How to: Loving-Kindness (Metta) Meditation

This is part of Nourish’s Yoga Practise Guide Library. We were inspired to make these guides to support your own yoga practise and as a resource for teachers who want to make their classes more accessible. We were also pretty tired of all the generic teaching instructions and guides floating around the internet that aren’t inclusive, accessible or adaptable in any way. 

If you would like more guidance on making this practice accessible, we have missed something, or you have any questions drop us a comment –– we love hearing from you and really do mean it when we say yoga is for everybody!

If you’re curious and want to dive right in, skip to the end of the post where we share a recording of Harriet leading a loving-kindness meditation for you to try.

What is Loving-Kindness Meditation?

Loving-kindness is a loose translation of the Pali word mettā. Mettā is a very close companion of compassion — compassion for all beings and compassion for the self. It is also translated as love, benevolence, friendliness, and an active interest in others. In The Science of Meditation, they define the sentiment of mettā as ‘an unconditional benevolence and good will’ (104). 

Loving-kindness meditation (sometimes called a mettā meditation) is rooted in Buddhism, and versions of the phrases that are repeated in the meditation are found in the Mettā Sutta. To this day, Buddhist monks still chant this sutra as part of their religious practice and, poignantly, monks chanted a version of this sutra when they joined Myanmar’s ‘Saffron Revolution’ political protests of 2007. This meditation intends to evoke and cultivate loving-kindness within us, allowing us to direct these feelings to various people and beings, including ourselves. It combines visualisation with mentally repeating phrases to establish these feelings, and follows a script to guide you through the stages of cultivating mettā. However, once you are familiar with the practice, you may move away from the script, develop your own, or simply touch base with the feeling. One of the wonderful things about loving-kindness meditations is that they are adaptable and can be tailored to work best for you. 

Why Scientists Adore Loving-Kindness Meditations

Scientists who study the effects of loving-kindness meditation have observed changes that demonstrate increased compassion in individuals who practice it. Often we hear that reaping the neurological and physiological benefits of a meditation practice takes time. For some people, it is 20 hours of consistent practice; for others, it may be upwards of 200. Loving-kindness meditation, by comparison, can be fast-acting. According to the data from high-quality peer-reviewed papers, the positive effects outside of the practise can be experienced in as little as eight hours of practice, and reductions in strongly held biases begin to occur after 16-hours (The Science of Meditation, 121). 

It is important to note that these studies are interested in the participants’ behaviours and neurological profile outside of the meditation practice. During loving-kindness meditation, many people experience a pleasant emotional shift (embodying one or all of the qualities of mettā to different degrees). This makes it stand out amongst other meditation practices (such as mindfulness) that are often challenging to begin with and whose attributes are only experienced after consistent practice.

If you are interested in finding out more about the scientific efficacy of this practice here are a few resources:

However, science alone is not a reason to practice it! The strong evidence base for this practice is exciting, but above all, the potential to personally feel benefits or joy in the practice, during or after it. 

Loving-Kindness Meditation Instructions

In this meditation, we work through a series of stages, cultivating and emanating loving-kindness. Each stage works by directing loving-kindness towards an individual or group of beings, and generally speaking, grows increasingly challenging. Starting with the person or people it is easiest to cultivate loving-kindness for supplies us with a repository of this energy that we can transfer to others, increasingly distant from ourselves, and eventually to ourselves in an act of self-compassion and acceptance. 

There are many different scripts and slightly varying methodologies for this practice. What is important is that you find one that works for you. The best way to experience the practice is to try it! So I have made a recording here, that will be emailed to you once you sign up to our mailing list. Included below is a script I like to share with students on our teacher training. It’s a little more pared back than the recording but is a helpful resource if you want to develop your own practice. Shortly there will also be a video recording on our Community Library.  

Setting Up

This practice can be done in any comfortable position. You can find a seated or kneeling posture on the floor, or sit in a chair. You can also lie down, perhaps with a pillow or bolster under the knees, and a cushion behind the head, and the hands resting in a comfortable position. You can also do it in bed. 

Take some time to mindfully set up a posture that is comfortable enough that you feel you will be able to stay in relative stillness for the duration of the meditation, approximately 15-20 minutes. Although, as always, move and adjust as needed throughout the practice. 

The Meditation

Take a moment to ground yourself and acknowledge your meditation space. You may take a few deep breaths, scan through the body, or note any sensory stimuli in your environment.

Stage 1: Simple relationship
In the first stage of loving-kindness meditation, we send our feelings of loving-kindness towards a person who it is very easy to feel loving-kindness. Often a simple relationship like a pet, child, or close friend is best, as romantic relationships tend to be more complicated than we anticipate. Either holding an image of this individual in our mind’s eye, or getting a general sense of this person, we repeat to ourselves:

May you be well and happy.
May you be safe from harm.
May you be as healthy and strong as is possible for you.
May you live with the ease of well-being.

Note any feelings that arise; are they recognisable as loving-kindness? Continue to direct these feelings towards this person, feeling them well up inside you. Once again, we repeat to ourselves:

May you be well and happy.
May you be safe from harm.
May you be as healthy and strong as is possible for you.
May you live with the ease of well-being.

Gently release this image or sense of this person, but note any lingering feelings.

Stage 2: Someone in need
In the second stage, we direct our feelings of loving-kindness towards a person in our lives who we feel is in particular need of some loving-kindness, for any reason. Holding an image of this individual in our mind’s eye, we repeat:

May you be well and happy.
May you be safe from harm.
May you be as healthy and strong as is possible for you.
May you live with the ease of well-being.

You may repeat the phrases.

Acknowledge any feelings that arise, and continue to direct loving-kindness towards this person. It is normal for the feelings to shift, deepen, wax or wane throughout the practice. 

Gently release this image or sense of this person, but note any lingering feelings.

Stage 3: A stranger
In the third stage, we send our feelings of loving-kindness towards a person we don’t know particularly well, who we feel neutral about. This could be an acquaintance, someone you pass on your commute, or perhaps who works at a shop or cafe you regularly visit. This stage may feel more challenging than the previous ones, but see what it is like to evoke or transfer feelings of loving-kindness towards this person. Holding an image or sense of this individual in our mind’s eye, we repeat:

May you be well and happy.
May you be safe from harm.
May you be as healthy and strong as is possible for you.
May you live with the ease of well-being.

You may repeat the phrases.

Continue to send these feelings towards this person, noting any shifts in your experience of loving-kindness. Gently release this image or sense of this person, acknowledging any feelings that remain.

Stage 4: All beings
In the fourth stage, we send our feelings of loving-kindness towards all beings, human and non-human. Select a visualisation that gives you a sense of the magnitude of existence. Perhaps the Earth as seen from space; a starry night sky; a dense forest; a street of people. Do not worry if the scale of this feels challenging, the intention of directing loving-kindness to all beings is enough. 

 Holding an intention or mage in our mind’s eye, we repeat:

May we all be well and happy.
May we all be safe from harm.
May we all be as healthy and strong as is possible for you.
May we all live with the ease of well-being.

You may repeat the phrases again, before releasing this stage.

Stage 5: Ourselves
In the final stage, we take our feelings of loving-kindness to what is often the most difficult and complicated relationship in our lives: ourselves. Sending ourselves feelings of loving-kindness can feel silly, contrived, or confronting, but we should endeavour to do so genuinely. Holding an image of yourself in your mind’s eye, repeat:

May I be well and happy.
May I be safe from harm.
May I be as healthy and strong as is possible for you.
May I live with the ease of well-being.

You may draw on the feelings of loving-kindness you have cultivated for others, or perhaps just the person or animal you feel closest to, and gently transfer them to yourself. 

You may repeat the phrases again.

In your own time release any lingering visualisations or intentions, acknowledging any feelings that remain. Guide yourself back to your surroundings, noticing the weight of the body, and any sounds or smells in your environment. Take a few deep breaths. When you are ready, open your eyes. 

When Do I Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation?

For some people, a loving-kindness meditation may be more accessible than other forms of meditation. The combination of positive visceral feelings,the journey through the visualisation, and the repetition of the phrases means it is easier to connect to than other styles. However, there will be people who don’t connect with practice at all, struggle with certain aspects of it, or may need some time to get comfortable and familiar with it. 

You can practice loving-kindness meditation at any time of day and integrate it into an existing meditation practice. Perhaps practice it once or twice a week, instead of your regular practice style, or have an extended practice one day where you start or finish your meditation practice with it. One of the nice things about this practice is it doesn’t need to be practiced daily, as some styles recommend. 

You can also start a new regular meditation practice with this style. Find a recording that works for you and see if you can commit to practising three or more times a week for the first few weeks. Once you are familiar with it you can practice less or more, or introduce other meditation styles. You may find that a loving-kindness meditation lays a good foundation for exploring different styles.   

It’s important to leave enough time for the practice. A full practice takes upwards of 15 minutes, and it can be nice to leave some reflection space at the end of it. If journaling works for you, you can jot down your experience.

Unlike some forms of mindfulness practice that you can do in public, loving-kindness meditation is best practiced when you are in a quiet, comfortable space. Although, once you are familiar with it, you can try sending loving-kindness to people you encounter or pass during your day. Something I like to do is pick one of the phrases and then repeat it in my head as an affirmation as I encounter people — not only does it give me a little practice boost to ground me, but I find it particularly useful for challenging situations and people! 

When Shouldn’t I Practice or Teach it? 

If you don’t connect to the meditation or it doesn’t appeal to you then don’t practice it or offer it to your students. Not every style works for everybody!

If you are short of time, then pick a different meditation practice. If you are teaching it to a group, you will need 20+ minutes: time to explain the practice, covering any common difficulties, the practice itself, time at the end to discuss experiences.

If you feel anxious, depressed, or just a little ‘off’, then a loving-kindness meditation may not be the best choice of practice. It is hard to cultivate these feelings, or even focus at all, when feeling like this, so extending an act of kindness to yourself, such as calling a friend, going for a walk in nature, or curling up to watch your favourite show, may be a better choice! This practice can, however, be appealing at challenging times. If this is the case, I recommend setting up for the meditation with very low expectations and giving yourself permission to stop the practice whenever you choose if it is not helping you.

How Do I Adapt Loving-Kindness Meditation To Make it Accessible? What Are Some Common Difficulties?

Many of the stages present different challenges:

  • A close person: In general, we are encouraged to pick someone with whom we have an uncomplicated loving relationship, such as a child or pet… however, not everybody has uncomplicated loving relationships! It is fine to choose someone you might experience conflict with from time to time, such as a close friend or family member, or someone you aren’t especially close with but feel a lot of warmth towards, or even a romantic partner if that feels easiest. Ideally, it is the least complicated of all your complicated loved ones! If you have multiple children and feel bad about choosing one, then visualise all of them — and if you automatically gravitate towards the ‘easy’ child, don’t feel like you are playing favourites — it is purely for the purpose and ease of the meditation. Above all, the feelings evoked during this stage are more significant than the actual being.  
  • Ourself: this aspect can feel daunting, trite, or stir up complex feelings. As with all meditations, there is no right or wrong way to feel. Establishing self-compassion is a practice that takes time. Sometimes evoking the person with whom you have an easy relationship first, and ‘transferring’ those feelings across to yourself can be helpful — or even viewing yourself as a cherished friend.   
  • All living beings: this aspect has a few complexities. Firstly, the scale of bringing to mind all living beings is challenging — therefore, pick a symbol that somehow embodies the entire Earth and its inhabitants. This sense of scale can also evoke uncomfortable existential dread, or anxiety around wishing good will to people we feel may not deserve it, or the state of the planet in general. These are all valid responses, yet this aspect of the meditation may be to challenge us to find a form of compassion (compassion is not always soft and generous, it may be fuelled by a need to bring about change), or santosha (contentment) by embracing challenges in aid of extending loving-kindness to all beings, as a mechanism for personal, community, and planetary change.
  • As with all meditations, it is normal for your thoughts to wander off at times during the practice. Once you notice, bring yourself back to the meditation.  
  • As you grow more familiar with the practice, and able to more readily tap into feelings of loving-kindness, then you can choose to practice just one or two stages. Perhaps just sending loving-kindness to a close person and yourself, just yourself, or all beings.
  • This meditation purposefully doesn’t include extending loving-kindness towards a difficult person, a stage that is sometimes taught. It can be inappropriate to share this stage with a group, as fostering loving-kindness towards someone who may have harmed or abused us can be detrimental to the individual. We do not need to forgive those who seriously harm us. If you decide this is something you would like to explore in your own practice make sure you are ready. Something I do is discuss who that person is with a close friend (a therapist also works well) to weigh up how healthy it will be for me. You also might seek out a meditation teacher to work one-to-one with to help guide you and process the experience (but remember meditation teachers are not qualified mental health professionals unless they have explicitly trained to be).

How Do I Teach Loving-Kindness Meditation To A Mixed Class?

  • Talk through the practice beforehand. Acknowledge that a range of feelings and reactions are normal, and whilst some people may connect to the practice others may not at all.
  • Offer alternatives to visualisation. Not everybody is able to, enjoys, or finds visualisations accessible. Alternatives include sending an intention to the person or people, recalling a memory of them, or establishing a sense of them, perhaps even mentally repeating their name a few times. 
  • Acknowledge the group dynamic. The quality of any meditation can shift when it is a group experience, we may feel a shared group energy that helps us connect deeper or it may feel more challenging. 
  • Give your students the option to sit it out. Perhaps they prefer to focus on their breath or daydream, at any point during the meditation they can choose to stop and wait quietly until it finishes. 
  • Leave time for a post-meditation discussion. Often nobody will want to share their experience! But somebody might stay after class, or send you an email later. Meditation can stir up lots of mixed feelings, or even feel psychologically intrusive, and it is important your students don’t feel alone in this. You may wish to acknowledge the aspect of this meditation you find, or have found, most challenging, as a discussion starter. 
  • Emphasise there is no right way to feel. Although it is intended to evoke feelings of loving-kindness, and has been linked to a myriad of positive neurological effects, this will not be true for everybody.

Try a Loving-Kindness Meditation with Harriet

Our lead trainer, Harriet, has recorded a loving-kindness meditation to introduce you to the practice. To access, please enter your email below, and we’ll send across to your inbox!

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