by Ayesha Basi
Last week, I participated in my first silent retreat led by the wonderful Kate Johnson. Not only was it my first retreat, but it was my first time spending five days in meditation focused solely on metta, the practice of lovingkindness. Metta is a practice of cultivating unconditional love, kindness, and positive energy towards oneself, others, and the world at large.
It’s usually accompanied by the silent recitation of phrases, such as “May I/you/all beings be happy, May I/you/all beings be healthy, May I/you/all beings be at peace.” The practice starts by offering metta first internally to oneself, then outwardly towards others (including a benefactor, friend, neutral individual, difficult individual, and eventually to all beings), and can also include radiant metta, which focuses on radiating metta outward from within.
Bouncing with a little bit of nerves, anticipation, and excitement, I arrived at a beautiful retreat center north of Montreal, Canada, set on the shores of a lake and surrounded by peaceful woods. I took a big exhale— the energy of the land around me was immediately calming and nourishing. Whatever the next five days brought, I knew I would be held by the trees and the water.
While there’s so much I could say about the profound experience of being on a metta retreat, what I’ll focus on is one major theme that stood out to me—which is how soft and tender the practice of metta is. Metta asks us to put our weapons down. Take the armor off. And stand bare-chested in front of ourselves and each other. It’s only from this place of radical softness (versus a place of guarded attack) that we can genuinely give and receive love. Metta creates a situation of “both/and”. Where I can make mistakes AND still love myself. Where I can find another human difficult AND still wish them well. It disrupts our binary thinking and creates shades of gray which help to build the threads of interconnection and interdependence within us and around us.
I was taken aback by the felt sensations I experienced in my body while practicing metta so intensively. I felt a warm, golden-colored glow filling my heart, which brought a smile to my lips and often tears to my eyes. I felt this golden light radiate from my heart outward to every inch of my body until I felt like a glowing orb of light. When swimming in the lake, I imagined the ripples my body created to be filled with the golden light of metta, sending lovingkindness to all the creatures within the lake, the grass on the shores, and the roots of the trees. When walking, I imagined the golden light on the bottoms of my feet kissing the earth beneath me, sending metta to the soil, the insects, and all those that had walked on the land before me. When our group of 30 meditated together, I visualized us sitting on a field in the middle of war, cross-legged, eyes closed, practicing metta, with a golden light emanating from us that caused others to put their weapons down and disband their fighting. That’s the power of metta. It’s a healing balm not only internally but externally as well. When we offer metta to others and approach others with a sense of kindness, there’s more space to actually hear and understand each other. To build bridges rather than draw divisions.
Metta brings us together. It binds us more wholly within ourselves, and it binds us more deeply to one another. It fosters a sense of oneness and interconnectedness. It generates love—the antidote to hate. Seems to me that metta is the medicine our world needs right now.
Whether you’ve practiced metta before or never worked with it personally, here’s an invitation to feel your way into this tender practice right now. Find a comfortable seat. Take as many breaths as you need to ground yourself in your body. Then, simply start by reciting some or all of these phrases:
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be at peace.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be at peace.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be healthy.
May all beings be at peace.
After your practice, notice any sensations across your body and heart. Perhaps commit to practicing metta for three days, a week or longer, and notice, across time, what the practice brings to you.
Ayesha Basi is a Contemplative Psychotherapy Program alumni, and a member of the marketing team at Nalanda Institute
Learn more about Kate Johnson