect these. Besides the usual translation, “loving kindness,” metta might also be translated as “good will,” having an attitude of good will towards all beings.

This is opposed to an attitude of ill-will, or wishing that individuals, or groups of people or even entire nations suffer.

On the face of it, this seems pretty simple. We all like to think that we are good people, that we don’t have a problem in this area.

The truth is we all do.

We all have reactive mental patterns that cause us to respond to certain people, or in certain situations, with thoughts and even words and actions that express ill will, and that cause suffering to arise, both for ourselves and others.

So what can be done about this situation?

It would be nice if we could simply resolve not to think or speak or act in unkind ways, but we all know that that isn’t enough, that we easily slip back into our old reactive patterns.

Loving kindness is something that we have to cultivate, to practice.

How can we practice something so elusive?

The Buddha was both precise and poetic. In the Metta Sutta he says two interesting things. First, how intense should this practice be:

“Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings.”

In other words, as intense as you can imagine.

As for when we should practice metta the Buddha is equally clear.

“Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.”

In other words, all the time.

This seems like a tall order, but fortunately there is a very simple place to begin. The Theravaden Buddhist tradition has a form of metta that one can take up as a meditation practice in conjunction with vipassana practice. The practice is simple yet powerful, opening the practitioner’s heart while taking him/her to very deep states of concentration. While holding a particular person in your heart/mind, and visualizing them in a happy state, you repeat the following four phrases over and over.

May you be safe.

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you live with ease.

Basically you are saying that you want this person to have optimal conditions for a good life in this world. When you are repeating the phrases and your mind wanders, simply start over at the beginning.

It is always useful to say these phrases for yourself, usually first in fact.

If you can’t have thoughts of loving kindness for yourself, a condition of almost epidemic proportions in our culture, how can you have those feelings for others. Just replace the “you” in the phrases with “I.” What we are doing with the practice is literally filling our minds with thoughts of loving kindness, temporarily replacing and thus weakening the old reactive patterns of ill-will.

Now it is time for “full disclosure.”When I first encountered this practice about 12 years ago my reaction was basically “Eeww…how hippie-dippie, how new agey.” This stuff wasn’t for me. I wanted to do real meditation practice.

On my first 10-day sit at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, where we did one 45-minute sitting period of metta every day, I literally couldn’t stand it, and would leave the mediation hall and do some yoga, something useful as I then saw it.

As time went on, and I did more intense practice, and longer retreats, I learned to tolerate the practice, I wouldn’t leave the hall and would try my best to follow the instructions, but there was always a huge “yes but …” in my mind. All of my teachers spoke highly of metta, so there must be something to it. When I confided in various teachers they all encouraged me to hang in, but I just didn’t get it, or so I thought.

Then one day Guy Armstrong, a teacher I have huge respect for, said two things that really stunned me. (You have to understand that Guy is a huge intellect, giving clear precise talks on all aspects of the dhamma.) His explanations and teachings on Vipassana were perfect for me.

Photo: Boricuaeddie

This particular day he was speaking about metta, and he said “On a three month retreat I did nothing but metta.” I thought, “What, Mr. Intellectual … three months of metta… whoa.” Then he said, “And after that my only practice for a year and a half was metta.”

I was completely floored.

He’d gotten my attention.

I decided that on my next month long retreat I’d do a month of metta, so I could figure it out.

The next winter, with much trepidation and no real idea of what I was getting myself into, I started off, luckily under the guidance of Guy. He gently but firmly led me deeper and deeper into the practice.

It was incredible.

I went into the deepest states of concentration I’d ever been in. I went around with a huge smile on my face most of the time, or so it seemed. But even after a month I wasn’t sure about this “opening the heart” stuff. It’s easy to feel benevolent in a retreat situation.

A few days after he retreat ended, back home in Boulder once again, something happened that taught me clearly how open the month of metta practice had made me.

I went to Whole Foods to shop for a few groceries. I intentionally went around 11:00 am, when it isn’t so busy. So there I was wandering around in the store, putting the 10 or so things I needed in my basket, when I came across a mother with a child in cart. I smiled at the child, and the child smiled back. I made a silly face and the child smiled some more. The mother tuned in to what was happening, we smiled at each other, and I went back to the child.

Now if you’ve ever been in Whole Foods at that time of day you’ll know that the place is full of parents with their small children, so this happened not once, but over and over again. Sometimes I’d even
talk to the child or the parent. Every child reacted to me with happiness, and no parent seemed at all concerned about this weird guy playing with their child in the canned foods aisle. It took me almost half an hour to get the 10 things I’d gone for.

Afterwards, reflecting on what had just happened as I drove home, I thought “Yup, this metta stuff really does work!”


Barry H. Gillespie was introduced to formal meditation practice in 1978, through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram. After taking a combined Ashtanga and Vipassana retreat with Richard Freeman and Wendy Zerin in 1999 he began exploring Theravaden Buddhist practice, sitting many long retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. His teaching arises out of his desire to share what he has learned with others.

He will be teaching a daylong Metta retreat at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO on Saturday, June 16. He can be reached at [email protected].


Editor: Elysha Anderson

Photo: Barliquin/Flickr 

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