Metta, or loving-kindness meditation, involves picking a person and wishing them good things. In the same way as other kinds of concentration practice condition your mind by letting it notice how it feels good to be able to concentrate, I think of loving-kindness meditation as conditioning your mind by letting it notice how pleasant it feels to experience metta.
What is metta? Psychologist and meditation teacher Ron Crouch describes it as follows:
In English “love” is an emotion that comes with attachment built-in. We love another person and we want to be with them. We view our lives, and in some cases even ourselves, as incomplete without the other person. This kind of love is not bad or unwholesome, far from it. Falling in love and being in love is great (if a little crazy). But it is not the same kind of love that is referred to by “metta,” which is love without clinging or attachment. In this sense it is very pure.
The Buddha evoked the image of a mother’s love for her newborn as an analogy for metta. A mother’s love for a baby is completely unconditional – there are truly no strings attached. The baby can be totally cranky and ridiculously self-centered (as babies tend to be), but the mother will still love the baby and expect nothing in return. If the baby does show love in return, well, that’s just a nice bonus but not expected (most people with a kid will know intuitively what metta feels like). With metta there is no sense that the other person needs to do something to fulfill one’s needs or complete the love – this kind of love is complete all by itself.
I generally like how I feel after I’ve done metta “right”, but I find I often have self-centered motives sneak into it that make it hard to reach that attitude of completely unconditional love. For instance, if I’m sending metta to a friend, I might hope that they are happy because I like it when people around me are happy, or even because just imagining someone happy makes me feel safe. Then my focus starts alternating between the feeling of safety – something that is about my own needs rather than about the other person – and the actual loving-kindness. While there isn’t anything wrong about enjoying a feeling of safety, it tends to be conditional on the other person being around and acting in a particular way. As a result, focusing on it usually doesn’t leave me with a more lasting sense of well-being the way that successfully focusing on metta does.
But there’s a fix to this: sitting on public transit and sending metta to any strangers I see. First I’m in all likelihood never going to see these people again, so them being happy isn’t going to benefit me. Also, they usually have basically neutral or slightly stressed-out expressions, and I make it a point of sending them goodwill exactly as they are, without asking them to change. This seems to have the consequence that the actual metta gets easier to tap into.
I have also found it useful to combine metta with an Internal Family Systems style attitude. Anytime I get bored and distracted by the practice, I send metta towards the part of my mind that is making me feel distracted or bored, and give it appreciation for whatever its positive purpose in distracting me was.