Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm shares his personal approach to loving-kindness meditation, also known as metta.
A Warm Fire in Your Heart
Metta can accurately be compared with a warm and radiant fire burning in your heart. You cannot expect to light the fire of loving-kindness by starting with a difficult object, no more than you can expect to light a campfire by striking a match under a thick log. So do not begin metta meditation by trying to spread metta to yourself or to an enemy. Instead begin by spreading loving-kindness to something that is easy to ignite with loving-kindness, or what I like to call kindfulness. Kindfulness enables you to embrace other beings—as well as yourself—just as they and you are.
In metta meditation you focus your attention on the feeling of loving-kindness, developing that delightful emotion until it fills the whole mind. The way this is achieved can be compared to the way you light a campfire. You start kindfulness with paper or anything else that is easy to light. Then you add kindling, small twigs, or strips of wood. When the kindling is on fire you add thicker pieces of wood, and after a time the thick logs. Once the fire is roaring and very hot, you can even put on wet and sappy logs and they are soon alight.
Start with What’s Easy to Love
I prepare myself for metta meditation by imagining a little kitten. I like cats, especially kittens, so my imaginary kitten is to loving-kindness as gas is to a flame. I only need to think of my little kitten and my heart lights up with metta.
I continue to visualize my imaginary friend, picturing it as abandoned, hungry, and very afraid. In its short span of life it has only known rejection, violence, and loneliness. I imagine its bones sticking out from its emaciated body, its fur soiled with grime and some blood, and its body rigid with terror. I consider that if I don’t care for this vulnerable little being then no one will, and it will die such a horrible, lonely, terrified death. I feel that kitten’s pain fully, in all its forms, and my heart opens up releasing a flood of compassion. I will care for that little kitten. I will protect it and feed it.
Wherever you go, whatever you do, my heart will always welcome you. I give you my limitless loving-kindness always.
I imagine myself looking deeply into its anxious eyes, trying to melt its apprehension with the metta flowing through my own eyes. I reach out to it slowly, reassuringly, never losing eye contact. Gently, I pick up that little kitten and bring it to my chest. I remove the kitten’s cold with the warmth from my own body, I take away its fear with the softness of my embrace, and I feel the kitten’s trust grow. I speak to the kitten on my chest:
Little being, never feel alone again. Never feel so afraid. I will always look after you, be your protector and friend. I love you, little kitten. Wherever you go, whatever you do, my heart will always welcome you. I give you my limitless loving-kindness always.
When I do this, I feel my kitten become warm, relax, and finally purr.
This is but an outline of how I begin my meditation on metta. I usually take much more time. I use my imagination and inner speech to paint a picture in my mind, to create a scenario where the first flames of metta can arise.
At the end of the mental exercise, my eyes still closed, I focus the attention on the region around my heart and feel the first warm glow of the emotion of kindfulness.
Find Your Own Kindling
My kitten is like the paper that you use to start the campfire. You may not like kittens, so choose something else, a puppy or a baby perhaps. Whatever you choose as your first object of metta, make it an imaginary being and not a real one. In your mind you can make a kitten or a puppy or a baby into anything you like. You have more freedom to generate metta when you make use of a fantasy creature rather than one from the real world.
Having chosen your first object, use your powers of imagination to create a story around that being that arouses your loving-kindness. With practice this innovative method becomes one of the most successful and enjoyable ways to practice kindfulness.
Some years ago a female student complained to me that this method did not work for her. She regarded small animals, especially mischievous kittens, as little pests, nor did she like crying-and-wailing nappy-soiling babies. She had a severe case of what I now call “kindfulness-block.”
She went on to tell me that in her apartment in Sydney she had been growing some flowers in pots. So I suggested that she choose one of her plants as her first object of metta. She imagined a seedling so delicate and tender. It was so fragile that it needed all her care, love, and protection to survive. She directed all her motherly instincts to that vulnerable little potted plant, nurturing and feeding her friend until it burst from its bud to repay her kindness with a beautiful, fragrant flower. She really took to that method. That was the first time metta meditation worked for her. During the retreat when this happened, she said it was the only session when she wasn’t waiting for me to ring the bell.
A Loved Person Close to You
After the first flames of metta have been established in this way, let go of your imaginary creature and put in its place a real person, someone very close to you emotionally such as your partner, a well-loved relation, or even your very best friend. It must be someone for whom it is easy to generate and sustain loving-kindness. In the metaphor of the campfire, they will be the thin pieces of wood called kindling. Once again use your inner speech to paint a picture around them in your mind. They too need your friendship and love. They are also emotionally vulnerable, subject to the disappointments and frustrations of life. Using your inner commentary, say:
Dearest friend, I sincerely wish you happiness. May your body be free from pain and your mind find contentment. I give you my love with no conditions. I’ll always be there for you. You will always have a place in my heart. I truly care for you.
You can of course use similar words of your own design. Use whatever phrases arouse the warm glow of metta in your heart. Stay with this person. Imagine they are right before you until the metta grows bright and constant around them. Now briefly place your attention on your body near your heart and feel the physical sensation associated with metta. You will find it feels delightful.
Stages Three and Four
A Close Acquaintance, and a Group
Let go of the image of that person and substitute that of another close acquaintance, creating the feeling of metta around them by using your inner speech in the same way: “May you live in happiness…” Imagine them right before you until the metta glows bright and constant around them.
Next substitute an entire group of people, perhaps all the people who live in your house. Develop the caring glow of metta around them in the same way: “May you be well and happy…” In the simile of the campfire, you are now putting on the logs.
See if you can imagine metta to be a golden radiance emanating from a beautiful white lotus flower in the middle of your heart. Allow that radiance of loving-kindness to expand in all directions, embracing more and more living beings until it becomes boundless, filling up all that you can imagine. “May all living beings, near or far, great or small, be happy and at peace…”
Bathe the whole universe in the warmth of the golden light of kindfulness. Stay there for a while.
In the simile of the campfire, the fire is now roaring and very hot and can now burn the wet and sappy logs. Think about your enemy. Visualize someone who has hurt you badly. You will be astonished that your metta is now strong enough for you to forgive them. You are now able to share the healing golden glow of loving-kindness with them as well: “Friend, whatever you have done to me, revenge will not help either of us, so instead I wish you well. I sincerely wish you freedom from the pain of the past and joy in all your future. May the beauty of this unconditional loving-kindness reach you as well, bringing you happiness and contentment.” When the fire of metta burns strong, nothing can withstand it. Next, there is one final “wet and sappy stick” to be tossed into the fire of metta. Most meditators find that the hardest person to give loving-kindness to is themselves.
From Kindfulness, by Ajahn Brahm. Adapted with permission of Wisdom Publications.