When we talk about learning to love and accept ourselves, I’ve heard some people describe it as coming across as kind of “cheese-ball,” and frankly, it often tends to be. I don’t wish to denigrate the wisdom that holding oneself in a place of respect and kindness is important. In fact, I am here to support and endorse it. After all, how can we truly develop a compassionate, healing presence with others without including ourselves? What I want to do is change the context of what it means to feel love for oneself and how we achieve it.
The kind of self-care that I am espousing is not the kind that involves flowery affirmations that it might feel vaguely ridiculous to say, or visualizing yourself as the hero in your own story. It isn’t about taking yourself sternly in hand and examining your shortcomings and making a “to do” list for self-improvement.
I want to talk about metta. Metta is an ancient word variously translated, most commonly as “loving kindness.” I have grown to prefer “gentle fondness” or “mindful affection.”
It is one of the brahma viharas, or divine abodes – in other words, the ideal ways of being in the world. By cultivating these states of being, we make great strides on the path to cultivating a state of healing presence. Metta is ideal for laying the groundwork for this, since it is a gentle state without a great deal of fire and noise. It is traditional to begin with developing this relationship with oneself.
The cool thing about metta is that it requires so little to get it started – very little by way of preparation or process. It is uncomplicated, and it doesn’t require any special guidance. By repeating a series of somewhat flexible phrases with the intention of directing them toward the object of metta while holding a particular space, metta develops, sometimes in spite of us.
The end reason for developing metta, this softening of the heart in relationship to ourselves, is that it provides fertile ground not only for the development of metta for others, but that it creates a warm, relaxed, receptive environment for us to nurture, examine and respond to all joy and suffering that we witness in those around us. This is what is necessary to embody a healing presence.
Ideally, the first step to cultivating metta is to get to a state of relaxed mindfulness. I have not discussed the value of cultivating mindfulness here, but I see it as an important fundamental. [More information and instructions can be found on my website www.thehealingpresence.com. Click on the “Meditation” tab.]
If you feel the need to just jump into practicing metta, skip this part for now (but I encourage you to return to it later). Just get yourself in a relaxed, seated (not reclining) state. Think of someone or something that makes you feel as if the area of your chest around your heart is softening. Thinking about children and pets is great for this. Just allow yourself to dwell lightly on that object of affection until you feel your chest begin to loosen and open. Now, directing your words and that gentle feeling toward yourself, chant or silently repeat the phrases.
There are many versions of the metta phrases, and almost all of them are good. The most basic is, “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at peace.”
The ones I use are only slightly more complex: “May I be healthy and happy. May I be peaceful and safe. May I live with joy and ease.”
Another approach is to make statements along the lines of: “May I be free from illness and danger. May I be free from hunger and fear…” and so on. Lest those attached to positive visualization take issue with this, I can say that the most profound and productive metta experience I have had came from this approach to the phrases.
If you forget them, a bit of “riffing” is fine. Just remember to keep it simple, heartfelt and emotionally neutral.
Take your time with the phrases. Allow their meaning to settle in. It is possible that you will find yourself deeply moved to tears by this experience. It is equally possible that you will not experience anything immediately notable, but the reverberations of this practice will become apparent at some point not too far down the road. Be gentle with yourself.