The Power of Metta Meditation
Gaining access to seated practice through loving kindness
Recently, while attending a satsang with a teacher's teacher, I had an experience that gave me pause: before leading us into a guided meditation, the teacher asked the group of around 50 participants if anyone in the room did not have a regular meditation practice. I was there with my partner who is a rock climber and mountaineer, not particularly involved in any sort of organized spiritual practice but deeply connected to the power and stillness of mama nature. From the seated sea of heads in front of us (we were in the back of the room) not a single hand lifted. Ours were the only two. It was an act of courage for me to admit that I - a Yoga teacher - do not meditate regularly on my own. At least not in the way that he meant: in the seat, eyes closed, body still.
All the heads swiveled in our direction, it felt like a giant spotlight did too, and the teacher asked "really? You do not meditate?" My partner, unimpressed, said that when he is in nature and in stillness, that is his meditation. The teacher said "that's not what I mean." So, for that evening we were branded as the 'non-meditators' - spiritually inferior and undisciplined. There's more to this particularly story, and much to be said about the hierarchy of spiritual practices - what makes me the holiest? - but for now this serves as an opening for my question about the role of meditation in the lives of those of us who came to Yoga practice via Asana and the body.
So, I confess: I really struggle with sitting still and observing my breath, my thoughts and sensations. And I've been trying for a long time with varying degrees of discipline and in varying traditions. I recognize that at the root of my disengagement with the practice of seated meditation is fear. Sure, a sprinkling of laziness too, but the heart of it is the fear that if I become still enough, I will be consumed by unseen demons. That if I go deep enough I will discover something terrifying or unknown, lurking in those unfathomable and unexplored recesses of my being. And the functioning, pragmatic part of me that clearly has the helm wants to steer way clear of those dark waters.
Recently, I've discovered however that there is another way to meditate: I was in conflict with an acquaintance - feeling terribly misunderstood and not seen, treated unfairly. I told a friend about the situation, that I felt helpless and unsure of how to process what was happening, not able to regain objectivity, taking everything terribly personally. She suggested Mettā meditation. I did some research and discovered that the heart of this beautiful practice rooted in Buddhist philosophy is the sending of loving kindness or universal benevolence via repeated phrases like 'may you be happy' or 'may you be free from suffering' - traditionally first to oneself in the form of unconditional self-love, or Maitri, and then expanding outward like a growing web of benevolence - touching first those closest to us, and then expanding to send Mettā (loving kindness) even to those with whom we are in conflict. This may seem challenging for a moment - sending love to our 'enemies' - but it is perhaps the single most powerful tool for dissolving the knots of anger, fear and insecurity - I promise!
Though I still don't have a daily, disciplined sitting practice, Mettā meditation has given me an entry into a way to practice a kind of Ekagrata - or single-point-focus - without having that point be myself. And I have been awed by the power of practicing Mettā with a group - the palpable buzz of the 'good vibes' that grow and expand in the room when we are all growing a bubble of loving kindness, enveloping each other - and the afterglow! It's beautiful. I highly encourage anyone with a similarly apprehensive attitude about seated meditation to give this practice a try. Jack Kornfield gives beautiful guidance and some more background in his book 'A Path with Heart.' But really, it's so simple that it can be done by anyone, anytime, anywhere - and the world needs Love, perhaps more than ever. So, raise those vibes up!
Photos: Elena Alger