Metta, also known as Lovingkindness meditation, is a type of meditation described and taught by the historical Buddha. It's said that nuns and monks sent to meditate in the jungle became so scared of the darkness and the noises and the lions and tigers and bears that they scurried back to the Buddha, too overwhelmed with terror to continue. The Buddha prescribed Metta meditation as an antidote to fear.
Many of our conditioned and instantaneous responses are based on fear; defensiveness and worry are both rooted in it. Practicing Metta helps us re-wire our patterns to create responses which are less fearful and more open and receptive to our experiences. It doesn't mean we won't have anxiety; but it means we don't have to lead with it.
The first few times I learned Metta Meditation, it didn't resonate with me at all. When it was taught as visualization practice, I felt confused and got lost in thought; when taught with the focus on benefiting others, I just felt guilty. I stopped doing it and assumed it wasn't the right practice for me.
Then I participated in a week-long meditation retreat, and I began to understand how powerfully this practice generates both compassion and insight. The three instructions below may help you deepen and open to Metta practice too.
1. Metta is a concentration practice. Like mindfulness of breath or body, the phrases of lovingkindness become the object of attention, and when the mind strays, the practice is simply to return to the phrases. You don't have to worry about generating feeling or visualizing someone, you simply need to keep coming back, to focus and concentrate.
2. While doing Metta, you don't need to feel Metta! It is not necessary to feel good or loving, and it doesn't even matter if you feel bad or hateful when doing the meditation, the outcome is same. The point of the practice is to begin changing our habitual responses, to re-wire our immediate anxious or negative patterns into more receptive and openhearted ways of being with our experience.
3. Begin with yourself and a benefactor only. This practice is one of the original meditations of the Buddha, and he said the best way to learn it is to start with those people that are easiest to care about. So start by spending a few weeks just focusing the phrases of lovingkindness on yourself and a person or being that you feel has helped and benefited you. Not usually a relative, but perhaps a teacher, a dear aunt, a pet, or an historical figure who inspires you and to whom you feel grateful.
Whatever living beings there may be without exception, weak or strong, long, large, middling, short, subtle, or gross, visible or invisible, living near or far, born or coming to birth may all beings have happy minds! Karaniya Metta Sutta