There is some incredibly promising research emerging relating to loving-kindness (metta) meditation. This practice, in which meditators send themselves and others well wishes, has been shown to impart incredible benefits, including stress reduction and improvements to relationships. It has even been shown to make people who do it consistently behave more ethically.
Despite this, loving-kindness practice is one of the more difficult kinds for meditators in the West and especially lawyers to practice. Culturally, many Americans aren’t used to wishing themselves well. They may feel like they are being selfish or worry that the practice is sappy. Us skeptical lawyers who are trained in law school that we need to analyze problems without reference to our feelings may see the practice as a waste of time.
But it occurred to me that many of us are used to sending out nice cards for no real purpose every year. That’s what Valentine’s Day is all about. As kids in school, we didn’t just send those to sweethearts but to friends and classmates and usually even our teachers. I tried to avoid giving them to kids I didn’t like in my class but my mom wisely and firmly encouraged me not to be stingy.
So, I thought it might help to briefly explain loving-kindness practice to you in those terms. As the slideshow below indicates, loving-kindness practice is sort of like sending out Valentines from your mind and heart. The practice starts with you, then moves on to others, including a loved one, mentor (teacher, benefactor or supporter), a neutral person, and then difficult person. As you bring these people to mind, you offer them warm phrases, such as “may you be at peace, may you be happy, may you be safe, may you be at healthy.” If these phrases don’t work for you, you can select anything that does, such as “I hope you are healthy and safe.” If you are really struggling, you can even try “I hope you have a nice day.”
At the end of the practice, you move from individuals to groups, expanding from your family and friends, your community, and even the world. While this sounds very silly and highly ineffectual, it is amazing what happens when you experience it. During the practice, one is generally instructed to focus attention in the area of the heart and notice the feelings that arise there. I have done this practice many times and literally felt my heart expand and open. While it is true that wishing someone well doesn’t change anything on its own, warm sentiments towards someone can affect your behavior and research shows that they do when it comes to loving-kindness practice.
This practice can be uncomfortable at first, so don’t push or judge yourself if you feel resistance or don’t feel anything at all. The point is to cultivate warm feelings and let your heart grow, so give yourself time to let that happen. In addition, don’t stress about the individuals you select for practice. At first, pick easy ones. Select a loved one who is easy to love, a benefactor to whom you feel genuine gratitude, and don’t start with your sworn enemy (read: opposing counsel you can’t stand) as your first difficult person. Eventually, though, you may find that you can expand out to new people and broader classes of people.
Most meditation apps have loving-kindness practices, but they may call use words like “kindness”, “compassion” or even the traditional phrase “metta” to indicate them. Several of the meditations on our Resources page also feature loving-kindness type practices including the Body Breath Heart, Responding to Nasty Emails, Loving-Kindness for Business Networking, Calm Work Performance Anxiety meditations, and the meditations for Caregivers and Gratitude.
Because the world right now could certainly use it, I hope you will give loving-kindness practice a try. And this Valentine’s Day, I wish that you all may be happy, healthy, safe, and at peace.
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