Cultivating a Metta Mind


By Sylvia Boorstein  |  

Loving-kindness, listed ninth in the traditional list of the 10 Perfections of the Heart (also known as the paramitas) is described as the heart fully awake in friendliness, compassion, and empathic joy. The Perfections are the 10 particular permutations of goodness and kindness that the Buddha was said to have developed in his many lifetimes before the one in which he was acknowledged as fully enlightened and venerated as the Buddha. Loving-kindness seems to me to be the requisite substrate that supports all of the other Perfections: generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, and equanimity. The Metta Sutta (the Sermon on Loving-kindness) is part of the Pali canon. It gives instructions for loving-kindness practice and promises that liberation is its reward. I imagine that if the Buddha preached the Metta Sutta today, the newspaper reporting the event would say: “Three discoveries Ensure Lasting Peace”: 1.Wholesome living is the cause of happiness; 2. Personal happiness cultivates the insight “Everyone wants this!”; 3. Human beings have the capacity—in gladness and in safety—to wish unconditionally, “May all beings be happy!”

Commentators would point out that the Metta Sutta has no special instructions for “What Wish to Make for People You Don’t Like.” It doesn’t need them. It assumes that one’s own boundlessly safe and happy heart has no walls with hooks on them on which to hang old animosities, no filing systems filled with fear stories that get in the way of forgiving. In loving-kindness meditation, steadfast well-wishing concentrates the mind, dispelling any barrier to benevolence. My colleague Guy Armstrong says, “The metta mind is like frozen orange juice. Everything extra is squeezed out of it. What remains is the essential goodness, only sweeter.”

A Student’s Lessons
One of the stories told about the origin of loving-kindness practice says that the Buddha taught it as a protection to monks who were frightened because they were about to go off by themselves into the jungle to meditate. Perhaps those monks were comforted, having heard the legend of how a rampaging elephant stampeding into the Buddha’s path was brought to his knees by the force of metta that surrounded the Buddha. I imagine they believed the same force would ward off tigers and snakes and every other fearful thing they might encounter on their own. I also think metta is a protection. But I don’t think it’s an amulet. Tigers and snakes and fearsome things are wherever they are, doing whatever they do. The miracle protection is the spontaneous loving-kindness response of the heart to fearsome things seen clearly and fully understood in a mind awakened by mindful attention.

My metta practice—when it is not the saying of structured phrases—has been informed by teachings from Chagdud Rimpoche, a venerable teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and Jo, a regular member of the Wednesday morning class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. I think of both teachings as the loving-kindness point of view.


I met with Chagdud Rimpoche only once. I arranged to see him because I’d begun to feel—as part of my meditation practice—very strong and unusual energies in my body, and my friends told me that Tibetan teachers were especially knowledgeable about esoteric energies. I told him, slowly and carefully, because we spoke through an interpreter, the details of my experience. I expected him to give me instructions in a new meditation technique. Instead, he said, “How much compassion practice do you do every day?” I didn’t know how to answer. Then he said, “Go out in the street every day and see the suffering.” I thought, “How will I know who is suffering? Does he mean everybody? Probably he does. But then what? And what about my energies?” The interview was over, so I didn’t ask. His instruction though, “Go out in the street every day and see the suffering,” was valuable. At the very least, paying attention to other people is probably a modulator of concentration energies. At the very most, it builds compassion.

Jo’s teaching was a comment she offered in a class at Spirit Rock. I had been teaching about loving-kindness and said, “It’s easy to wish well to people you love. It’s hard to do this with people you don’t like. And we usually overlook ‘neutral’ people, people that we have no opinions about. Anyway, there are few neutral people. I think we make instant decisions, usually based on little data, about whether or not we like people. It’s hard not to be partial.”

Jo, who has been a flight attendant for United Airlines for more than 40 years, said, “No, it isn’t. When I look out at the passengers in an airplane and say, ‘Fasten your seatbelts,’ I mean it equally for everyone. They are all in the same airplane, and we all need to make this trip together. They all look the same to me.”

I think about Chagdud Rimpoche when I remember, standing in line at the supermarket checkout stand, to wonder about the person in front of me: “What is the biggest difficulty in her life right now?” When I remember, I wish, “May you be happy. May your pain—whatever it is—be lessened.” And I think about Jo as I look around and realize that all of us in line—at the supermarket, bank, post office, ticket window—are moving through this line and that line, day after day, and year after year, this difficulty after that, making this trip of life together. And everyone still looks different to me, but I know that we all have to fasten our seatbelts, just the same, for the trip.

A Song of Love
The everyday loving-kindness practice—good wishes for everyone you pass—can happen on its own as you carry on with the rest of your life. When I decided on the metta phrases I would use, I set them to a melody that has a special, private meaning for me and practiced them over and over as a chant. I encourage students to do the same. I tell them, “If you do, you’ll find that your chant will become like a song about which you will say, ‘I can’t get that tune out of my mind.’ It will be stuck there, playing in every spare moment, and it will make you happy.”


I invite you to do the same. Choose phrases you like to say, or a melody—one that touches your heart—and see if you can “scan” your words so they fit. The phrases I say fit three melodies that are dear to me. Once you’ve written your song, sing it to yourself always. After you’ve done this, you will feel different and the people around you will also feel different. Begin now. Make yourself comfortable. Take a deep breath. Relax. Try to smile. The Buddha taught that there is no other person in the whole world more worthy of your well-wishing than yourself. I love that teaching! It’s so kind and it makes so much sense. When I am unhappy—tense, frightened, tired, or irritable—I think, “Of course! Who else could I possibly wish well to? I can’t see past myself. I need to feel better first.”

These are the words I am saying these days. Until you find others more resonant for you, I invite you to try them. Say them out loud if you’re alone; otherwise, think them. Begin with yourself.


May I feel protected and safe / May I feel content and pleased / May my physical body provide me with strength / May my life unfold smoothly with ease.

Now say the phrases again. This time, stop after each phrase and take a deep breath in and out. Close your eyes as you take the breath and feel how that wish feels in your body. Then make the next wish and feel how that one feels.

When you know the wishes by heart, close your eyes and say them over and over. Pay attention to how good it feels to wish yourself well. Later, you’ll send your wishes to others. For now, just yourself—for as long as you like. And really do try to smile.


This column is excerpted from Pay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake: The Buddhist Path of Kindness by Sylvia Boorstein. Copyright © 2002 by Sylvia Boorstein. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. Inc. Sylvia Boorstein resides in Santa Rosa, California.