The Benefits of the Metta Prayer

“May she dwell in safety.
May she be happy and healthy.
May she be free of afflictions.
May she be at peace.”

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Siddhartha, after he had become the Buddha, prescribed the Metta Prayer for his disciples. While I am not a Buddhist (I’m a Humanist who practices holistic spirituality), I’ve found this and many of Siddhartha’s prescriptions very practical and beneficial.

Metta is from the Pali, meaning “good will” or “lovingkindness.” The Metta Prayer is designed to intentionalize good wishes and a sense of benevolence for oneself and others. The idea is to wish the good things we all naturally desire; first for oneself, then for a close loved one, then radiating out by degrees until one has encompassed all sentient beings everywhere. The Buddha said that the benefits of saying this prayer were many: deep, restful sleep, fewer bad dreams, good relationships, and a serene countenance, to name a few. I’ve found this to be the case; I’ve adapted the original language of the prayer for my own use. I share it here in hopes that other practitioners will find it useful.

Begin by assuming the meditation posture that comes most naturally to you (for me, it’s the half-lotus position). Breath in and out mindfully several times. Then, when you are fully centered, begin by wishing good things for yourself. On each out-breath, say something like the following quietly (or merely inwardly):

May I dwell in safety.
May I be happy and healthy.
May I be free from afflictions.
May I be at peace.

Next, open yourself to the presence of a dear loved one, a person for whom you have natural feelings of affection. Repeat the process, using the pronouns “he” or “she” in place of “I.”

May he dwell in safety, etc.

After that, you should find yourself open to considering the happiness of someone neutral in your life. It may be a clerk you see at the grocery store, or any other individual you encounter regularly but have essentially neutral feelings about. Repeat the intention for him or her.

By the time you’ve wished these good things for yourself, a close loved one, and a neutral person, you may find yourself more open than you may have thought to wishing the same for someone your mind identifies as an “enemy” or opponent. When you wish the same good things for this person, and an amazing thing happens: his or her identity is transformed within your mind. It’s hard to retain feelings of antipathy for someone for whom you are actively cultivating feelings of benevolence. When that sense of antipathy falls away, you are apt to feel free, light, and relieved.

Next in your ever-increasing series of concentric circles of well-wishing comes “all human beings, without distinction:”

May they dwell in safety.
May they be happy and healthy, etc.

The final phase of the prayer includes “all sentient beings, without distinction.” This is a wonderfully liberating phase, the point at which you gain the sense of your benevolence extending to every living being. Your lovingkindness now encompasses all beings: those known to you, and those as yet unknown.

May they dwell in safety.
May they be happy and healthy.
May they be free of afflictions.
May they be at peace.

Your lovingkindness has now extended like ripples in a pond, starting with yourself and moving out in concentric circles until it has encompassed all life. I can tell you in all honesty that the first time I did this, it was a transcendent experience. Most amazing, perhaps was what it did to my sense of the “enemy.”

Someone has said that the best way to destroy your enemies is to make them your friends, and I believe that. The wonderful thing is, you don’t even need the other person’s permission! You can simply allow his or her identity to take a new shape in your mind through focused meditation. When you actively wish the best for an “enemy,” over time she gradually becomes someone you care deeply for. You realize that she’s a person with good and bad qualities (just like you); greed, ignorance and anger in each of you have simply found a temporary point of intersection. Either one of you has the power to disengage that collision of energy and transform it into something beautiful. You may find that person becoming a good friend (such was the case once with me), or the transformation may stand only in your own mind. Even if you never have another interaction with that person, the transformation will be nonetheless genuine.

When you arrive at “all human beings without distinction,” you find yourself being inclusive of people you may have regarded previously with fear, suspicion, and even hatred. Again, the inner transformation of these people is the key. Perhaps you’ll have the opportunity to meet one of those “others” and discover that (again) they’re flawed human beings just like you.

But the real action is in the final phase, when you include “all sentient beings” in your circle of compassion. After doing this meditation a few times, you may find yourself drawn to animal welfare causes. You may even find yourself becoming a vegetarian without fanfare or announcements. I very quietly stopped eating meat for a year after starting the Metta Prayer, and it was neither a “cause” or “advocacy” on my part. It was just a natural outgrowth of wishing all sentient beings safety and happiness on a regular basis. (I later made peace with the fact that I’m part of a natural food chain/ecosystem and returned to eating meat on occasion. What remained, however, was mindfulness about how animals are treated before becoming part of our diets.)

I recommend the Metta Prayer for all the reasons Siddhartha mentioned, and those I’ve discovered as a result of my own practice. It really is a wonderful way of transforming your intentions toward the wider world, and cultivating deep affection in your relationships with those you love.

All the best,

William K Ferro

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