Yoga Culture: Metta Meditation
Practicing kindness toward yourself.
(This is the second installment of instructions on kindness practice. Find the first installment in the March 2018 CATALYST: https:// catalystmagazine.net/yoga-take-kindness-break)
In a world where narcissism seems to be on the rise, it’s ironic that one of the biggest challenges in metta (kindness) meditation practice is offering kindness toward yourself. I’m not sure why this is. But many people find this aspect of practice to be very difficult.
I know why I’ve personally found this practice to be a challenge. The biggest sin one could commit in my birth family was to be “selfish.” We were taught always to put ourselves last and that promoting ourselves or wanting anything for ourselves was not okay. When I was introduced to metta practice, I could understand intellectually why it was important to offer kindness to myself. But at the deeper level of actually practicing it, it just felt dry, unsavory and … well … selfish.
But if you think about it, is wishing for safety, happiness, health and ease of well-being truly selfish? These are basic foundations that contribute to living a contented life. These are the simple wishes we offer to ourselves and others in metta practice. It’s not as if we’re wishing ourselves to be king/queen of the world. We’re just offering a wish for happiness. It’s really okay.
A word about narcissism: We might think that a narcissistic person actually has a pretty good handle on self-love. But the self-regard of narcissism is not actually what metta is about.
Narcissism is characterized by arrogance, entitlement, self-absorption and lack of empathy. Metta for oneself is the basis for being able to share metta with others.
How kindness toward yourself works
On the first day of an 18-day silent retreat in 2016, I found out I had early-stage breast cancer. Since the first nine days of the retreat were focused on metta practice, I took the opportunity to focus on myself. (Even then, I had to rationalize it with the excuse of cancer!) Over time, the practice began to feel natural and expansive.
A few weeks after returning from the retreat, I forgot an appointment—one of my biggest deadly sins, because it puts other people out. Much to my surprise, I didn’t berate myself when I discovered my mistake. I simply called and apologized, made another appointment, and went on with my day.
This was huge. In the past, my first reaction was always to berate myself. Not only did it save me the injury of self-flagellation, but it also confirmed to me the transformative power of practicing kindness toward yourself.
How to practice kindness toward yourself
The following instructions are a skeletal version of the instructions from the last metta post. If you want more details, visit the link at the top of this article.
1. Sit comfortably on a meditation cushion or in a chair. Feel free to sit with your back against a wall. Comfort is important; it’s much more challenging to generate kindness when your body is uncomfortable.
2. Tune into your heart space. Place one or both hands over your heart, if you like.
3. Invite yourself into your own heart space and reflect on what you appreciate about yourself. You can reflect on a quality or trait or some recent act of kindness you’ve performed.
4. Silently say to yourself these four phrases: “May I be safe.” “May I be happy.” “May I be healthy.” “May I live with ease.” Feel free to come up with your own phrases that convey these same sentiments.
5. Don’t just recite the phrases by rote. Connect the phrases to yourself. As you say the phrases, imagine yourself being safe, happy, healthy and at ease.
If metta to yourself feels dry, switch to offering the metta phrases to someone who is easy—a family member, friend or animal companion. This practice is creative, and its main purpose is to generate feelings of kindness. So if offering kindness toward yourself is too difficult, practice what’s easiest. Once you’ve generated feelings of good will toward your easy being, try again offering kindness to yourself.
Some days this practice will feel sweet and expansive. Other days it may feel dry and lifeless. On the days when it doesn’t feel like it’s happening, practice anyway. Meditation teacher Carol Wilson says, “Fake metta is better than real aversion.” The only way to cultivate kindness, toward yourself and others, is to practice.
Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful
Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. CharlotteBellYoga.com