How To Cultivate Compassion Through Metta Meditation

Inspiring, Zenful

One of the central aims of Buddhist meditation is to cultivate compassion, or loving-kindness – and metta meditation is designed to do just that.

Metta is a word from ancient Pali (the language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures) which does not translate easily into English. It is a term which conveys warmth, friendliness, non-violence, benevolence, goodwill, compassion and fellowship. The term “loving-kindness” was coined as an English equivalent.

The philosophy and practice of metta has it’s roots in the Buddha’s Karaniya Metta Sutta, the “Hymn of Universal Love.” In it, the Buddha instructs a number of his disciples how to achieve liberation and spiritual perfection by contemplating and cultivating universal love and compassion.

But before we take a look at the practice of metta, let’s get a better understanding of exactly what compassion means – and the many ways that it can transform your life for the better.

Empathy vs. Compassion


Compassion is closely related to empathy, but they are not necessarily the same thing.

Empathy is the ability to feel the suffering of another, as if it was your own; to identify with them, and put yourself in their shoes. This is certainly a necessary component of compassion, and it might even be said that compassion is born out of empathy, is an extension of it.

The problem is, simply feeling another’s suffering is not enough. We can get stuck in empathy, in that feeling of suffering, and become paralyzed. When we empathize with others, we are suffering ourselves. It can be stressful, and draining, and not conducive to our well-being – or theirs.

Compassion takes empathy to the next level. We not only feel the suffering of others, and identify with them, we also feel warmth and love for them, and a desire to alleviate their suffering.

Studies reveal that empathy and compassion actually stimulate different networks in the brain. The neural networks underlying empathy are associated with negative emotions (pain and suffering), while those underlying compassion are associated with positive feelings (warmth, connection, love and kindness).

Compassion is proactive. It motivates us to help, to serve, to make a difference. Compassion is taking our feelings of empathy, and putting them to good use.

And it turns out that helping others has tremendous benefits for us, too.

The Science of Compassion


In recent years, a number of research studies have been done investigating the affects of compassion training – particularly loving-kindness meditation. These studies have documented numerous benefits in mental and emotional well-being, physical health, and social interaction.

Health Benefits

Mental & Emotional Well-being

Social Benefits

As you can see, compassion-based meditation brings with it many personal and interpersonal rewards. As Buddhist teachers like the Dalai Lama have long taught, compassion is an essential part of human health and well-being, and a necessary ingredient in healthy relationships – as well as a more just and humane society.

How To Practice Metta (Loving-Kindness) Meditation

Are you convinced yet? Good! Now let’s take a look at how to practice loving-kindness (or metta) meditation, in seven simple steps.

1. Assume Meditation Position


Find a quiet place, where you can practice undisturbed. Assume your favorite position for meditation, whether it be sitting cross-legged on a cushion, or upright in a chair, even standing or lying down. The important thing is that your back is straight but relaxed, your spine erect but not rigid, and that you are comfortable and free from pain.

Now close your eyes, and settle in…

2. Breathe & Relax


Metta meditation is best practiced when in a relaxed and meditative state. So start with a few minutes of simple breathing meditation.

Breathe in deep, and as you do, scan your body for any stress, pain or tension. Breathe out slowly, and with each exhalation, release any stress or tension that you feel. Adjust your posture and position as needed, in order to be stable and comfortable.

Keep your attention focused on your breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out, the rise and fall of your chest, and your belly – don’t let your mind wander.

With each breath, let yourself sink deeper and deeper into total relaxation.

3. The Metta Chant: Starting With Yourself


Once your body is relaxed, and your mind is serene, begin your metta practice by silently chanting these words to yourself:

May I be peaceful.

May I be happy.

May I be safe.

May I be free from suffering.

May I awaken to my true nature.

The practice of metta begins with cultivating loving-kindness toward ourselves. Why? Because we cannot give what we do not have. We cannot be truly loving and compassion to others, unless we can be truly loving and compassionate to ourselves, first.

As you chant these words, imagine yourself smiling, happy, totally free and at peace. Visualize a state of complete safety and well-being. Imagine that you are perfectly at home in a benevolent universe, at one with all creation, with no threat, no danger, and absolutely nothing to fear…

Let this chant conjure up a vision of perfect joy and serenity. Really see it, and feel it in your bones. Realize that you, as much as anyone else in the universe, deserve love, peace and happiness. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. Love and accept yourself for who you are, exactly as you are.

This is the foundation of metta practice.

After 2 – 3 minutes, or whenever you feel ready, move on to the next step.

4. Send Love To Your Loved Ones


Now it’s time to turn outwards, and direct loving-kindness toward others. Start with those closest to you; your partner, your children, your parents and siblings, maybe your closest friends. The people in your inner circle, the ones who mean the most to you.

One by one, call them to your mind, as you chant these words:

May you be peaceful.

May you be happy.

May you be safe.

May you be free from suffering.

May you awaken to your true nature.

As you recite this chant, really see each of your loved ones whole and well, happy and free. Visualize them as having overcome every challenge, obstacle and hindrance. See them safe on the “other shore,” liberated from the suffering of the ego, and awakened to their true, divine, infinite Self.

The aim of metta is cultivate this vision, this desire and wish for all beings – but it is easiest to start with the ones closest to you, the people you already care deeply about.

5. Widen The Circle


Now extend your practice beyond your loved ones, to include those you don’t know so well.

This might be your coworkers, neighbors or other casual acquaintances, even random people that you see on the street or in the grocery store. Don’t try to control this too much. Just relax your mind, and chant the metta blessing for whoever comes into your thoughts:

May you be peaceful.

May you be happy.

May you be safe.

May you be free from suffering.

May you awaken to your true nature.

Again, as you recite these words, be conscious of their full meaning. Whoever comes into your mind, even if it’s a total stranger, realize that they are a spiritual being, just like you. They deserve happiness and safety and well-being, just like you.

Cultivate a sincere desire for their health, peace of mind, and – most of all – their spiritual liberation.

6. Include Those Who Have Hurt or Offended You


This might be the most challenging part of metta practice: loving your enemies.

Okay, maybe “enemies” is too strong a word – but you know what I mean. I’m talking about those people who have hurt you, wronged you, betrayed you, intentionally or unintentionally. The people that make you tense up a little bit whenever you see them or think about them. You know who they are.

Call each one of them into your mind, one at a time, and silently chant:

May you be peaceful.

May you be happy.

May you be safe.

May you be free from suffering.

May you awaken to your true nature.

As you recite these words, be aware of any resistance that you feel. Is there a part of you that doesn’t mean it? Are you holding onto any trace of anger, pain, frustration or resentment?

If so, you will need to do some forgiveness work as a part of your metta practice. Read our post, How to Forgive, for detailed directions. Practice forgiving those who have hurt you until you can wish them well – and really mean it.

7. Include All Beings


Next, widen the circle as far as your imagination can stretch. Extend your metta practice to include all of humanity, all plants and animals, and all living things on Earth and throughout the cosmos.

Chant the following silently to yourself:

May all beings be peaceful.

May all beings be happy.

May all beings be safe.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings awaken to their true nature.

As you recite these words, let your heart and mind open like a lotus flower in full bloom.

In your mind’s eye, see the Earth as it spins through the vastness of space; see the countless trillions of living beings that share this beautiful planet. Imagine all seven billion people blessed with peace and safety and freedom; people of every land and culture living together, happily and harmoniously.

See every living thing as a part of the infinite whole, a sacred spark of the One Light, the One Life, the One Consciousness. Hold that vision, see it and feel it and make it real.

With practice, the words of the chant may just fall away, as you simply sit and radiate loving-kindness to all creation.

Do this for a few minutes, then conclude your meditation. The whole process should take about 20 minutes, or longer if you want. I recommend practicing twice a day, once in the morning and again in the evening.

Off The Cushion, And Into The World


But let’s get one thing straight: metta practice isn’t over just because you stop meditating.

It isn’t just something to visualize and contemplate, while you’re sitting on your meditation cushion. You’ve got to put it into action. The most important part of metta practice is what happens when you get up off the cushion, and go out into the world.

Carry that vision of peace and happiness with you throughout the day. Hold onto that feeling of love and warmth and kinship with all beings.

Every person that crosses your path, gives you an opportunity to practice metta. Give them a smile, look deep into their eyes, and wish them well. Show them some small kindness, whatever is possible given the circumstances. See them healthy and happy and free.

Ultimately, the goal of metta practice is more than cultivating compassion. It is to transcend the ego, and the sense of separation, and actually become the living embodiment of compassion.

To widen the circle of your love and caring to include everyone you meet, every creature, big and small, every tree and flower, every blade of grass. To spread peace, happiness and kindness with your every thought, word and action.

Ultimately, the goal is to simply be love. What higher aim or purpose could there be?

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