Sharon Salzberg, popular Vipassana instructor, author, and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, was in town. She was facilitating a weekend retreat with a focus on metta — lovingkindness — meditation practice.
My motivation to go to this particular retreat was not so much for metta practice, specifically, but because I could go that weekend. As a mom with young kids, it was often difficult to get away to a retreat. However, I’d been kind of skeptical about metta practice. At so many times in my life, I had been told to “be positive,” even in situations where there wasn’t much of a silver lining to find. “Put a smile on your face,” people would tell me, even though I thought it was a known fact that I was about 75% more smiley than the average American. I felt, at times, like positivity thinking had gone berserk. I questioned books that advised me to do things like sticking “morning affirmation post-its” on my bathroom mirror to increase my self-esteem. Lovingkindness meditation seemed, to me, like one more positivity affirmation. But, yet, I went to the retreat.
Here’s the typical way metta meditation is taught: you find someone to do the practice on (QUIETLY! Don’t freak them out by doing it out loud!) and generate feelings of compassion, kindness, and love toward them, repeating (again, TO YOURSELF) something like:
The trick here is to start practicing on someone easy to love. Start with the good-natured lady at the bakery who sells you donuts and coffee and greets you with a kindly smile. Start with a child: your child (but maybe not when they’ve used the Sharpies on your favorite table), your grandchild, or some other cute kid. Don’t start by practicing on the politician you detest, the scammy phone caller, or the family member who spreads gossip about you.
And don’t try to start by practicing on yourself!
Unfortunately, at least in the society that I live in, it’s often the most difficult to extend this same love and goodwill towards ourselves. Sharon Salzberg told a story that’s now become famous and oft-told. She asked the Dalai Lama how to “work with self-hatred” and found that he couldn’t even understand the question. How could someone hate themselves? I suspect that, like me, plenty of us could answer this question all too well — and that’s sad. Apparently, self-hatred is a cultural phenomenon, but I live in a culture that’s full of it.
On one day of the retreat, Salzberg gave us an assignment: go forth, walk mindfully around the neighborhood, and find someone to (again, quietly and at a distance) practice metta meditation upon. So we shuffled along. In the Vipassana tradition, walking meditation is typically slow. While I don’t remember her telling us specifically to do walking meditation — just metta–this is how many of us were walking around. It seemed to me that some of us were walking just a bit too slowly and mindfully, like a swath of Buddhist zombies had been unleashed upon Wallingford. I wondered if we appeared too creepy to be stealthy enough in stalking our metta victims.
Before long, I found the primo metta target. Two men had a tiny Boston terrier puppy; such a perfect object to bestow my lovingkindness on that it stopped me in my slow, mindful tracks.
As it did with a fellow class attendee.
Our eyes met, expressions solemn. In my mind, a not-so lovingkind and comicbooklike scenario ensued. “Not so fast! This puppy will be MINE!” says my fellow meditator-turned archvillain. I respond by launching my abundant rays of lovingkindness overdrive attack, and fail miserably.
But then, the brief and tense moment passes. We smile a knowing grin at each other. Apparently, puppies can generate enough metta for all.
Does Metta Practice Actually Work?
As I think I mentioned previously, I have a substantial skeptical streak. This skeptical part of me often questions whether techniques like lovingkindness meditation actually work. Does metta practice help us indeed be more compassionate? Or happy? Will I annoy my husband with my lovingkindness? Is it the equivalent of hanging the positivity post-it on my bathroom mirror? Is it delusion? Will I somehow convince myself that I’m “loving them perfectly”1 when I’m actually, perhaps subconsciously, dwelling upon their innate idiocy?
Perhaps part of the problem with affirmations was that I tried statements that I didn’t really buy into. This is why, when starting metta practice, it’s so important to start with someone you can actually love. You know when you’re lying to yourself.
Recently, I read Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright and derived some sort of satisfaction from reading that he didn’t feel like lovingkindness practice worked for him:2
“There is a meditative technique specifically designed to blur this line. It is called loving-kindness meditation, or, to use the ancient Pali word for loving-kindness, metta meditation. Typically, the meditation starts with you making a point of feeling kindly toward yourself. Then you imagine someone you love and direct some loving-kindness toward him or her. Then you imagine someone you like and direct some loving-kindness toward that person. Then you think about someone you don’t feel strongly about one way or the other. And so on—until you get to an actual enemy. If all goes according to plan, you manage to feel loving-kindness even for that enemy. It seems only appropriate to say a few kind words about loving-kindness meditation, so here they are: It works for some people. But it doesn’t work for me. I think the trouble starts at the beginning, when I’m supposed to direct loving-kindness toward myself. In any event, I’m happy to say that for me, non-metta meditation—plain-vanilla mindfulness meditation—has some of the effect that metta meditation is supposed to have: it tamps down my ill will and can even amp up my empathy.”3
Earlier in the book, he also reflects upon his ability to benefit from metta practice:
“Plus (and perhaps relatedly) there’s my attitude toward other human beings, which could get in the way of the metta, or loving-kindness, that you’re supposed to deploy during a certain kind of meditation.”4
I’ll point out here, again, that everything I’ve been taught about metta practice says, specifically, NOT to start with yourself.
But otherwise, in this respect, I’m much like Wright. Maybe it’s my attitude toward other human beings — like Wright, I don’t mind humanity...it’s just some individual humans that give me trouble.
So I decided to do a brief literature search and see what, if any, research had found about metta practice. This doesn’t come even close to constituting a scientific literature review. For most of the studies here, I’ve looked mostly at the abstract as some of the full articles would require that I buy them. Alas, my student credentials expired long, long ago.
Some of the studies were designed with experimental and control groups; others were survey-based. Overall, there’s enough evidence toward metta practice being helpful to get me to set aside my skeptical mind and try it again.
A few interesting tidbits that I found:
- In 2013, Beatrice Alba did a survey-based study before, immediately after, and two weeks after two metta meditation retreats. The results found, “Significant increases were found in happiness and compassionate love, reductions in avoidance and revenge, and reductions on the depression, anxiety and stress subscales”5
- A 2010 study by Barnhofer and Nightingale looked at prefrontal EEG asymmetry (relating to emotion and mood) during breathing and lovingkindness meditation on depressed patients. Here’s what I found interesting: while, overall, both types of meditation seemed to have an effect beyond that which could be explained by habituation, those participants who tended to engage in “ruminative brooding” responded more to breathing meditation and less to metta meditation. Vice versa for the non-brooders, apparently 6. I’d put myself firmly in the “brooder” group. However, I believe meditation practice gets me closer to its outer edges. Maybe this explains something.
- A 2019 literature review by Stefan and Hoffmann suggests that Lovingkindness and compassion meditation look promising and beneficial in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy practice to counter anger and low self-esteem 7
- A 2013 study found a longer telomere length in female metta meditators than in controls8. A telomere is a section of DNA at the ends of our chromosomes and is a marker associated with longevity. It’s an appealing notion to think that lovingkindness practice may actually help us live longer.
- A 2008 study showed increased feelings of social connectedness and positivity toward new people in people who practiced a small amount of lovingkindness meditation, as compared to a control9.
- One study suggested lovingkindness meditation may be useful in reducing racial bias — though something like that is difficult to determine if the practice creates positive feelings toward others in many areas10.
- In a 2005 study, back pain patients who performed metta meditation had significantly less back pain than the control group 11.
While lovingkindness meditation was something I abandoned for a while, I sometimes told myself that I was practicing an attitude of compassion. This “practicing an attitude of compassion” was generally a very left-brained activity –trying to understand what, in this person’s background, made them
so goddamn stupid so full of error the way they are. To me, metta meditation seems more of a right-brained feeling activity. While I still think that you can find compassion via an intellectual understanding, metta meditation is the flip-side of that coin; the feeling side.
Metta meditation helping us progress toward more compassion and kindness makes a kind of sense, to me, beyond being some sickly sweet positivity requirement. Thich Nhat Hanh, I recall, wrote about “watering seeds.” Is what we’re doing or how we’re thinking “watering the seeds” of kindness or hatred? Aside from this just being a helpful visual metaphor, it makes sense to me from the standpoint of neuroplasticity. It makes sense to me that what we choose to focus our attention on, to “water” within ourselves, could actually change our brains; to “grow” them in the direction of that change12.
Nothing indicates that lovingkindness meditation might be harmful, even for “ruminators” like me. So I’m trying it again. It can’t hurt. If I can find the right target to start bestowing my thoughts of goodwill upon–something small, like a puppy–I might be able to expand the circle of my lovingkindness a bit at a time. Maybe I’ll be able, eventually, to include people who were, previously, far outside of that circle — even myself.
I’m happy to report that I’m making progress. I can now practice lovingkindness not just on puppies but also on kittens and bunnies.
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- This phrase actually came from a Vajrayana instructor that I met who loved to say that, underneath it all, everyone was “loving you perfectly.” Sure.
- Why did this make me happy? That’s not very lovingkind!
- Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (pp. 185-186). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
- Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (pp. 16-17). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
- Beatrice Alba (2013) Loving-kindness meditation: a field study, Contemporary Buddhism, 14:2, 187-203, DOI: 10.1080/14639947.2013.832494
- Thorsten Barnhofer and Helen Nightingale, et al (2010) State effects of two forms of meditation on prefrontal EEG asymmetry in previously depressed individuals, Mindfulness (2010) 1:21–27 DOI: DOI 10.1007/s12671-010-0004-7
- Stefan, S. I., & Hofmann, S. G. (2019). Integrating Metta Into CBT: How Loving Kindness and Compassion Meditation Can Enhance CBT for Treating Anxiety and Depression. Clinical Psychology in Europe, 1(3), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.32872/cpe.v1i3.32941
- Elizabeth A. Hoge, Maxine M. Chen, Esther Orr, Christina A. Metcalf, Laura E. Fischer, Mark H. Pollack, Immaculata DeVivo, Naomi M. Simon: Loving-Kindness Meditation practice associated with longer telomeres in women. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, (2013) 32:159-163 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2013.04.005
- Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5), 720–724. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013237
- Stell, A.J., Farsides, T. Brief loving-kindness meditation reduces racial bias, mediated by positive other-regarding emotions. Motiv Emot 40, 140–147 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-015-9514-x
- Carson JW, Keefe FJ, Lynch TR, et al. Loving-Kindness Meditation for Chronic Low Back Pain: Results From a Pilot Trial. Journal of Holistic Nursing. 2005;23(3):287-304. doi:10.1177/0898010105277651
- But does this mean I should curtail my daily bitchfest with my husband after we watch the news?
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