Conflicts between people are a natural part of life. We even fight with ourselves, criticizing our past actions and denying our ability to cope with the future. Meditation doesn’t seek to erase conflicts or turn meditators into placid doormats. Instead, it teaches a path in which life’s problems are approached with understanding, patience, and love.
Vietnamese Buddhist priest, teacher, and author, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers these instructions for performing metta (lovingkindness) meditation as a path to cultivating love for oneself and others (“Cultivating Compassion” Tricycle, Spring 2015):
44 years ago I enrolled in an Introduction to Philosophy class offered by my local community college. One essay I read asserted that my life was filled with choices and I would always have to choose. Even refusing to choose was itself a choice.
Today is Day 2 of the new school year and the Hum 110 conflicts of last year have already reasserted themselves. Because absolutely nothing in my academic training qualifies me to opine on the ideal Hum 110 curriculum it is tempting to turn my back on the dispute and gaze upon the sabbatical year stretching out before me.
What happens when we sit quietly in meditation? Try to answer this before you read on. Realize that your answers might be coming from several points of view: experience, expectation, or hope. Also consider that, while there may be no single right answer that applies to every person, let alone to every meditation session, there is nothing wrong if some aspects of your meditation experience begin to seem familiar over time.
The cultivation of metta, sometimes translated as boundless friendliness or loving kindness, has proven to be a beneficial meditation practice over the centuries, but it can present a challenge for modern Westerners. The standard version of metta practice asks one to begin by expressing positive wishes for one’s own benefit, e.g., ‘may I be happy, may I be healthy, etc.’, before extending these wishes to others. The difficulty for many of us appears right at the start. Should I really be wishing myself happiness, good health, and so on? Well-known meditation teacher and author, Jack Kornfield, has a solution. He says, “We open our heart in the most natural way, then direct our loving-kindness little by little to the areas where it’s more difficult.” Sending good wishes to ourselves may not feel completely natural so we don’t have to start there. You can find all of his instructions at How to Do Metta (Lion’s Roar, 11 August 2015).
My taxes are due in a couple of weeks. I think I have a few more days to turn in my 2014 medical receipts for reimbursement. Half the yard is covered by moss and weeds, the rest by grass that grows 3 inches every night. Dishes to wash, thesis drafts to read, lectures to write, assignments to grade – who has time for meditation?
‘Metta’ is a word in the Pali language that has been translated variously as boundless friendliness, general benevolence or goodwill, and even loving kindness (the last one is probably the most common phrase on the web, but I have seen scholars grind their teeth over this rendering).
Metta, however you translate it, is associated with a type of meditation practice in which one silently recites a set of phrases that are designed to open the heart and cultivate a friendly attitude towards oneself and towards others. The phrases can be very simple and can be recited anywhere (for example, when waiting for the bus).
The Metta Institute offers this simple list of phrases along with a basic set of written instructions:
- May I be happy
- May I be well
- May I be safe
- May I be peaceful and at ease
The phrases can also be reworked according to one’s muse. Here is a portion of “Maylie’s Metta Prayer” (quoted by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum in “Walking the Way”):
- May I be at ease in my body, feeling the ground beneath my seat and feet …
- May I be attentive and gentle toward my own discomfort and suffering …
- May I be attentive and grateful for my own joy and well-being …
- May I move towards others freely and with openness …
- May I receive others with sympathy and understanding …
Remembering the phrases and the instructions can be taxing at first so I found it helpful to start out by listening to audio instructions while I meditated in this way. Here’s a 27-minute audio session with well-known Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg.