During one of my many Vipassana courses, I volunteered as a Dhamma server, or manager for the female meditation students.
Vipassana is a silent meditation course that’s held over 10 days, and consists of completing 11 hours of meditation per day. Students are not allowed to interact with each other, so as the manager, I was their only point of contact—besides the teacher.
Due to the physical, mental, and emotional pressures of the course, it was pretty typical for the managers to be on the receiving end of the student’s frustrations.
At the beginning, I had difficulty dealing with one particular student. By the end of the fourth day, another server noticed that I was starting to internalize this student’s negativity. The server gave me this advice: “You should send her metta tonight.”
Metta bhavana means “compassionate love” or “loving-kindness.” It’s a meditation practice that consists of wishing others and ourselves happiness and well-being.
Before calling it a night at the course, we practiced metta with the teachers. That night, I decided to send this particular student metta, as the server suggested. Instead of blaming her for how I was feeling, I wished her—and myself—happiness, awareness, and compassion.
I noticed a change in our relationship the following day. Instead of judging or blaming her, I felt compassion toward her. By the end of the course, we became friends. A few days later, two students lashed out at me when I spoke to them about the rules and regulations. Instead of getting angry at them, I sat in meditation and sent them metta. I was pleasantly surprised when they apologized to me later that day.
I’ve realized, through my participation in Vipassana courses, that sending metta is powerful, but it also requires a great deal of strength. We shouldn’t practice it to merely alter the outside outcome—not everyone we send metta to is going to apologize to us—but it does change the outcome from inside us.
I’ve been practicing metta monthly for almost four years. While I used to only send metta to those who cared about me, I now also send it to those who have hurt me. But it can take months or even years to be able to sit in meditation, bring the person who hurt me to mind, and forgive them.
Sending metta at the moment of difficulty is challenging, but valuable. Sitting and meditating with feelings of anger and blame can feel like trying to put out a fire that keeps growing strong. Metta is the water we need to put out that fire.
When someone hurts us, our ego can stop us from forgiving them or wishing them well. We keep the hurtful story in our minds and continue to identify with it. Living with a painful past isn’t easy, but what’s even more difficult is trying to detach from it.
What we don’t often realize is that detachment leads to liberation. When we forgive and wish others well, we begin letting go of our heavy baggage. After sending metta, we realize that it is our nature to be compassionate and loving—and this innate nature is masked by the ego, which can play both the victim and the tyrant.
When we send metta to others, we start to understand their actions and words. Instead of judging them or blaming them, we accept that they have hurt us (or themselves) because they were driven by ignorance, an upheaval of emotions, or simple conditioning.
Now we might be wondering if sending metta is enough to solve our problems. Shouldn’t we take action? The answer is yes, of course.
Sending metta doesn’t mean we avoid making a change. We must take action, however, we should be able to forgive before we do so. When we forgive and wish others well, we realize that sending metta changes the motivation behind our actions. While we may have been previously motivated by anger or hatred, metta helps us take action based on love and compassion.
Then, the solution to our problem becomes more clear. If nothing changes outside, at least we have changed how we perceive our problem and can stop allowing it to negatively impact us. And we don’t lose anything by wishing others well—but we do lose inner peace and happiness when we keep our suffering burning inside us.
Here are some tips to start a metta practice:
>> Sit in a comfortable position. It doesn’t matter whether we sit on a chair, couch, or cushion. What matters is the state of our minds.
>> Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath so you can relax and sharpen your mind. Focus is key, and watching our breath is the best way to do so. I start with Lama Yeshe‘s technique: close the left nostril with one finger, then inhale and exhale from the right nostril three times. Then, close the right nostril, and inhale and exhale through the left nostril three times. Then, take three deep breaths from both nostrils and watch the air as it comes in and out.
>> Continue practicing mindful breathing for a few minutes. Focus on the breath coming in through the nostrils, passing through the chest, and flowing all the way down to the stomach. Start your metta when you feel ready.
>> Begin with yourself. We can’t properly love or help others if we can’t love and help ourselves. Every word that we express in metta must be heartfelt. Don’t merely repeat words. Try to feel the vibration or the motivation behind them.
Repeat the words: “May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be healthy. I forgive myself for any harm I have caused myself or others.”
As S.N. Goenka says, the choice of words doesn’t matter. We might wish others or ourselves awareness, joy, abundance, understanding—we can wish whatever the other person needs but most importantly, we should wish them peace, happiness, love, and forgiveness.
>> When you are ready, bring to mind a person with whom you have difficulty. Imagine them sitting in front of you for a few minutes.
When the image is clear in your head, repeat the words: “May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be compassionate. May you be healthy. May you find love. May you be safe. I forgive you for any harm you have caused yourself, others, or me.”
Sink into the intention and let it surround you.
>> Repeat the practice, including someone you love and, ultimately, all beings.
Negative feelings such as anger, sadness, or guilt may arise but they shouldn’t stop us. Take these emotions as a sign that we’re courageously facing our issues and healing ourselves and others.
We can practice metta whenever and wherever we choose. May we reap the benefits.
Author: Elyane Youssef
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis