Buddhism

Loving-kindness meditation - part two

I recently posted about Metta Bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation, giving you the first two steps of directing loving-kindness to yourself, then a friend – you can find the full meditation below. Just to recap, in Pali, the Buddha's language, metta means ‘love’ (in a non-romantic sense), friendliness, or kindness. Bhavana means development or cultivation. But you don't have to be a Buddhist, or have any interest in Buddhism, to benefit from this practice – mindfulness meditation is increasingly taught as a secular, non-religious series of practices – loving-kindness is one of these.

As a therapist, I help many people who are harshly self-critical or full of self-dislike. Sadly, this internal self-attack often leads to psychological problems like depression, low self-esteem, chronic stress, anger or anxiety. Increasing your sense of kindness and compassion – towards yourself and others – is a proven way to generate positive mental states such as joy, love, calmness, equanimity and strength.

The practice

The full Metta Bhavana practice traditionally encompasses five stages, so allow five minutes for each stage. Here is a step-by-step guide to the practice:

1. This practice will take 25 minutes, so switch your phone to silent (if it has a timer, set it to repeat after 5 minutes) and make sure you will not be disturbed. As with all meditation, it's important to attend to your posture, making yourself comfortable on a cushion on the floor or a straight-backed chair, sitting with your spine, neck and head in alignment. Your posture should be upright and alert but relaxed.

2. Bring your awareness into your body, starting in your feet and travelling slowly all the way up to your scalp. If you notice any tension or discomfort, allow that part of the body to soften and relax. Then bring your awareness to the heart region – it can help to place your hand over your heart and feel the warmth this generates. Allow this warmth to permeate into your practice.

3. In stage one, you direct metta towards yourself. You can visualise your face, perhaps seeing the metta as a golden light shining from your heart and enveloping your whole being. Or remember a time when you felt happy, or proud of yourself – there is no set rule, so whatever helps you get in touch with positive feelings towards yourself is fine. (If you don't feel anything, that's not a problem – feelings will come in time, so don't try to force them). Repeat these phrases in your mind: 'May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.' Say them slowly and deliberately – this a great gift you are offering yourself, so don't rush it.

4. If you become distracted by thoughts, sounds or body sensations, that's not a problem. Simply notice that your attention has wandered and gently bring it back to the phrases.

5. In part two, we direct metta towards a friend – this should be someone you feel positive about, not a person with whom you have conflict or difficulty. Repeat: 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.' If you feel like varying the phrases to suit this person, that's fine – so it could be 'May you be free from stress. May you be confident. May you be free from anxiety.' Again, don't force this, but if it happens naturally that's fine.

6. In part three, we direct metta towards a neutral person. This can be someone you see regularly but have never spoken to, maybe in the supermarket or your favourite coffee shop. See this person's face in your mind's eye, then repeat 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.'

7. Part four entails directing metta towards a difficult person in our lives. At first, it's best to choose someone you are having a little difficulty with, not your worst enemy. Unsurprisingly, this is generally the hardest stage, but remember that when you fill your mind with negative, angry, hostile thoughts, or fill your body with emotions like resentment or hatred, you are the one who is suffering, not them. And the Buddha taught that all beings deserve our compassion, not just the ones we like!

Repeat 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering,' perhaps visualising golden light flowing from your heart to the difficult person. If you struggle, place your hand over your heart to generate warmth in this region, then try again. If you feel numb or angry, that's fine, just accept these feelings and continue repeating the phrases, as having a positive intention is the most important thing.

8. Finally, we direct metta to all life. You may want to start by imagining yourself your friend, the neutral and difficult persons, sending metta to each in turn. ('May we be well. May we be happy. May we be free from suffering.') Then expand that circle to include all of your friends, family, community, residents of your city, country, continent... expanding the flow of metta until you cover the whole globe. Then include insects, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles... ('May all life be well. May all life be happy. May all life be free from suffering.')

6. After 25 minutes, allow yourself to sit quietly, noticing if you feel any different than when you started. If not, that's fine, but you may notice a greater sense of softness, an uplift in your mood, or feelings of warmth and friendliness. Just allow whatever's happening right now to be there, then slowly open your eyes and start moving your body; and take this new attitude into the rest of your day.

I very much hope this practice proves helpful for you. If you would like to know more about cultivating greater kindness and compassion for yourself, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Living a compassionate life

Compassion is one of those words, like kindness, that some people seem to feel uncomfortable with. When I suggest that a self-critical client could be more compassionate to themselves, they often say, 'But how would I motivate myself?' Or 'How could I stop my standards from slipping?' This idea, that being harshly self-critical is the best form of motivation, often baffles me. Think of it this way: if your child was struggling with maths at school, would you want their teacher to shout at them and tell them they were stupid and pathetic? Or would you want a teacher who was encouraging, helped them understand what they were doing wrong and kindly taught them, step by step, how to improve their work?

It's a no-brainer, isn't it? So why do we think that being harsh and unkind to ourselves, using names like 'idiot', 'stupid' and 'loser', will do anything but drain our self-confidence and make us feel stressed, anxious and unhappy. We also know from MRI scans of the brain that our brains cannot distinguish between external attack – from a bully, say – and internal attack, when we are punishing and angry in our thoughts and self-perceptions.

There is also an idea that kindness and compassion are fluffy, wishy-washy concepts – fine as ideas but of no use when dealing with the harsh realities we often face in daily life. Not so. When learning about compassion, I have been deeply struck by the teachings of Tibetan Buddhists like the Dalai Lama and his French interpreter, Matthieu Ricard. In his wonderful book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, Ricard describes the often harrowing stories of Tibetans who have suffered terribly at the hands of the Chinese military – China has occupied Tibet since 1950, killing and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

But the Tibetans, who have been tortured or seen their loved ones murdered, are neither bitter nor full of hatred for their tormentors. Instead, their deep resources of compassion allow them to retain their sanity and equilibrium. The Buddha teaches us that hatred is a poison for the mind; it causes as much suffering for the hater as the object of his or her hate. When I read these stories I am humbled, because of people who have suffered so much can forgive their invaders, I can certainly forgive the petty annoyances and difficulties people cause me.

The Dalai Lama tells us that compassion is not just for the easy people in our lives – those we love and care about. Compassion is for everyone, whether we like them or not; those who help us and those who do us wrong; the easy and the difficult, likeable and dislikable. As he says, 'Everyone wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer'.

So, try to be a little more compassionate in your life – both to those you come into contact with and yourself. Compassion really is like a healing balm to a troubled mind.

If you would like to learn more about being kinder and more compassionate to yourself, and would like to arrange a session, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan