A simple change in framing to make metta meditation easier

If you have silently recited phrases like: “May you be well, may you be healthy, free from suffering and may you be happy” before, chances are you did a metta meditation.

Metta is a term from the ancient language Pali and often translated as loving-kindness. It is a form of concentration practice where you picture other people or yourself and try to evoke the feeling of metta, a kind of loving, open awareness with the non-discriminatory wish for all beings to be happy. When you do it for the first time, it can feel silly or kind of esoteric. Yet do not underestimate how useful the practice of metta can be. For example, there is evidence that it can increase the feeling of being socially connected, increase positive emotions or help with PTSD symptoms. Personally, it makes me feel really content and happy, which shouldn’t be too surprising.

Traditionally, you do the metta meditation in a certain progression. One would typically start with wishing yourself well, then picturing a beloved person and wishing them well. After that, it can go on further to picture a neutral person, e.g. your mailman and then even someone you dislike or with whom you have a really difficult relationship. It can end with wishing metta to all living beings everywhere and/or going back to yourself once more. The problem is that many people struggle with self-love and self-appreciation. For most people, the voice in their mind is their harshest critic. Thus it can be a struggle to start a metta meditation with evoking the feeling of loving-kindness towards yourself.

In a guided meditation by Nikki Mirghafori, I stumbled upon a simple trick to help with this. Instead of beginning with yourself, you first picture someone with whom you have a really uncomplicated and positive relationship. Wishing them well is much easier. Not only does this help with getting into the groove of building up the feeling of metta, but a certain framing can help you transition the focus to yourself more easily. Personally, I find this works best with a pet.

For example, I may start with thinking of my dog and wishing him well using my preferred metta phrases. Then I try to imagine viewing myself through the eyes of my dog and also silently saying phrases like “May You be well.” To me, it comes very natural to imagine that my dog loves me a lot and is really happy to see me. Because of that, it isn’t hard to put myself into the position of my dog, imagining him e.g. being petted by me and wishing me all the best.

Now comes the interesting part. Mirghafori gives the instruction of “joining voices” with, in this case, my dog. That means switching the phrasing to “May I be well” instead of You. Instead of viewing myself from the outside perspective of a friend, I now try to have a loving awareness of the body and mind which I experience from the inside.

I hope I put this clearly enough and maybe it will be helpful to some of you. It will be best to just try it out for yourself, you could use the guided meditation I linked to above.

On a side note, this is an amazing example of how well theory of mind functions. It is incredible how well I can imagine being in the position of my dog and observing me from the outside.

Thanks to Maxim for reading a draft of this. 

First published on my Substack.