A few years back, I went to a wonderful 5-day retreat where I learned a powerful form of meditation. I believe this practice has had a strong impact on my own practice, as well as on my clients in individual and group therapy.
Loving-kindness meditation, also known as metta meditation, is a Buddhist practice that can help to increase positive feelings towards yourself, as well as towards those around you. Although it is based in Buddhism, practicing this form of meditation can benefit anyone, regardless of religious belief or affiliation. Metta meditation involves repeating statements as you bring certain people into your mind.
Empirical studies have found that practicing loving-kindness meditation can increase positive emotions, including joy, gratitude, social connectedness, empathy and unconditional acceptance for ourselves and others. This practice can, at the same time, reduce feelings of hostility, indifference, and depression, and can lead to good physical health (Fredrickson, 2008; Sweet, 1990).
Step 1. Find a quiet and comfortable space to practice. Pay attention to your breath. Watch as you breathe in and out, without trying to control your breath in any way.
Step 2. Once you feel settled, comfortable, and calm, imagine saying these phrases while you are sitting in front of yourself, making eye contact with yourself:
May I be free from enmity (hostility) and danger
May I be free from emotional suffering
May I be free from physical pain
May I take care of myself happily
Stay with this step for some time – until you feel it is easy to send these words to yourself. An entire practice can stay right on this step.
Step 3. Think of a person you easily feel warm and friendly towards. This person could be a mentor, a close friend, or a relative. You can even use a beloved pet or animal here. Say the same statements as above (with “you” instead of “I”), as you picture this person (or animal) in front of you.
May you be free from enmity (hostility) and danger
May you be free from emotional suffering
May you be free from physical pain
May you take care of yourself happily
Once you feel an easy sense of kindness for this person, move on to the next step.
Step 4. Think of a neutral person. This is someone who you do not have strong feelings about. For example, someone you pass on the street or someone you saw on the train. Say the above statements as you picture this person in front of you.
Step 5. This step involves extending these above words of loving-kindness towards a person you dislike or even feel hatred towards. As you imagine this person, and say these statements, it is expected that difficult feelings would arise. You may want to begin with a mildly disliked person, and then later in your practice, work with people you hold more hostility towards.
If you want to make this practice a bit simpler, you can say these words instead:
May I (you) live in safety, be happy, be healthy, and live with ease.
As you go through this meditation practice, notice what arises for you: For which people is it harder to share these words with? What is it like to send friendly statements to yourself? Someone you like or love? A stranger? Someone you have a difficult time liking? Your experience in this practice, as well as the answers to these questions, could be important and growth-enhancing areas to explore in your therapy.
Know that it might take some time to achieve the level of focus and attention for this practice. It is okay if your mind wanders. Just notice in a non-judgmental way that it has wandered, and kindly bring your focus back to the meditation.
Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.
Sweet, M. J., & Johnson, C. G. (1990). Enhancing empathy: The interpersonal implications of a Buddhist meditation technique. Psychotherapy Research and Practice, 27(1).