Metta is the first of the four brahma-viharas. The Pali term brahma-vihara has two parts. First, brahma is a reference to the priestly or divine class in the Buddha’s time. Vihara means dwelling. As such, this term is often translated as the divine abodes or heavenly abodes. In English, the brahma-viharas are often referred to as the heart practices.
Metta was originally taught to a group of monks staying in a haunted forest. Upon entering the forest, they came into contact with ghosts or spirits. They returned to the Buddha in quite a bit of fright, and the Buddha taught them the practice of metta. Returning to the forest, the monks practiced metta toward these spirits until they were no longer afraid. It’s said that the spirits were so moved that they welcomed and even protected the visiting monks. This story may be an allegory, but the point is made. Practicing metta changes our relationships with both others and ourselves (in the form of working with fear in this case).
Metta is translated quite a number of ways. Common translations include loving-kindness, kindness, goodwill, and unconditional friendliness. I most often use the term gentle friendliness because I feel it best embodies what metta is. Sharon Salzberg points out in her bestselling book Lovingkindness that the word metta shares roots with the words gentle and friendliness in Pali. Whichver word you use, metta is a quality of friendliness and well-wishing, regardless of circumstances.
We all have a desire to be happy. Whatever this means to you, it’s present in some form. In metta practice, we connect with this desire in each living being, and wish for their happiness, ease, and safety. It is a unifying practice and quality. Cultivating metta takes time and practice, but the quality that grows is radiant, unconditional, all-inclusive, and often very calming.
Metta practice is traditionally done by repeating phrases, although there are many ways to practice metta meditation. In traditional metta practices, we go through groups of people, passing along wishes of wellbeing. The people we pass along metta to include self, a benefactor, a neutral person, a difficult person, and all sentient beings. The traditional phrases include “May you be happy,” “May you be healthy,” “May you be safe,” and “May you be at ease.” Many people use phrases that are more personal or ring more truly for them.
Metta practice isn’t about some white-light loving experience. We don’t practice metta a few times and suddenly our outlook has become full of happiness and friendliness. Cultivating metta takes time and repetition. As we continue to practice, metta becomes a more common response. We slowly find this gentle friendliness popping up in our lives.
Feel free to download or stream these two metta meditations below! The last link is a video of me sitting down with Sharon Salzberg, one of the most well-respected metta teachers in the world.