Metta (loving kindness) as traditionally practiced can be problematic for many folks in the West. Classically it begins with offering oneself care and consideration. For a lot of us that can feel inauthentic. We may not be accustomed to directing generosity inwardly. For many of us our inner dialogue also often defaults to harsh.
After wishing oneself kindness, a traditional practice moves on to offering tenderness towards a benefactor, a more neutral person, a difficult person and finally all beings. Those last two rounds can also be sticking points for a lot of people. It can be challenging to include folks who have hurt us or who we simply don’t care for.
Below you’ll find a metta-style practice for working with the often more challenging rounds. (I first learned it on retreat several years ago from Heather Sundberg.)
Metta Mandala Practice (adapted from Heather Sundberg)
Create A List
Bring to mind 3-4 people:
- A person you experience as highly compassionate (this need not be someone you know).
- A person you care for (someone you know and have a relatively uncomplicated relationship with).
- A person you see regularly but don’t know. (This is a person you don’t don’t have strong feelings one way or another about. It could be someone you see on the bus, at your local coffee shop, around your neighborhood…) They will be your neutral person.
- Optional: bring to mind someone you find difficult. When starting out choose someone at a difficulty level of 3-4 (in a scale of 1-10).
Take a Seat
Find a comfortable posture for meditation and take a couple of minutes to allow energy to settle – noticing sensations of body grounding, feeling into breath where you feel it most readily, or attuning to ambient sounds. You may also wish to place a hand or hands over heart.
- Round I: In mind’s eye, imagine your compassionate person entering the room and taking a seat in front of you. Pause for a moment, allowing yourself to feel their warmth. Then silently offer them several rounds of the following phrases:
May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be at peace.
Take your time – being open to feeling the care of these wishes in your body.
- Round II: Then in mind’s eye imagine this compassionate being moving to the seat on your right and the second person you care for taking the seat in front of you. Take a few moments to feel into the presence of this person you care for. Then offer them several rounds of the well wishes, again taking your time to notice how it feels in body to express them.
- Round III – Now imagine this person you care for moving to your right, the first compassionate person taking a seat behind you, and your neutral person taking the seat in front of you. Give yourself time to attune to their presence. Then offer them several rounds of the metta phrases.
- Round IV – Allow the neutral person to sit to your right, the person you care for sit behind you, your compassionate now moving to your left. Feel yourself supported by these three kind beings. Then offer yourself the wishes. (If this feels inauthentic imagine them offering you the intentions, allowing yourself to abide with their compassionate presence.)
- Round V (Optional) – Still surrounded by these three people, imagine your difficult person entering the room and taking the seat in front of you. Give yourself time to take them in. You might look at their face or notice their body language. With the support of your three helpers, offer loving kindness to this difficult person. If at any point it feels overly distressing or inauthentic allow that person to leave the room and return to one of the previous rounds.
- Round VI (Optional) – Surrounded by your supports, extend the metta phrases to your greater community or all beings. Be gentle with yourself as you do, knowing you can always return to a previous round if this feels triggering or insincere.
When you feel complete, take a few deep breaths, rescan your body, or once again tune into ambient sounds in the room. Then gently open your eyes and stretch your body as feels good.