Time for Metta Bhavana

By Yael Wasserman


Metta, loving-kindness, is a term most yogis at BMIMC are familiar with. It’s something we all aspire to. Something innately good that we would like to see more of, in ourselves and in those around us. Often a metta chant is recited at the end of the day during retreats before the yogis retire for the night. Teachers sometimes talk about it in dharma talks. Some teachers include metta sessions in their retreats. Metta meditation (metta bhavana) appears in many suttas. Yet unlike vipassana there are not a lot of opportunities for intensive metta bhavana practice.

It seems the reason for this is in the way that meditation was introduced to the West. Many of the first generation of western Theravada dharma teachers trained in the insight meditation (vipassana bhavana) systems that came out of Burma. It’s not by accident that our Centre is called the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre or the famous US centre the Insight Meditation Society is so named. And of course we have the almost mainstream “Vipassana” organisation of S.N. Goenka. These were conceived first and foremost as places for insight practice. As such metta, while revered, has tended to present as something peripheral to the main game. Yet metta bhavana is a practice in its own right. And as with vipassana, it can be practiced for sustained periods in retreat as well as in daily life.

I have been fortunate enough to practice intensive metta bhavana both at BMIMC and in Burma under the guidance of Ariya Baumann, Venerable Virañani and Sayadaw U Indaka. They teach the classical form set out in the Visuddhimagga where the yogi starts by radiating metta towards themselves, then to a benefactor, followed by a dear person, a stranger, an enemy and culminating with radiating metta to all beings.

My initial impression of this style of practice was that it felt mechanical. Repeating the phrase “May they be well, happy and peaceful” ad nauseum felt forced and artificial. But after a few days the practice started to feel more authentic, spacious and joyful. Compared with my experience of vipassana, metta bhavana is far more gentle, and is often profoundly pleasant. I have never experienced the level of contentment or feelings of unconditional kindness for others that I have experienced on a metta retreat. Even though I’m not at a stage where I can sustain this outside of retreat, seeing that these qualities of mind can be cultivated to such an extent and experienced repeatedly proves that we do have the ability to transform and to become better human beings.

People I talk to about metta practice often report an aversion to the Visuddhimagga form similar to what I experienced when I first started. Sadly, many conclude this means metta meditation is not for them. I suspect in some cases this is because they haven’t given the metta the time it needs to arise. Possibly they have practiced just for a few sessions in a predominantly vipassana retreat. But for many people, perhaps even most, it takes several days of continual practice for true metta to arise, so for this reason I encourage people who want to explore this amazing and beautiful quality of the mind to sign-up for a metta retreat.

Of course, a metta retreat is not all roses.  Just like vipassana, it is in its own way, hard work and there are good days and bad days. But I have found the gentleness of metta allows me to be much easier on myself which, as someone prone to striving, makes finding the sweet spot of right effort far less of a struggle.

Practice Interview with Sayadaw with Ariya translating.

If you are interested in exploring metta bhavana further, Sayadaw U Indaka is leading a nine-day metta retreat at BMIMC in December. He also hosts and co-teaches two two-week metta fusion retreats with Ariya Bauman and Ven. Viranani at his monastery in Pyin Oo Lwin in northern Burma during January and February every year. If you would like more information please refer to the Chanmyay Myaing Meditation Centre website.

May you be well, happy and peaceful!

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Yael Wasserman is member of the BMIMC Management Committee and former resident staff member.