On Loving Kindness, or Metta Meditation

A view of Koh Samui

“The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it.” Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

About three years ago, I was in a beautiful wellness resort in Thailand where I got the chance to attend my first ever group meditation. I sat in a circle with about 10 others on little rattan semi-chairs – floor seats with cushions and a backrest. Neat. 

We were free to extend our legs or cross them, whatever worked. It’s important to be comfortable for this practice, we heard the teacher say. I was a little surprised. I had always pictured meditators in a bound lotus pose with an erect and dignified spine. Outside, we could hear a multitude of birds, which I had been observing from my balcony just moments earlier. In the background, the sound of a stream.

Our meditation teacher was warm and welcoming. After asking us to close our eyes and engage in a few minutes of breathing practice with a particular focus of the breath in the heart area, he guided us into Loving Kindness or Mettā meditation. He gently asked us to repeat a few sentences to ourselves, silently, and invited us to bring a smile to our lips as we did so. Odd, but I indulged him.

May I be well

May I be happy

May I feel peaceful

May I feel loved

He repeated the phrases again, easing us in.

We were to send these compassionate and loving thoughts inwards, one after the other, breathing mindfully, feeling them or at least trying to connect to ourselves in doing so.

He then directed us to visualize other beings in our lives (beings rather than people, making the field wide enough to include pets for example). One by one, we were guided to imagine them in our mind’s eye, repeating the same phrases, two rounds for each as I recall, again to support building some connection towards our intention or the receiver.

Finally he offered the idea of sending Mettā to a group of people (family, friends, city, country, etc) and eventually sending these same wishes of love and peace to the whole world – to all sentient beings.

At the end of the thirty minute practice, our instructor added: “Imagine how powerful it would be if someone were to do this every day!”

His suggestion floated in mid-air, right above me. I grabbed it and thought to myself: “Challenge accepted!”

My friends who had been to this place before had warned me to try not to ‘do too much’. When I go on holiday I try to relax but sometimes I have a tendency to pack my day, as if truly doing nothing wasn’t good for me. Indeed, that’s what I was doing that day.

I attended this group class because it was the only night I was free. There were free meditation classes twice a day every day, but this was the only one I managed to land. I should mention here that I don’t believe in coincidences. 

At home, a few months before this trip, I had started dabbling in meditative practices and visualisation, with the help of a couple of books including one by Shakti Gawain, called Creative Visualisation, which I’ve mentioned in an earlier article. I could tell there was something for me to gain there but had no idea how to go about it or how to make it a daily practice. 

Leaving it to fate, I had always thought: “one day, I will get into meditation”. By then though, I had been practicing various types of yoga for a few years and savasana (or corpse pose in sanskrit – the one where you lie down with your arms and legs apart at the end of practice and look like, well, a corpse) was the thing that got me into it. Letting go, breathing, relaxing, being guided, it all felt great.

Perhaps that’s why I was able to accept that challenge! 

So, the day after this group class, I started. The main goal of my stay in this resort was to fully detox and support the treatment of the rheumatoid arthritis I was diagnosed with a few years prior. Part of said treatment landed me in an infrared sauna for thirty minutes daily. I reasoned it could be just the spot for my new practice, two in one, right?

My memory served me well during my first session, having retained the structure and the phrases of well wishes. But may I just say – it wasn’t all fun and games. After the first twenty minutes of sweating heavily in the sauna, practicing meditation was another kind of challenge. But, I made it work.

So I continued, past my Thai wellness escapade. I spent the next six months doing this every day, for 15 to 30 minutes, morning or evening (whatever fitted most easily into my schedule), committed to keeping my word — to myself.

By that point, I had come to the decision of practicing every day for six months. It felt like a reasonable amount of time to establish a daily practice. 

I should add – the time during which I discovered Loving Kindness was one of the hardest of my life. You know how most things happen for a reason? This practice was just what I needed, then and now.

Still very much on the verge of burnout (for reasons I talk more about here), I returned from this magical place in Koh Samui and managed to keep to the daily challenge of bringing Mettā magic into my seemingly disconnected Parisian life.

Now about the practice:

I need to tell you that, as I sat and worked my way through the steps, often the phrases felt quite mechanical. There were days when it was hard or boring and I was just not into it. I kept repeating the phrases, aware of being distracted, of my lack of connection to the words, or the people I was directing them to. Not even connecting to myself sometimes.

The magical thing about it all though, is that by the end of practice, I generally felt tingly and full of a sort of scintillating energy. Typically this happened after going through the whole process, including directing Loving Kindness thoughts to all beings around the world. 

A surge of light, some kind of energetic flow seemed to power me up, as I directed it outwards.

Maybe in that moment, despite the boredom from the previous 20 or 30 minutes, a part of me was actually connecting to the idea that I was sending the whole world loving, peaceful energy. It seemed to charge me. Et oui!

Having talked about it with other meditation students, I have come to learn that it’s not just me – feeling special at the end of this kind of practice that is. Other people experience it too.

Think of yourself as a battery in need of recharging. Somehow, at least for me, regular Mettā practice has changed my battery levels, from minus or neutral to a higher positive charge. I would even go as far as to say that it has a magnetic quality to it, which I believe comes from the repeated action of sitting daily.

As a result, I feel pretty magnetic and life has never been quite the same again.

Want more proof? I agree, there is nothing quite like science to support personal experiences. In this article, author and Science Director at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Emma Seppala, offers a detailed list of the positive effects of a Loving Kindness practice, ranging from general wellbeing, increased social connection and better stress response, to self-love and even increased brain matter. All are immediate and long-term effects which are unique to Loving Kindness vs other meditation practices like Mindfulness for example (though this is also a wonderful practice of course). I would venture to say that this meditation is, well, kind of magic!

Fast forward a bit, I started to listen to Tara Brach’s guided meditations, after receiving a link to her podcast from a friend of mine. I then discovered a name for the practice I had been so faithful to: Mettā. The word comes from Pali (a language I had been unaware of until that very day) and indeed translates to benevolence or Loving Kindness.

A few months into this consistent practice, I naturally started doing what I discovered later to be called ‘Stealth Mettā’.I was offering Loving Kindness wishes to random people undercover – at the deli counter, on the plane, walking down the street – generally trying to meet their gaze as I did. Sometimes, when I dared, I even smiled at them. Me – smiling at strangers in the street…

One aspect of Mettā that our instructor had introduced us to included directing Loving Kindness to a neutral person, aka someone you don’t know very well; you might have only crossed paths with. Every day, my mind would spontaneously come up with that ‘someone’ – a taxi driver, a receptionist at the gym, the doorman in my building…

This, coupled with Stealth Mettā, started to affect how I was connecting to people. I was always friendly and empathic, however, I felt more and more attuned, sensitive, observant, and overall more caring.

A cashier at my local supermarket seemed to be having a bad time. I’m being polite: she was grumpy as hell basically. Every single time I would do my groceries, I would see her, unhappy, aggressive, angry even. She was a little scary actually. I tried to make eye contact, failing mostly. So, I doubled down, tried to smile and always said hello and goodbye in an attempt to forge a connection. To no avail.

One day, in the middle of a meltdown after a fight with my then significant other, I came in, dragging my feet due to the empty state of my fridge. I felt miserable. I got to the cash register, sort of dreading the interaction. There she was. The scary cashier looked up at me and something happened. She saw me.

She asked me (in Italian): ‘Are you okay?’ 

My eyes watered as I looked at her, touched that she would ask. I answered with a sad shrug.

Then I asked her how she was. She shook her head, signalling that she was experiencing something similar. 

We wished each other well, sort of, I don’t remember in what words. I left the store almost consoled. Not everything is wrong in this world if me and this stranger can connect in this way. 

Closer to home, my regular Mettā practice also helped me open my eyes to others in my inner circle who I felt had hurt me in some way, big or small. It enabled me to see through my heart, instead of my ego mind, beyond what some call ‘the mask of the Unreal Other’. When you forget someone’s decency and humanity because you are hurt or angry, they suddenly become ‘unreal’ and you begin to view them only as a source of pain and suffering rather than an actual person with their own feelings and experiences. Hiding underneath these masks I discovered people who were living their life the best way they knew how. I visualized most family members, a lot of ex-colleagues, bosses, and made my peace with them all, wishing them well.

Since that fateful class in Thailand, I’ve discovered one of the foremost teachers in Loving Kindness, Sharon Salzberg. While Mindfulness Meditation felt elusive to me back then, this practice, one Sharon has been teaching and championed for decades, now felt accessible to me. It got me started on a path towards a deeper connection with myself and others.

This leads me to another great teacher, and another source of inspiration: Thich Nhat Hanh. As the renowned Buddhist monk and teacher offers in his book, “The Art of Communicating”:

“When we begin to practice mindful awareness, we start the path home to ourselves. Home is the place where loneliness disappears. When we’re home, we feel warm, comfortable, safe, fulfilled. We’ve gone away from our homes for a long time, and our homes have become neglected.

But the path back home is not long. Home is inside us. Going home requires only sitting down and being with yourself, accepting the situation as it is. Yes, it might be a mess in there, but we accept it because we know we have left home for a long time. So now we’re home. With our in-breath and our out-breath, our mindful breathing, we begin to clean up our home.”

This beautiful quote resonates with me a little more every time I read it. Often, in various meditations, I have felt a beautiful connection with it, a feeling of completion or wholeness. Feeling love, my source, my light. Feeling that I am part of everything and connected to everyone. Finding softness and comfort in knowing I can come home to me.

With Meditation, whether Mindfulness or Mettā, I can see the path home. Going back to Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, and the quote that I opened with, I venture that this practice of Mettā helps our hearts cross the abyss and the false separation created by our minds.

Now at home with myself, I am taking care of the internal and the external, that is to say, addressing the things I need to clean up and clear out every day, one at a time so that I can feel good in my house. Maybe then someone will be able to find a home in me, or like Thich Nhat Hanh offers, that I might inspire someone to feel more at home in themselves.