Lovingkindness [metta]

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Metta or "lovingkindness," is the first of the brahma-viharas.

Here, monks, a disciple dwells pervading one direction with his heart filled with loving-kindness, likewise the second, the third, and the fourth directions; so above, below and around; he dwells pervading the entire world everywhere and equally with his heart filled with loving-kindness, abundant, grown great, measureless, free from enmity, and free from distress.

In the lessons that follow you will learn how the others—compassion, sympathetic joy, an equanimity—grow out of metta, which supports and extends these states.

The words we use in English to designate the brahma-viharas can have a significant affect on our relation to and attitudes about these qualities.

The common translation for metta is “lovingkindness”.

What does lovingkindness mean to you?
What is your first response to hearing this word?
Is lovingkindness something you experience? In yourself? In others?

Let’s look at other words we might use to convey the meaning of metta.


Sometimes metta is translated as “love.”

What connotations does “love’ have for you?

In our culture, when we talk about love, we usually mean either passion or sentimentality. So it is crucial to distinguish metta from both of these states


By laying just the tiny, thin little veneer of sentimentality on top of what are very conflicted feelings of pain, anger, sadness or grief, we try to pretend they’re not there. It is a facsimile of caring that limits itself only to experiences of pleasure like looking through the lens of a camera that has been smeared with a little Vaseline, sentimentality puts things into what is called "soft focus." We cannot see the rough edges, the trouble spots, or the defects. Everything appears just too nice.

Sentimentality finds pain unbearable and so rejects it, thus provoking and sustaining a splitting off of parts of ourselves. To avoid feeling pain, we shut out crucial portions of awareness, even though this closing off this internal separation, is deadening.

Metta certainly does not mean this.

This kind of fear or anxiety leads people to say, “I don’t know if I want to have a loving heart, because if I developed a loving heart, I’d be an idiot. I would let myself be hurt or abused or tyrannized and I would smile that Miss Kentucky smile. Or I would allow other people to be hurt or oppressed or abused, and just smile, because I’m developing lovingkindness rather than taking any sort of action.”

Somebody once told me that he absolutely detested metta practice because it reminded him of a continually enforced Valentine’s Day, like, “On the count of three, you will now be filled with love…”

Does the thought of lovingkindness practice engender this kind of fear in you? Do you associate lovingkindness with shallowness or weakness? Are there reservations of this kind that come up for you?


Not surprisingly we often confuse love with passion. Passion is enmeshed with feelings of desire, of wanting or of owning and possessing.

Passion gets entangled with needing things to be a certain way, with having our expectations met. Interestingly the word passion derives from the Latin word for "suffering." Wanting and expectation inevitably entail suffering.

Do you confuse or equate love with passion? Reflect on how love for you becomes enmeshed with longing and possessing

Like water poured from one vessel to another, metta flows freely, taking the shape of each situation without changing its essence.

Certainly metta doesn’t mean this kind of passion. The spirit of metta is unconditional: open and unobstructed. A friend may disappoint us—she may not meet our expectations—but we do not stop being a friend to her. We may in fact disappoint ourselves, may not meet our own expectations, but we do not cease to be a friend to ourselves.

A medium of exchange

Once I used this example and somebody raised their hand and said, “Only 15?”

An expectation of exchange underlies most passion: "I will love you as long as you get better, according to my agenda."

Does this resonate with you? Reflect on the ways your love is conditional, is a medium of exchange. Reflect on the ways your love is a mechanism for receiving something.

Can you see how fragile and ultimately defeating this kind of love is? How interlaced with disappointment it inevitably is ? We can see how fleeting it is; conditions change and we realize, “Oh – that didn’t work out quite the way I wanted it to”.

Metta refers to something much more sustaining; something that isn’t going to be broken; isn’t going to be shattered, through the winds of change, through the natural ups and downs that make up a life.