A Compassionate Path: The Buddhist Practice of Loving-Kindness

For over 2500 years Buddhists all over the world have been practicing the art of loving-kindness, a spiritual quality extolled by the Buddha. A mention of Mettā, can be found in the Pali Canon, which is a collection of Buddhist scriptures written in Pali, a very old Indian language. It is mentioned in several discourses, perhaps the most popular of which is the Mettā Sutta.
The word Mettā is very hard to define and is often left untranslated as we have no adequate equivalent in English. However it can be loosely translated as loving-kindness or friendliness. It is one of a collection of four other spiritual qualities called the Brahma Vihāras or the Sublime Abodes, which include compassion (Karuṇā), sympathetic joy (Muditā), and profound equanimity (Upekkhā). 
The practice of Mettā is essentially about the cultivation of positive emotion, and a more deliberate engagement with the inner life of our mind, particularly with our feelings and emotions. Mettā is about connecting with, and developing, already existing feelings of kindness and friendliness to ourselves and others and finding ways of expressing this through our actions.
According to essential Buddhist teaching, we usually go around living in the world dividing everything up into different categories – there are things which are me and mine, you and yours, in here and out there, and so on. Our perception of what makes up ‘me’ and what makes up ‘not me’ or other is very deeply rooted in each of us. And with this perception of self and other – this fundamental delusion according to Buddhism - comes desire and hatred. 
We divide things up according of what I want (desire) and what I don’t want (hatred) – we pull towards us what we like (desire) and we push away what we don’t like (hatred) and in this way we reinforce the separation of self and other. As Sharon Salzberg puts so well in her book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness we choose ‘to strengthen the delusion of separation’ instead of choosing the ‘truth of connection’.
Mettā helps us to choose the truth of connection with other living beings. Mettā helps us understand our relationship with ourselves and with others; we get to know how we feel about ourselves and others. Day by day the practice of Mettā releases us from the painful experience of a separate, divided selfhood. 
Mettā can be developed as part of a five stage meditation practice called the Mettā –Bhavana (Bhavana means development). Through the practice we connect imaginatively with our own and others innate desire to be well, happy and free – including people we don’t like very much or even hate!
Stages of the Practice
Develop metta towards yourself
We start the practice with ourselves, simply contacting feelings of acceptance and kindness for ourselves, without any feelings of irrational guilt for doing so.  A healthy self-regard is very important for developing metta towards others.  It is very hard to develop metta for other people if you are busy feeling negatively towards yourself!  Ultimately metta transcends the distinction between self and other, but methodologically we start by developing metta for ourselves.
Develop metta towards a good friend
In this stage we call to mind a good friend, someone we naturally have feelings of love and kindness towards.  Generally our response to a friend is one of metta, so we bring our awareness to this positive emotional response and by doing so allow it to grow and develop.
Develop metta towards a neutral person
Here we call to mind someone we have no particularly strong feelings for.  This could be your postman, someone at work you don't know very well, someone you see regularly but do not have occasion to get to know.  There are about six billion neutral people out there!
Develop metta towards a difficult person
In this stage we call to mind someone we find difficult.  It is good not to pick your worst enemy here at the beginning, maybe someone a little easier at first!  And for the duration of the practice we try and put the difficulty aside and see the person behind the difficulty.  They too feel pleasure and pain, have friends and family, they too probably suffer because of the difficulty.  So we try and contact feelings of acceptance and openness towards them, that in time will bloom as stronger feelings of metta.
Develop metta towards all beings everywhere
In this stage we call to mind all four people and try and let the feelings of metta equalise, so that we feel the same openness and well-wishing towards each person individually.  Then we allow our awareness, imbued with metta, to expand and include as many people as possible, starting with those in the room around us, spreading out to include all; the people in the city, and eventually, if we can, including all beings everywhere in ‘metta-full’ awareness.
As such it has a radically transformative effect for the positive. For example, in the first stage of the practice we bring ourselves to mind. We become aware of our experience, we acknowledge whatever feelings and emotions are there – we open to the present moment of our experience and in full consciousness of our experience we wish ourselves well, we wish ourselves happiness, we wish for ourselves the end of suffering and that we may grow and develop. 
And this is what we do for each of the following four stages. For each of the people we bring to mind, we acknowledge the emotions and feelings that arise, and again, with full consciousness of what we are experiencing, we wish them well. The degree to which we are able to honestly and sincerely contact this desire for well being (not merely ‘thinking’ ourselves or others well) will give rise to the degree of potency of Mettā. What we are working towards in this practice is to develop a degree of potency of Mettā for all living beings that can is akin to the strength of a mother’s love for her only living child. Or in the words of the Karaṇīyamettā Sutta:
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings
Mettā is the fundamental positive emotion and the basis for many other positive emotions. When we are in touch with someone’s suffering and Mettā is present, compassion simply arises. When we are in touch with someone’s happiness and Mettā is present, sympathetic joy arises, and when we are in touch with both their suffering and happiness and can feel Mettā equally strongly towards them in both their pleasure and pain, profound equanimity arises.
Mettā at its best is extremely powerful and all-embracing. It is a practice that transforms our usual self-interested attitude and approach to life. It helps us not only to break down the barriers between self and other, but ultimately liberates us from the suffering that they cause us. This liberation lies at the heart of the Buddha’s awakening.
If you are interested in learning the Mettā-Bhavana practice you can do so at the Dublin Buddhist Centre.
The Centre has been teaching Mindfulness and Loving Kindness Meditation courses for over twenty years, as well as many other courses in Buddhism and Yoga. 


About the author: 

Prajnagita has been practicing Buddhism with the Triratna Buddhist Community since 1995. The Triratna is a world wide Buddhist community of which the Dublin Buddhist Centre is part. In 2002 she joined the Triratna Buddhist Order, the spiritual community which lies at the heart of the Triranta Community. Having worked for many years in the arts and academia, she currently works full-time at the Dublin Buddhist Centre, teaching Buddhism and meditation.

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