It's classically taught with three other practices; namely, compassion; sympathetic joy--feeling delighted in another's happiness rather than feeling jealous; and equanimity, or balance of mind. All four of these of qualities can be experienced within any one of them. Lovingkindness, for example, has strands of compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity within it.
One of the difficulties with lovingkindness is that the word is not very common, which is a shame. Often the word "metta" is translated as "love," which is confusing. Sometimes we say "love," when we mean attachment or an exchange of some sort, such as: "I will love you as long as you love me in return or as long as the following 15 conditions are met." Sometimes we mean a kind of sentimentality, which isn't willing to open up to pain, dislocation, or torment.
Metta doesn't refer to either one of those conditions. The literal translation of the word is "friendship." So metta means knowing how to be a friend to ourselves and a friend to all of life. Its foundation is connection.
Because lovingkindness meditation deals with a sense of dislocation, it is a highly appropriate practice for the situation we find ourselves in today. I had an acupuncture treatment three days after the September 11 event. When the acupuncturist put a needle in me, it hurt so much I practically leapt off the table. I asked her, "What point was that?" And she said, "That's the getting-back-into-your-body point." I was in shock, as were many people. Now it's a process of coming home to ourselves, coming home to a deeper sense of community.
It's also a process of coming back to being present, because all of those states of mind that we experience--fear, anxiety, dread, grief--take us out of the moment: We either ruminate about the past or project into the future.
The Metta Meditation
Loving kindness begins with ourselves. It's a tremendous sense of tenderness and care for ourselves, which is not our usual way of being. The classical progression of this meditation is that we begin the practice first toward ourselves, opening to and befriending all aspects of ourselves, not just those parts we like or that we present to the world, but even those things we'd rather keep hidden or those things that we have a vague knowledge of.
So we practice by repeating certain phrases: "May I be happy" or "May I be peaceful" The content of the phrases isn't so important; it's the aiming of the mind toward embracing one's self that's important.
Then we go from there to repeating the phrases for someone called a "benefactor," someone who has been generous toward or inspired us. Someone we respect, someone we feel grateful for. Then we move to a friend; then to a "neutral person," someone we don't strongly like or dislike. In our society, it would likely be somebody who serves a kind of function in our lives, like the check-out person at the supermarket, someone who we see from time to time but don't have a particular feeling about.
The next step is offering lovingkindness to someone with whom we have difficulty. This is a very tricky and complicated thing because we're not aiming for a state of acquiescence or collusion with unwholesome action.
The suggestion in the teaching is that you start with somebody that you have mild difficulty with. You don't begin with somebody who has profoundly hurt you, or has hurt the world really terribly. You begin with someone who annoys or irritates you. Part of the practice is developing confidence in the nature of love and our ability to love. If you find any one person or group of people too hard, it doesn't matter, just go back to someone that's easier.
There are ways of offering metta to different groups as long as you include pairs of opposites, like all females and all males. If you are partial towards one group, it doesn't matter. You just make a point of including both.
The way to do this meditation is to sit quietly with your back erect. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Then choose three or four phrases that express what you wish most deeply for yourself. Repeat them over and over, allowing your mind to rest in the phrases. Classical phrases are: "May I be happy." "May I be peaceful." "May I live with ease of heart." You can choose these or any others that work for you. Develop a rhythm and a cadence that work for you, a very gentle pacing.
Beginning with yourself, gently repeat the phrases, without trying to force any particular kind of feeling but rather, gather all of your energy behind each phrase, just one at a time. After a time, if you know someone who has been really good, kind, or inspiring, you can visualize her or say her name to yourself, get a feeling for her presence. Offer the phrases of lovingkindness to her, wishing for her, just what it is you've wished for yourself.
Then move on to a friend, and after some time, a neutral person, then a mildly difficult person, if you have somebody like that in your life, and then various groupings, all females, all males, all wise beings, all those in ignorance, whatever categories you would choose as long as you make the point of using pairs of opposites or complementary sets: those known to me, those unknown to me; those near, those far; those being born, those dying.
Then, finally, all beings everywhere in all directions. All creatures, all those in existence. "May they be happy. May they be peaceful. May they live with ease of heart." Just repeat the phrases of lovingkindness that you've chosen and extend them to all beings everywhere without division, without exclusion. At the end, there should there be a period of silence. Sit silently for a few moments before you get up.
There's another meaningful practice in Buddhism called "sharing merit." Merit is a concept that says every time we turn our mind toward the good, there's an energy created. Every act of generosity and kindness, including meditation, generates positive energy. It's believed that the force of that energy is a conduit to those who have died. In traditional cultures like Burma, when somebody dies, the family will come to the monastery and feed the meditators, then dedicate the merit of this gift to the person who has died. They share the merit of that action.
Once a friend of mine died before I went to sit a retreat. I told the teacher this on the first day and he said, "Well, now you'll have to do the retreat for both of you." So every night I did a sharing of the merit. You don't have to have spectacular meditations, just the fact that you even sat down to do it generates merit. It's aligning yourself with an energy of goodness. Throughout the retreat, I would dedicate my meditations to him and to all beings everywhere.
Just like with the metta meditation, you start with people who have helped you in some way. You say, "May so and so be happy. May they be peaceful." Then you move to those who have died, those who are suffering, and then you include all beings everywhere. You can create your own progression, whatever seems right.
Our Heavenly Messenger
The Buddha, before his enlightenment, was living a luxurious life in his father's palace. His father pampered him because he didn't want him to leave home and look for a deeper truth, a deeper sense of happiness. He tried to have him avoid the sight of suffering at all costs. According to the legend, when the Buddha left the palace at the age of 29, he saw a sick person, an old person, a corpse, and a mendicant monk. One corpse was his wake-up call. That was his "heavenly messenger," as they say in the classical tradition. That was enough for him to profoundly question where the foundations of happiness could be found, and if there was something in life that wouldn't crumble, wouldn't be destroyed no matter what else happened. September 11, 2001 was a giant "heavenly messenger."