By Denise McGuiness, PhD, M.Div | Pastoral Psychologist, Deacon
In 2011, I had the good fortune to attend the Spiritual Directors International’s (SDI) Conference in Atlanta, GA. Without really knowing many of the presenters, I chose to sign up for a three-hour session on what I thought was compassion. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who I had experienced briefly at an Academy for Spiritual Formation conference, was the teacher. The presentation was an eye-opener for me to a whole new way of practicing meditation and prayer.
Rabbi Shapiro presented from his book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice. One of the practices he taught us was called Metta or Lovingkindness Meditation. Metta is a Pali word, which can be translated as love. The best translation of this type of love in our Christian terminology is agape. It is a love that is unconditional: open and unobstructed. According to Sharon Salzberg, who is the cofounder of Insight Meditation Society:
Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world. Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves. We can open to everything with the healing forces of love.
Metta has two root meanings—gentle and friend. It is likened to a gentle rain that, without choosing or selecting, falls indiscriminately. This reminds me of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).
The practice of metta begins with us gently befriending ourselves. This is sometimes even harder for us than praying for our enemies. We are more likely to judge ourselves harshly and not spend much time in self-compassion. With the metta practice, we can uncover the possibility of truly respecting and loving ourselves as part of the human race.
There are variations among meditation teachers in the use of this practice, but the overall flow is the same. One begins by taking a comfortable posture, either sitting in a chair, on the floor or lying down. We focus on our breath and imagine our heart being open and welcoming. In metta, we always start by saying the recommended phrases for ourselves. While there are many variants of the phrases, I prefer the ones I learned from Rabbi Shapiro, because they resonate with our American context, in my opinion. They are as follows:
- May I be free from fear.
- May I be free from compulsions.
- May I be blessed with love.
- May I be blessed with peace.
One suggestion that Rabbi Shapiro made for when we pray for ourselves is to invite a mental image of ourselves as a young child, especially if there is one that is wounded within us. As we say this prayer, we say it to that child. And then we invite images in a progressive sequence of our teenage self, our middle-aged self and one of ourselves when we are much older than our current age, ending with one when we are on our deathbed. As we say this prayer to each image, we begin to feel the warmth of compassion extending to all the various selves we carry within us. This can allow real healing to take place.
After praying this prayer in a repetitive fashion for ourselves, we move on to say it for a person close to us whom we love or are friendly towards. Next we extend it to a person we know but not very well, such as the person we buy our coffee from daily. Lastly, we bring to mind the image of “an enemy” or a person with whom we are currently in a conflict situation. We say the same phrases to them without anger or judgment but with an open and loving heart. It can change the attitude we have towards them and thus be a change agent in the conflict situation. We can also extend this metta prayer to include all living beings and our world.
This practice has been a life changer for me, especially in the current state of the world that is full of divisiveness and hate. If I seriously pray with an open heart for those who I feel are “enemy,” I can begin to look at them though other eyes. I can see them as humans with fears and compulsions. I can see that their desires are similar to mine: for peace, acceptance, and love. I will be honest, for some people, I have to repeat this prayer over and over again before I begin to feel a shift in my own attitude. That is all that I have any real control to change—my attitude.
This practice gives me the spaciousness of heart that allows acceptance of reality. It helps to connect me to the oneness that connects us all, which I know stems from the heartbeat of God. It is in that oneness that I know that Julian of Norwich’s statement is true: “all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”
Shapiro, Rami. The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice
Salzberg, Sharon. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness
“Loving-Kindness Meditation” from The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
“Meditation on Lovingkindness” by Jack Kornfield
“Loving Kindness” guided meditation from Tara Brach