Breaking Down the Barriers

The Pali word bhāvanā is usually translated as meditation. For most people the word meditation evokes the idea of going into solitude, closing the eyes, sitting cross-legged and doing some kind of mental exercise. However, bhāvanā need not have such associations or conjure up such images. It simply means “to develop”, “to cultivate” or “to increase”. Although the Buddha himself occasionally used the term mettā bhāvanā, it is more commonly found in the Buddhist tradition and is usually translated as loving-kindness meditation or as mettā meditation. These are completely legitimate translations although they could give the impression that the only way to cultivate or enhance mettā is to go into solitude, sit crossed-legged with the eyes closed and do something with the mind. If we were to get this idea we might come to think of mettā as something passive, a purely contemplative exercise, done in the privacy of our own mind and in isolation from others. In reality one can, as the Buddha said, “practise and develop mettā, emphasise and master it, make it a foundation and set it in motion, familiarise oneself with it and establish it firmly” [1] in several different ways. Two of the most effective things we can do to encourage the flourishing of mettā in our hearts are to practise Metta Meditation and to act in ways indicative of mettā.

Metta Meditation is practised by sitting quietly and thinking of oneself, a loved one, a neutral person, a disliked person and then either someone in distress or all beings in general, and radiating a blessing towards each of them in turn. “Radiating” means evoking certain thoughts, intentions and wishes and then focusing them on a particular person. [2] In some ways Metta Meditation resembles prayer, although prayer is addressed to a deity while Metta Meditation arouses the power of the positive thoughts and aspirations and these cause the transformation. (See Appendix I)

Being relatively simple and uncomplicated it would be easy to get the impression that Metta Meditation is just a superficial feel-good technique or an exercise in sentimentality. It could well be done in such a manner but when done properly and with sincerity it can bring about the most profound and positive changes. Buddhists have long believed that Metta Meditation not only transforms the person who does it but even the people towards whom it is done. It is believed to bring loved ones closer, cause neutral people to become more approachable and friendly, make annoying or disliked people less so, and sometimes even ease the distress of those who are suffering. The experiences of many people seem to confirm this belief.

The traditional explanation for Metta Meditation’s transformative effect on others is that the “mental vibrations” or “energy” of the kind thoughts and good wishes are actually picked up by the individuals they are directed towards and that this affects them. There are of course other ways of explaining this phenomenon. Extending kind and loving wishes towards someone we are close to requires us to think of them a little more deliberately and in a more focused manner than usual, and doing so might remind us of just how special they are to us. Perhaps we have been taking our relationship with them for granted of late. Maybe it has been some time since we bothered to tell them or show them how much we love and appreciate them. Including them in our Metta Meditation can renew and reinvigorate our connections with them, and they will notice this and respond accordingly.

Radiating kind wishes towards a neutral person requires us to think about those we come into contact with often but have really never bothered to relate to on anything other than at the most superficial level. After including them in our meditation for a while we might find ourselves paying a little more attention to them next time we meet, spending a little more time getting to know them. It is likely that they will notice this and respond accordingly. Even if the two of us eventually have nothing in common and a friendship between us never develops, at least some congeniality between us might grow.

When we do not like someone we may let them know, if not by what we say then by how we act. However, except where there is strong dislike, common politeness and proprietary usually make us keep our real feelings under wraps or camouflaged. Even then the person we do not like can sense our antagonism or read our body language. If so, our presence makes them feel uncomfortable, tense and perhaps provokes a degree of hostility towards us. If we have spent time radiating kindly thoughts and wishes towards that person, our feelings about them gradually change. The lowering of our negative feelings invites a similar reaction from them and leads to a spiralling down of tensions. We may not end up becoming friends, but at least the negativities between us may be eased. Where mutual hostility is absent the possibility of a closer relationship is always present.

As with faith healing, there is little objective evidence that doing Metta Meditation can make a sick person better. However, when someone knows that others are thinking of them and are concerned for their welfare, this may well make them feel better which in turn may assist them in actually getting better. In Sri Lanka I once witnessed a remarkable example of a long-term physical problem being cured partly through Metta Meditation. A woman had been confined to her bed for over two years and could hardly walk any more. Doctors and others had tried to get her legs working but without success. Finally, as a last resort, her family organised the monks from the local monastery to chant all night for her, a common healing ritual in Sri Lanka. While the monks did their chanting the whole extended family and some of the neighbours as well did Metta Meditation for the woman. In the morning, to everyone’s surprise and relief she got out of her bed and began walking again, albeit with great difficulty. Within ten days she was hobbling around unaided and a month later she was back to normal.

Later I found out the background of this case. The woman’s problems had begun when her young son had fallen into a well and drowned. Overcome by grief she took to her bed, sobbing for the first week, then moping and finally just lying there depressed and with no interest in doing anything. Because her family looked after her needs, she continued lying on her bed until the muscles in her legs withered and she could no longer walk, even if she wanted to. It seems that knowing that her family and friends were deeply concerned that she recover had awakened her wish to finally put aside her grief and return to her normal life. There is no doubt that a healing like this would be considered “just psychological” by doctors. Nonetheless, it came about through people doing Metta Meditation.

Now let us say something about the structure of Metta Meditation. First we start by radiating blessings and kind wishes to ourselves. It is surprising how many people meet with resistance when they do this. A strict religious upbringing, overly demanding parents, having done or thinking one has done something immoral or shameful, can leave a person with a legacy of self-depreciation. Whatever its cause, low self-esteem is destructive to a person’s mental well-being. In Buddhist psychology healthy self-love is seen as a positive thing. The Buddha and the Buddhist tradition used several words for this attitude (attapiya, attasambhāvanā, attābhimāna, and attakāma), each of them translatable as self-love or self-respect and all of them equivalent to what is called self-esteem in modern psychology.

It is quite difficult to translate these Pali terms into English without them giving them slightly negative connotations. Any word or term one chooses always suggests smugness or vanity. The Western religious tradition has tended to emphasise the idea of seeing oneself as sinful and unworthy and while less notice is taken of this idea nowadays, its influence lingers. For some people it has been replaced by feelings of inadequacy due to their inability to live up to the values of an intensely competitive society: being popular, successful, first, “a winner”, or “ahead of the pack”. It has become something of a cliché to say that it is difficult to love others if you cannot love yourself, but it is true and it needs repeating. [3] The Buddha saw a close connection between having a healthy self-love and treating others with respect, kindness and consideration. “Having mentally surveyed the four directions you will find no-one more loved than yourself. Likewise, others love themselves. Therefore, whoever truly loves themself should do no harm to others.” [4]

The ability to relate positively to our fellows depends to some extent on imagination. But just as important is a thoughtful and clear awareness of what is really in our own best interest and then drawing an inference from this about others. The Buddha asked us to think: “As am I so are others. As are others so am I.” [5] Healthy self-love is not selfishness as it is usually understood. Selfish people think nothing of disadvantaging others in order to get what they want. Even when they enter into a cooperative relationship they are still looking for ploys to get the most benefit out of it. Others are of interest only to the degree that they can be taken advantage of. The selfish person impoverishes themself, if not in the material sense then certainly in terms of their inner life, their character, their relationships and probably their happiness too. Ultimately, the selfish are alone in the world whereas the loving have some emotional bridges to others. People who genuinely love themselves see the interests of others as intimately connected with their own. The Greeks knew healthy self-love as oikeiosis, an inner-directed awareness and concern that naturally leads to similar attitudes to others. Jean-Jacques Rousseau called it amour de soi.

The Buddha put it this way: “Who loves themself and who is their own worst enemy? Those whose thoughts, speech and actions are evil, they are their own worst enemy. Even if they were to say: ‘We love ourselves’, nevertheless they would still be their own worst enemy. And why? Because that which one would do to an enemy they do to themselves. Those whose thoughts, speech and actions are good, love themselves. Even if they were to say: ‘We are our own worst enemy’, nevertheless they would still love themselves. And why? Because they act towards themselves the way one who loves them would.” [6]

Self-depreciation and being overly or persistently self-critical are thought habits that can be changed as can other habits. If we notice ourselves resisting blessing ourselves or feeling uncomfortable while doing so, we should not worry too much about it. Patiently persisting with Metta Meditation will make such feelings gradually subside. As the Buddha said: “Whatever one ponders on and thinks about often the mind in consequence gets a leaning in that way.” [7]

The next step in Metta Meditation is calling to mind someone we are close to, a parent or grandparent, sibling, spouse or good friend. Almost everyone finds this easy.

After this we think of a neutral person. This could be a colleague to whom we give a perfunctory greeting or smile when we meet, but nothing more. It could be the people who live two houses from us, the lady at the corner store or the old gentleman we often see at the bus stop. If we are an average person our feelings towards the majority of those we come into contact with could probably be described as neutral or indifferent. We know nothing of them, care nothing for them and until now have never thought that it should be different. The Buddha spoke of endeavouring to have “a mind with the barriers broken down” (cetasā vimariyādikata). [8] Not all the psychological barriers that keep us from kindly relations with others are the result of ill-will or prejudice, suspicion or self-preoccupation. Sometimes they are there simply because they have developed without us noticing and we have never thought of removing them. Many people have had this experience: having occasional contact with someone for years but never really getting to know them, then having circumstance bring them together (e.g. working on some project or dealing with some emergency), discovering that they have much in common, becoming friends, and then being surprised that they did not really get to know each other earlier.

Sometimes we pay no attention to someone until they are in the midst of a crisis, and only then do we attempt to get closer to them. Just recently a friend told me that in the office where she worked a man in the next department died and there was a collection to buy a wreath for his funeral. Like most others she was glad to make a contribution, but then thought what a pity it was that she had never got to know him in the years they worked so near to each other. She knew him by face and his first name but nothing else. Later she found out that like her, he had been a regular meditator and that they would have probably had much they could have talked about and shared with each other. Sometimes two members of a family become estranged and have no contact with each other for decades. Then one becomes critically ill or is dying, the other comes to see them and a reconciliation takes place. What a pity that a crisis, an impending death or a funeral is needed before the barriers between people are dismantled.

It is good to mention that in our attempts to pull down the mental barriers that shut us off from others, we may encounter people who do not want any relationship with us. Some people will have no interest in our friendliness. They are reserved, private and want to be left alone, for whatever reason. If our friendly overtures are disregarded or not reciprocated we should respect the person’s wishes and leave them alone.

Having blessed a neutral person, we move on and think of someone we do not like. Many of us have strong dislike, perhaps even strong enough to qualify as hatred, towards one or two people. Then there will probably be a fairly long parade of others who just annoy us, strain our patience, or whose company we politely endure and then grumble about behind their backs. Mentally listing such people in order to select one to radiate blessings towards can be very salutary. We might be surprised and a little ashamed by how many such people there are. Reflecting on why we do not like them might be salutary too. We might have to admit to ourselves that our dislike of them is due more to our petty-mindedness or our egos than anything they have done or failed to do to us. Whatever the case, we select one of the people we dislike and radiate blessings towards them.

Finally, we either call to mind someone we know or know of who is suffering, or we radiate our blessings to all beings in general. In this first alternative it could be someone close to us, the friend of a friend we have been told about, or even a person or a group of people we have come to know about from the newspaper or television.

Having looked at what might be called the contemplative or passive way to cultivate mettā, let us consider the second, active or dynamic way, what the Buddha referred to as cultivating loving acts of speech and of body (mettena vacī kammena and mettena kāya kammena). [9]

The Buddha said that the “mind is bound up with and dependent on” the body, [10] which means that the state of one can have an impact on the other. Certain thoughts and attitudes prompt certain types of behaviour. For example, a spiteful attitude is likely to manifest itself as speech and actions others find hurtful. It goes the other way too. Certain behaviours prompt certain thoughts and attitudes. Verbal and bodily actions indicative of kindness encourage and foster kindly thoughts and dispositions. Thus another way we can encourage and awaken mettā is by acting towards others in ways usually thought of as kindly and loving.

Here are some examples of how this can be done. Walking down the street you see a driver trying to park his car in a narrow space between two other cars so you stop and help him guide his car into the space. You are at the supermarket checkout counter and notice that the person behind you has only two or three items while you have many. You invite her to go in front of you. Municipal workers are digging up a drain in the street outside your house. It is a hot afternoon so you prepare a jug of ice water or fruit juice and take it out to them. You are at the post office, the woman in the queue in front of you is rummaging through her purse for the extra $1.50 she needs to pay for her purchases, then she goes through her pockets. You can see that she does not have enough so you offer her the extra she needs. A new family moves into the house just down the street so you go and visit them, introduce yourself, welcome them and ask if there is anything you can assist them with. You pass two people in the street scrutinising a map, obviously trying to find their way. You approach them and offer to give them directions.

Recently while on a quick trip to Malaysia I met up again with someone I had first got to know several years previously, a well-informed and devout Buddhist. We were talking about meditation and I asked him if he did Metta Meditation. He replied that he did it all the time. “You do it in the standard way I suppose?” I asked. “No, I never do it like that,” he said, and I looked at him inquiringly. “Well, I cultivate mettā by acting with mettā. I have found that being kind draws more mettā out of me than any meditation technique does.” Now I really focused on what he was saying. “That sounds interesting,” I said. “Describe what you mean.”

To understand something of what follows, it is necessary to know that at that time there was a shortage of taxis in Kuala Lumpur. As a result, many ordinary commuters were using their cars as taxis. For example, people wanting to get to Petraling Jaya would congregate at certain places and any drivers going that way would pick them up and take them in that direction. They charged a fee which helped cover their fuel costs, and their passengers got home quicker than they would have otherwise. It was illegal but it was commonly done.

My friend described what he meant. “Well for example, about two weeks ago my wife asked me to pick her up at the supermarket at our usual place and time. I arrived a little early, parked on the side of the road with the engine running and waited. While sitting there I noticed an elderly woman on crutches come out of a doctor’s clinic just up the road from me. She hobbled to the side of the road and began trying to hail a taxi. I watched her for a moment and then said to myself: ‘If she’s still there when my wife comes I’m going to take her wherever she wants to go’. Soon my wife came, I told her what I intended to do, she somewhat reluctantly agreed and I drove up to the old lady, opened the back door and bid her to get in. I asked her where she wanted to go, which happened to be pretty much the opposite direction we were headed, and we drove off. When we arrived the lady got out and asked me how much she owed me. I said: ‘Nothing. It’s okay.’ She looked around for a moment and said: ‘It’s alright, no-one’s looking. How much?’ I told her I wasn’t acting as a private taxi and that I had taken her home simply because I wanted to help her. When she realised that what I was saying was true she was very surprised. She thanked me profusely and then my wife and I drove home. That’s how I cultivate mettā.”

Hearing my friend’s way of “cultivating” mettā was more than just a pleasant surprise; it moved and inspired me. I could see that it was having an effect on him too. He was a softly-spoken, modest and unassuming person. Later, I gave some thought to the effects his actions might have had on others. It may have encouraged the old lady he helped to be less selfish, less cynical, more thankful and kindly. I could imagine that she had told her family about what this stranger had done for her and that it had inspired them to be more kindly and thoughtful too. Perhaps this could be seen as another way of “radiating” mettā.

Noticing when we can be of service to others, even in small ways, and then doing what we can for them does not just nudge our mettā awake, it also arouses many of the best social virtues too. The Buddha said that thinking, speaking and acting with mettā encouraged “respect and helpfulness, agreement, harmony and unity”. [11]

If anything, how we speak can have an even more important role to play than our actions do in cultivating and encouraging mettā. Snide comments, put-downs, racial slurs, making fun of people or casting aspersions on them, all create an atmosphere of negativity and exclusion. The Buddha dubbed this sort of thing “stabbing others with the weapon of the tongue”. [12] This colourful idiom is reminiscent of such English phrases as “sharp language”, “cutting speech” and “character assassination”. It is also one that well describes the potentially destructive impact our words can have. By contrast, the Buddha described positive and skilful speech as “pleasing to the ear”, “going to the heart” and “worthy of being treasured up”. [13] To hold back from vituperation or backbiting when we might otherwise be tempted or provoked to do so indicates a commitment to kindly restraint. To build others up by encouraging them, praising their genuine strengths and achievements and affirming their value, is love transmitted through sound. More than that, such speech has the ability to bring out the best in people. Beyond one-on-one interaction positive and skilful speech is significant in the wider society. The Buddha identified loving speech (peyyavajja or piyavācā) as one of the four bases of community, those qualities that that bring people together in harmony and goodwill, and that pre-empt friction between them or sooth it when it does occur. [14]

In recent years the phrase “random acts of kindness” has become popular and has led to the founding of several organisations promoting the concept and even the designation of certain days for being kind. Some might see such things as well-meaning but cheesy and shallow, self-indulgent even. Buddhaghosa observed that each of the Brahma Viharas had what he called “near enemies” (āsanna paccatthika), very good copies but lacking the originals’ depth, strength and authenticity. [15] Sentimentality would certainly qualify as a near enemy of mettā. However, it is not always easy to determine exactly where genuine efforts to be more loving and kind end and mawkish sentimentality begins. If we are mindful and aware we should be able to distinguish between the two.


  1. A.V,342. [back]
  2. Pharati or vyāpeti, to pervade, radiate or project. [back]
  3. See Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving, p.53 ff, and Irving Singer’s Meaning in Life, 2010, p.143-4 for some interesting thoughts on this subject. [back]
  4. The term for loving oneself here is attanā piyataro, S.I,75. [back]
  5. Sn.705. [back]
  6. S.I,72. [back]
  7. M.I,115. [back]
  8. A.V,151; S.II,173; III,31; IV,11; Vism.307. [back]
  9. D.II,144. [back]
  10. ettha sitaṃ ettha paṭibaddhaṃ, D.I,76. [back]
  11. piyakaraṇā garukaraṇā sangahāya avivādāya sāmaggiyā ekībhāvāya, e.g. A.III,288; M.I,322; III,250. [back]
  12. aññamaññaṃ mukhasattīhi vitudantā, M.I,320. [back]
  13. kaṇṇa sukhā, hadayaṃ gamā and nidhānavatiṃ, D.I,4. [back]
  14. The others bases of community (saṅgaha vatthū) are generosity (dāna), doing good to others (atthacariyā) and treating them impartially (samānattatā); see A.II,32; IV,219; 364; D.III,152). [back]
  15. Vism.318-9. [back]