Stress. Anxiety. Uncertainty. We're all feeling it. Lately, I've been feeling quite stressed. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what the cause is, but there's a latent feeling of anxiety or impending doom in the background of my day which clouds my judgement and ability to focus. It feels like little is being achieved and that everything is an uphill struggle. Yes, I realise we're in the middle of a pandemic. If you're surviving this so far then you're doing pretty well indeed. I reflected on these feelings I was having and realised I had recently stopped doing my daily metta practice.
During these times, it can be helpful to focus our attention on our hearts and send loving kindness to our fellow human beings to help us sustain a sense of connection.
I'm no expert in meditation, but I was practicing this over the last year and found that it really helped me manage feelings of anxiety and stress. The practice is called metta bhavana and is the Pali phrase for loving-kindness meditation. Metta means 'love' - not in the romantic sense. Bhavana means the 'cultivation' or 'development of'.
It basically involves spending some time each day really wishing well for others in stages. You start with yourself, then you move on to someone you know and love dearly, then you move on to someone you might know a little bit - like someone who works in the coffee shop near you who you see every morning. Then you spread these well wishes outwards to extend to your friends, community and ultimately, all beings on the planet.
It might sound arbitrary, but the practice of metta has far reaching consequences for your wellbeing and resilience. Metta is a compassionate practice - you really want the best for yourself and others. It's different to empathy, in that you're not taking on or feeling the pain of other people.
In the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition, compassion is based upon the fundamental appreciation of interdependence and the illusory nature of the self. You're not sitting there merely feeling depressed about what's happening in the world. Instead you are basking in the feeling of the fundamental love, compassion and connection you have with all humankind.
In the practice of metta, you really want yourself and others to be happy and free from suffering. You want people to realise their life's dreams. You actually imagine that person being as happy as they could be, achieving all of their life's ambitions and living a long and healthy life.
By practicing metta you are able to cultivate a mind and attitude of compassion and kindness towards people. The benefits of practicing this compassionate meditation are well documented in scientific literature. These include:
Slowing aging (by increasing telomere length)
Increasing brain matter
Reducing chronic pain
Reducing the incidence of migraines
Decreases schizophrenia spectrum disorders (pilot study)
Increasing feelings of empathy and compassion
Decreasing feelings of discrimination and increasing our sense of social connection
Improving our sense of self worth and self love
Reducing our self-criticism.
All of the above have a massive impact on our physical and psychological wellbeing.
Cultivating a metta practice.
Allow yourself at least 10 minutes for this practice. As you develop, you can practice for longer.
Sit quietly either on a chair, or on the floor - whatever's comfortable for you.
Close your eyes gently. Take some deep breaths. Become aware of your breath and bodily sensations. Imagine these sensations like a cloud - you may feel heat, cold, tingling, vibration etc. Focus on these sensations until you lose the 'form' or concept of the outline of your body.
Bring to your mind an image of yourself. Imagine yourself being happy. You can say these phrases out loud or in your mind, and you can adapt them to say whatever you prefer. Examples are:
"May you be happy. May you be free from suffering. May you realise your life's dreams".
You really wish this for yourself. Repeat these phrases several times. As you feel warmth and compassion radiating out from you, you can bring a new person to mind. Think of someone you love, with whom you have an easy relationship. It might be a parent, a sibling or a partner, for example.
Again, hold their image in your mind and wish them well. Repeat those phrases. Really imagine them being as happy as they could be. Imagine them achieving everything they want from this life. As you focus on this person, stay in that feeling of loving kindness. Bask in it. Feel it radiating out from your heart.
Then move on to someone who you don't have such a great relationship with. This shouldn't be anyone that has caused you severe suffering or trauma. Just someone you don't like that much. Again, focus on this person and wish them well. Repeat those phrases.
After this you can move on to someone who you don't really know. It might be the postman, or the guy who works in the corner shop. Again, you wish them well and repeat those phrases. Then you move on to the people around you - your community, your neighbourhood, your city or town.
Ultimately you end the practice by wishing well for all of humanity.
You may bring a smile in to your mind as you finish your practice. You may remind yourself that you too want and deserve to be happy and free from suffering.
If it's difficult for you to start the practice with focusing on yourself, you can focus on a loved one first to cultivate that loving-kindness feeling, and then focus on yourself next or at the end of the practice.
This is a practice to integrate every day if you can. I promise that you will start to feel the impact of this on your daily life. I was truly feeling the benefits of this practice in my everyday life and interactions with others, and frankly I don't know why I stopped! Life gets busy but it's no excuse.
In a time where we are lacking physical contact with our loved ones, cultivating loving kindness can really help us to sustain a sense of resilience and connection with others.
Once a practice known mostly by Buddhist communities, metta is now practiced all over the world. You may find strength in knowing that hundreds of thousands of people are practicing metta right alongside you at any one time. All wishing and hoping for the same thing. Now, that's connection.