Can’t Pray? Try Metta Instead

A humanist how-to guide to the loving-kindness meditation known as metta.

Young Woman Meditating on the FloorThe call to “love thy neighbor” is a noble sentiment and one that secular humanists can support. The hard part is figuring out how to love someone you quite dislike.

That’s where loving-kindness meditation comes in. It’s a practice also known as metta, which comes from a word in the Pali language of ancient India that means friendliness or loving-kindness. This meditation practice, derived from Buddhism, is done regularly at the Humanist Community at Harvard University. Modified with secular instructions, the meditation is suitable for people of no religion or any religion.

From the humanist perspective, metta practice is simply a technique to trick your brain into caring about someone you may not have cared for before. Here’s how it works.

Step one

With eyes closed, you bring to mind a benefactor, someone for whom you have warm feelings. You express your good will toward that person in words that stir your emotions. The traditional wording, as presented by the Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in her book Loving-Kindness, sounds a bit like a prayer, so in the humanist version, people silently say: 

I’d like her [or him]

to be safe,

to be healthy,

to be happy,

to be at ease in the world.

These words don’t have magical powers that reach across space, but they do have the power to change your brain. The first thing you notice when you think these words is that it feels really good. Even though that person is not present, you begin to feel the warm glow of an emotional connection.

Step two

The next person you express warm wishes to is yourself. Though people tend to be self-conscious about this, there’s nothing wrong with caring for yourself:

I’d like

to be safe,

to be healthy,

to be happy,

to be at ease in the world.

Pagan_meditationStep three

Turn your attention toward someone whom you do not love. Start with someone you barely give a second thought to — the person who served you coffee this morning at Dunkin’ Donuts. Think about that person and repeat the metta phrases. Because of the emotion built up in prior steps, you may feel a surprising amount of warmth toward this person.

Step four

Now comes the challenging part. You think of a difficult person — perhaps a difficult co-worker — and repeat the metta phrases. Although challenging, this may well soften your feelings toward this person.

This trick most likely works because of lingering effects of hormones, such as oxytocin and vasopressin, that are released in the brain when people feel love and connection. These brain chemicals persist in the brain for minutes after being released. Therefore, when you shift your thoughts from a loved one to a not-so-loved one, these hormones bias your feelings in a positive direction — so much so that the difficult person in your life might not “push your buttons” as much the next time you see him or her.

The purpose of this practice is not to be Pollyannaish and avoid confronting injustice.

On the contrary, with metta, gentle people can confront those who produce suffering while being mindful of their humanity. When we overcome feelings of disgust and hatred toward those with whom we are in conflict, we can deal with them in a more rational manner. That is certainly an appropriate goal for humanists.

Rick Heller
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  • WmarkW

    Good article.
    We need more secular implementations of positive religious experience.