Metta, a word derived from the ancient Pali language meaning “lovingkindness,” is a 2,500-year-old practice known to dissolve fear and replace it with nurturing. The Buddha first taught it to monks to help them overcome their fear of meditating in the forest. Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and support of the King Khalid Foundation, says metta may be even more useful today than it was long ago. “There has been such a terrible degeneration in our minds and our culture about the concept and power of love,” she says. “It’s a real degradation of our potential. Through lovingkindness, everyone can flower again.” Salzberg has practiced metta for twenty-five years and has seen its effects in herself and her students.
And the results can be dramatic. Those practicing metta meditation report easier sleeping and waking, pleasant dreams, a radiant face, greater creativity and productivity, and a greater ability to give love and accept love.
Masks of Tension
Metta meditation teachers often see dramatic changes in the faces of their students, particularly in the facial muscles, which become visibly more relaxed. “We wear a mask of deep facial tensions,” says Kamala Masters, an international teacher of meditation. “You let go of that tension when you do metta; you’re more likely to smile.” One woman in her metta class at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Boston said, “When I become frightened, I look arrogant, and it puts people off. I tried metta in an uncomfortable situation and found that this time people responded well to me.”
Because metta is what’s known as a concentration practice (one of several major categories of meditation), it has the power to focus the mind, much like a laser can concentrate light energy. “It is the shepherding back of all the energy that we normally dissipate in being scattered and excessively judgmental,” says Salzberg. “There is a wholeness and unification that happens that is very healing.”
“We can get beyond feeling victimized by other people’s opinions of us and their behavior toward us,” says Joseph Goldstein, another cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society and author of The Experience of Insight: A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation (Shambhala, 1993). “Our feelings about ourselves don’t have to depend on cycles of praise and blame.” Rather, practicing metta can make every encounter an opportunity for spiritual growth. “Instead of seeing people as aggravations or obstacles, they become catalysts for your own development.” says Mark Epstein, M.D., author of Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective (BasicBooks, 1995).
How Does It Work?
Every day we see proof that lovingkindness works and that negativeness does not. Research in education, for example, has demonstrated that positive expectations foster a better performance, while a negative one hinders it. Studies have shown that when teachers believe certain “average” students are high achievers, the students ultimately meet the higher expectations, even though they are unaware of the special treatment. Similarly, when expected to perform poorly, students oblige. By the same token, when practicing metta, you give yourself the opportunity to rise to your own positive expectations.
But how can reciting words to yourself really make that much difference? Researchers propose that when we let go of negative self-talk, we decrease stress on the whole body. “When we marinate our minds in negativity, we spur both the placebo effect [the opposite of the healing placebo effect] and the fight-or-flight response. Both have detrimental effects on our bodies,’ says Herbert Benson, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Emergencies stimulate the sympathetic nervous system to trigger a series of changes that enable the body to cope with crisis. Think back to the last time you watched a horror movie. Even though you weren’t in physical danger, chances are your heart beat faster and your breath became shallower. When practiced properly, metta reduces the flow of adrenaline through the body, slows the heart rate, and lowers blood pressure.
Dorothy Austin, a psychotherapist and professor of psychology and religion at Drew University, is careful to distinguish metta from simple brain-washing. “It’s like hitting a tennis ball again and again. By practicing your strokes, you get better at it, and your game blossoms,” she says. “Why wouldn’t cultivating positive habits of mind make a similar difference?’
Many say it does. Benson believes that meditating upon a positive thought that we truly believe in can literally reconfigure our brain biology, triggering therapeutic biochemical and neurological changes. According to his book Timeless Healing (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 1996), the brain responds not only to external stimuli, or “bottom-up” events such as newspaper headlines, but also to “top-down” events, which originate in our thoughts. When fed negative thoughts or images, the mind accepts them as truth, he says, and the brain, interpreting them as real, sends signals throughout the body via neuro-transmitters to respond accordingly Conversely, focusing on positive beliefs evokes a relaxation response and what Benson calls “remembered wellness” the body literally reconfigures its vision of itself.
“Each of us can take advantage of the brain’s plasticity by selectively focusing on thoughts that evoke our body’s memories of wellness,” says Benson.
How to Do Metta
So, how can you learn to practice metta and reap the benefits? To engage in metta, gently repeat (silently or aloud) caring phrases about what you wish for yourself; at the same time, visualize yourself: You can either create your own good wishes or use the traditional Buddhist ones: “May I be safe and protected from all danger and harm. May I be happy and peaceful of heart and mind. May I be strong and healthy of body. May I live with ease of well-being.” If you are feeling uncomfortable or self-conscious, lose the mental image of yourself or forget the phrases and simply begin again. Don’t use the practice as one more opportunity to generate judgmental thoughts about yourself.
Once you’re comfortable practicing metta toward yourself, you may want to send lovingkindness to others as well, for this, too, can lead to remarkable changes in your life. Choose someone for whom you have great respect or tremendous gratitude (e g, a mentor, teacher, parent). Picture that individual while repeating: “May you be safe from all danger and harm. May you be happy and peaceful of heart and mind.” And so on. Next, focus on a dear friend, then on a neutral person (someone you know only casually, such as the checkout clerk where you shop), and finally on a difficult person (someone toward whom you feel anger, animosity, or fear).