Cultivating Compassion

As I’ve entered and matured into my adulthood this world has slipped deeper into an epoch characterized by anxiety, anger, hatred, selfishness, distractibility, and fear. As a global culture we are truly captured by an existential crisis paralleled only by the discovery that we can wipe out our entire species with the push of a button (atomic bomb). Our global society is traumatized and scared for it’s survival. We are assaulted with images of violence and catastrophe on a daily basis and we have been informed that our doom is impending, within the next few generations. Our climate is collapsing quickly and our respect for one another is diminishing at an ever more rapid pace.

Over the past few months it seems that we are approaching another watershed in this crisis. With the violence in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris occurring over the past month, and with the bombing of an MSF (Doctors Without Borders) hospital also looming in the recent past, we have become saturated with some of the most awful news, and, perhaps more destructive than the images, the opinions of those who are driven by negative states of consciousness and impulsive, knee-jerk words that are not chosen wisely.

Looking around social media I see and feel this tangible angst among many I know, and I feel the tension within my entire being. More than a few times I’ve heard or read people remark, “I feel like I’m going to lose my mind if I hear more negative news…” And yet the news keeps coming. How can we deal with this dangerous level of negativity that has taken hold in our collective mind? How can we can we cope with the vicarious trauma we experience every minute of every day? If we look inward we may find the key. _____________________________________________________

Metta Meditation, or Loving-Kindness Meditation is based on the understanding that all beings capable of feeling can experience both good and bad, and that all such sentient beings, given the choice, would choose the former rather than the latter. In fact, that’s the definition of “metta” in the Buddhist tradition. Basically, it’s saying that everything that can appreciate the distinction between “good” and “bad” experiences would rather have what they feel is a “good” experience. Meditation based on this idea assists us in cultivation (or Bhavana) of feelings of love and warmth towards not only ourselves and those whom we know and love dearly, but also extending that love, compassion, and warmth to those whom we do not know; including those towards whom we feel conflict and lack of compassion, those that we don’t know at all (e.g. refugees), and those toward whom we feel indifferent (strangers, people whom we do not interact with in any way whatsoever). I’m going to offer up an explanation of this simple meditation practice, beginning with a script:

As with all meditations, I encourage you to find a place where you can be alone, a place where you can concentrate. Find this place and sit with natural relaxation. Breathe deep and feel the air going into your body. Do this for 2-3 minutes, and begin the meditation when you feel ready.

May I feel happy and peaceful, May I feel healthy and safe

May my loved ones feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May those who are suffering feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May those whom I don’t like feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May WE ALL be happy and peaceful, may we be healthy and safe

I practice this meditation and have led it in a group setting on numerous occasions, using a plethora of different scripts before writing my own that I felt was easiest to remember and recite. You can find other examples of the script anywhere online, but I think the words hold power regardless. Here is an explanation of the form: 


This is directing the compassion and love towards ourselves. We must start within if we  intend to send love out to others. There must be an immense sense of self-compassion and nonjudgement before we can effectively send compassion out to others, especially towards those towards whom we harbor deep feelings of anger, fear, or resentment. Although this can sometimes be quite difficult, we start here. Cultivate a love for yourself. Understand the true nobility of your Self so that you can see it in others. As you say these words imagine yourself experiencing them deeply.

My loved ones:

When you are reciting this phrase bring to mind someone towards whom you feel an easy and natural affection: your partner or spouse, your children, a respected teacher, a dear friend, even your pet. Imagine them experiencing the words, picturing their face and all the things you love about them. Hold this love deeply inside yourself and let it warm your being. Often the easiest step, sending well-wishes comes quite naturally to us and so we let it fuel our love for every sentient thing that comes after. You may substitute the name of a particular loved one if you wish.

Those who are suffering:

All the bad news, all the pain we are watching and reading about, within our closest circles and throughout the entire world, causes us to feel helpless, hopeless, and dejected. Do something about it. Send this line to all the world’s suffering: both those at home as well as those unknown faces abroad. To the strangers on the train with saddened, share-cropper eyes,  to the neighbor next door who lost their job, to the refugee struggling to escape a violent war in order to live a life of peace. Imagine them all, one by one, experiencing happiness, peace, health, and safety. You may experience warmth from this, hold it close. It is a dear part of you. You may substitute the name of a particular person, or group of people, if you wish.

Those who you don’t like :

Jesus of Nazareth was no stranger to loving his enemies: “But I tell you love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt. 5:44). Great figures throughout our time have held compassion for those who would harm them in some way, recognizing the power this has to not only change the enemy, but more importantly to change the Self from within. When we choose to have compassion for our enemies we take their power away. Picture those with whom you have a troubled or disturbed relationship.  Make sure it is not someone who triggers some type of trauma response, make your choice reasonable. It is antithetical to the point if you are re-traumatizing yourself, and we don’t want that to happen. Recite this line, imagining them feeling the words as deep as your loved ones or yourself. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the meditation and that is OK, it doesn’t have to be easy. Perhaps it will get easier in time, perhaps not. If it gets easier try and move towards imagining you loving your enemies, you comforting them and keeping them safe. If this practice becomes too difficult, move backwards and begin reciting the “I” line again, then move on to reciting the “We” phrasing. You may substitute the particular name of a person or group if you wish.


In this phrasing the point is to hold all of sentient existence with love and warmth. Our intention is to send all these wishes of well-being to all who can feel them. It doesn’t matter if the people are “good” people or “bad” people; they all have the same right to happiness and growth. Hold yourself, your loved ones, completely strangers, and enemies with this compassion.

Throughout the meditation it is important that you picture the phrases coming to life. Picture yourself feeling loved, picture those who are suffering experiencing relief, picture the person at work that you just can’t stand, looking healthy. Hold these images, the words in the phrases, and the sensation of your breath in the forefront of your experience and allow your muscles to relax and your heart to soften. Run through each phrasing at least 10 times before moving on. I use a traditional Mala (a string of beads) to help me keep track. If you find yourself overwhelmed you can always anchor yourself back to your breath, and stay with it as long as you’d like. _____________________________________________________

I was discussing this meditation several years ago with a friend of mine. He said that when he is feeling low, anxious, or angry he goes to the mountains that border Albuquerque and does “hundreds” of loving-kindness recitations. He says that he inevitably feels better when he leaves and heads back into the city. The sense of loving and accepting yourself unconditionally, then transferring that love to all living things that are found both inside and outside your consciousness is transformative. There is far more power in love than in fear. There is more strength in peace than in violence. This applies not only to the physical world around us, but also the spiritual world that is within all of us. Nurturing love instead of fear, and peace instead of violence: this is the path to healing. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s