Issue 01: From Awareness to Acceptance Mindfulness News & Views Top Stories

Cultivating empathy: Metta Meditation

Here, we share a meditation approach that is accessible to those unfamiliar with meditation, with wonderful possibilities for expanding our understanding and caring for others.

This month’s issue, From Awareness to Acceptance, calls for us all to examine the how we cultivate true awareness and meaningful acceptance. Here, we share a meditation approach that is accessible to those unfamiliar with meditation, with wonderful possibilities for expanding our understanding and caring for others.

Metta Meditation: Lovingkindness

First: if you are not experienced in meditation, please do not worry! Meditation is not something that needs to be done “perfectly” to yield wonderful benefits. If it’s more accessible, you can consider this to be a form of focused reflection, a sort of retreat for your busy mind.

With Metta meditation, we can work toward developing understanding and, then, empathy for ourselves and for others. Metta means “lovingkindness,” which is a profoundly lovely concept and exactly what it sounds like. It is a concept relevant to how you view yourself, as well as your loved ones, not-so-loved ones, and even the abstract and anonymous “humanity” of the world.

We are not trained experts in meditation nor particularly seasoned practitioners, so we’ll leave the more in-depth explanations and guides to those who are:

Cultivating compassion: How to love yourself and others by Thich Nhat Hanh

Getting started with metta meditation by the Mindworks Team

How to practice metta for a troubles time by Mushim Patricia Ikeda

How our team uses metta meditation

We have used metta meditation in a very loose, unstructured, simple form in our personal lives, as well as guided peers through a hybrid approach.

Unstructured: This could accurately be called “focus and think deeply about someone.” Even five, ten minutes can yield great insights. We set a timer, get settled in a comfortable position (if that is accessible – see Danny’s insights on meditation as someone with motor challenges), close our eyes, breathe deeply and steadily, and think about the person or group of people we’ve chosen to reflect upon. We start with the guiding question: “My friend, who are you?”

We think openly, without letting our reactive feelings to this person block us. We try to identify as them. What might this person experience in their lives? What must that feel like? What might their hopes and dreams be, their fears and disappointments?

There is no need to answer all of those questions as if they were part of a checklist. There is no need to strive for any particular output or realization. But we always emerge with some new insight that helps us cultivate greater empathy for the subject of our reflections.

Mantras: A common approach to metta meditation is structured around a set of thoughts – mantras – that guide your mind through developing empathy. These are based on well-wishes for the subject or subjects of the meditation; for example, “May you be safe/ May you be happy/ May you be healthy/ May your mind be at ease” (from Mindworks), with each line aligning with an in-breath or and out-breath:

Breathing in: May you be safe
Breathing out: May you be happy
Breathing in: May you be healthy
Breathing out: May your mind be at ease

A more extensive set of messages can be found in the piece by Thich Nhat Hanh here.

Hybrid: When we’ve guided peers through metta meditation, it has primarily been to cultivate a greater understanding of types of people who we work with or want to work with or somehow engage: students, teachers, community members, advocates, friends and family. Because we often have limited time to explain the idea of metta meditation, and because many of our peers are not particularly familiar with meditation, we try to keep it simple while also introducing them to the more common mantras should they want to continue practicing and learning about metta meditation into the future.

So, we have them start with a few rounds of repeating simple mantras, such as:

My friend, who are you?
I am here to learn.
May you be safe and happy
May your mind be peaceful

Then they mull over a suggested set of questions, tailored for the occasion. They might be general, as those listed above (What might this person experience in their lives? What must that feel like? What might their hopes and dreams be, their fears and disappointments?), or they might include more focused questions.

For example, if we were trying to understand potential students for a future trainings, we might ask: What might their hopes for learning be? What might their previous experiences with education have been like, and how might that have felt to them? What might make it difficult for them to engage with this subject or this training? There is no immediate note-taking, just focused reflection.

The people who have practiced this quick form of metta meditation in our activities have generally been particularly thoughtful, considerate human beings. Yet even five to ten minutes of this reflection almost always brings about new insights!

For the purposes of cultivating empathy, so much can be realized from even a brief session sitting and reflecting on someone, or a group of people, with the honest intention to be open and truly consider what their experiences might be. No matter what format you use, we hope you find this exercise mind- and heart-opening.

3 comments on “Cultivating empathy: Metta Meditation

  1. Danielle

    I have heard of metta meditation but your description makes me want to try it with my kids right now!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Angelina

    This is such a helpful description. Excited to try this

    Liked by 1 person

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