How Metta Meditations Can Help You Cultivate Compassion

Because we could all use some loving kindness

<p>Verywell Mind / Getty Images</p>

Verywell Mind / Getty Images

When you think of “meditation,” you might picture yourself sitting cross-legged in a dark, quiet room, trying to clear your mind. If this seems difficult to you, you might want to try metta meditation. Based on repeating mantras of “loving-kindness,” metta meditation is a more active way of improving your relationship with yourself and others. Read on to learn more about metta meditation.

What Is Metta Meditation?

Metta meditation, also known as loving-kindness meditation, focuses on cultivating love, compassion, and feelings of well-being for oneself and others.

Buddha originally taught this kind of meditation over 2600 years ago, and Buddhists still practice it to this day. Loving-kindness meditation is the first part of the Four Brahma Vihara meditations that the Buddha taught to promote positive emotions:

  • Metta (loving-kindness)

  • Karuna (compassion)

  • Mudita (appreciative joy)

  • Uppekha (equanimity)

According to the Buddha, loving-kindness defeats hatred; compassion defeats cruelty; appreciative joy defeats envy; and all of these lead to equanimity, or serenity.


The goal of metta meditation is to feel unconditional love for all living things. “Metta” can also mean “universal friendliness.” This emphasizes the general goodwill toward all beings that is the point of metta meditation, with no expectation of reciprocity from those you wish well. 

But you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice metta meditation—anyone can do it.

Related: How to Raise Your Self-Awareness Through Vipassana Meditation

Benefits of Metta Meditation

Metta meditation promotes positive feelings like joy, trust, gratitude, happiness, and compassion—all of which, according to metta meditation practice, you’re supposed to feel unconditionally for yourself and others. This leads to more appreciation of, acceptance of, and compassionate love for you and those around you.

Specifically, metta meditation can:

  • Promote self-compassion

  • Decrease anxiety and stress

  • Be incorporated into cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat depression and social anxiety

  • Help reduce symptoms of mood disorders

  • Reduce physical and chronic pain

  • Enhance social connections


Ultimately, practicing loving-kindness leads to a better relationship with yourself and others. 

When you love yourself, it’s also easier to love others. Cultivating loving kindness and compassion toward yourself and others makes it easier to accept and forgive mistakes and perceived slights and understand where others are coming from. Treating yourself with loving kindness can lead to less frustration, guilt, and self-blame when things go wrong. It also allows you to connect with your inner strengths and recognize your good qualities.

“Metta helps us to cultivate a sense of self-compassion,” explains Karla Helbert, licensed professional counselor and meditation expert. “It can be particularly helpful for people who struggle with an unkind, critical, or judgmental inner voice. It can also be helpful for those who may struggle with anger or difficulty forgiving others."

“Those who live with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress or grief can also benefit a great deal from this type of meditation,” Helbert says, “as the practice can help us to develop a kinder and more accepting relationship with ourselves just as we are. Many who live with these kinds of challenges can often be self-critical or even self-loathing, and this practice can help us find a softer, kinder lens through which to view and experience ourselves.” 

Getting Started With Metta Meditation

It’s very easy to start your metta meditation practice:

  • First, sit in a comfortable and relaxed position.

  • Take two or three deep breaths to center yourself—feel or imagine your breath moving through your chest, around your heart area.

  • Acknowledge any stress or negative feelings you might be holding on to, and try to let them go.

Loving Kindness Toward Yourself

Address yourself first. Choose a mantra of loving kindness to repeat to yourself as you breathe. It could be something like, “May I feel happy. May I be at peace. May I be safe.” Anything works as long as it’s sending positive thoughts and feelings to yourself.


Focus on the intention of accepting yourself and loving yourself.

Connect to any feelings of warmth, love, and friendliness as they arise. If negative feelings come up first, that’s OK—accept them and try to move past them to a place of self-compassion. If it helps, you can hold an image of yourself in your mind’s eye to remind you to focus on yourself, which helps reinforce the positive phrases you are repeating to yourself.

Loving Kindness Toward Someone You Love

After you’ve connected to self-compassion, turn your attention to someone you love—a friend or family member (not someone with whom you are in a romantic relationship). Change your mantra to the second person and address your loved one directly. For example, “May you feel happy. May you be at peace. May you be safe.”


Focus on the intention of accepting and loving your loved one. Connect to those same feelings of warmth, love, and friendliness that you felt for yourself, but now related to your loved one. 

Loving Kindness Toward Someone Neutral

Next, think of someone with whom you have a neutral relationship—perhaps a coworker or a shopkeeper you see often.

The point of this step is to expand your positive feelings past your inner circle and practice loving-kindness with those who have not necessarily actively made your life better. (This is where the concept of “universal friendliness” comes in.)

Again, repeat your mantra with these people in mind: “May you feel happy. May you be at peace. May you be safe.”

Loving Kindness Toward a Challenging Relationship

The next step is to imagine someone with whom you have a negative or challenging relationship and address them with your loving-kindness mantra. Repeat your mantra until you are able to feel compassion for them. This takes you one step further to feeling unconditional loving-kindness for all.

Loving Kindness Toward All Beings


Finally, turn your attention to the universe and all beings within it.

Change your mantra to include yourself and everyone—”May we all feel happy. May we all be at peace. May we all be safe.” This is the final step of practicing loving-kindness literally universally.

How Do You Perform Metta?

Traditional metta meditation involves reciting loving-kindness phrases. First you address yourself, then you address someone you love, then someone who is neutral to you, then someone with whom you have some conflict, and then all sentient beings in the universe.

Your loving-kindness phrases can involve anything positive that you wish for yourself and others—safe, happy, loved, protected, healthy, strong, etc. Shift from “May I be…” to “May you be…” to “May we all be…”


This is, of course, the ultimate goal of metta meditation—to connect you with the world, for all its good and bad, in a way that helps you appreciate and love anyone and everyone.

But you can start small. Maybe finding compassion for yourself is difficult, and you can’t move beyond that at first; work on loving yourself first, and practice that self-love for as long as it takes for you to be comfortable and at peace with yourself. Then, you can move on to the other steps.

Take as long as you need in each step. The point is not to move quickly from one step to another; the point is to truly connect with compassion and loving-kindness within yourself and others. Be patient and understanding with yourself as you attempt this difficult feat.

Visualizations and Imagery

Visualizations and imagery in metta meditation can be helpful to your practice. As you address yourself, you can hold an image of yourself in your mind. You can imagine a light emanating from you—perhaps from your heart center—and then that light encircling you. This can help you focus on your meditation and keep you centered as you practice your mantra.

As you progress through your meditation, you can imagine someone sitting across from you and then imagine that light encircling them as well; your meditation can end with sending the light out to encircle all beings and then into the universe.

Adapting for Different Situations and Individuals

Metta meditation is not fixed—you can easily adapt it to suit your individual circumstances. For instance, you might not yet be in a place where you can be kind to yourself, much less someone else. In this case, focus on acknowledging and accepting the negative feelings that arise and trying to counter them with your loving-kindness mantras. You can spend as long as you need on this part of your meditation.

You might have a particular person with whom you have a conflict that you would like to resolve within yourself. In this case, focus on sending them light, compassion, and acceptance. Again, take as long as you need; the point is to reach a place of true loving-kindness, whatever that looks like to you.

In addition, an active meditation like this one—where you repeat mantras and focus on specific feelings and emotional actions—can be beneficial to those who struggle with more conventional meditation. You might find metta meditation easier than a meditation that requires you to try to clear your mind. This is a good practice for beginners who need more guidance.

Related: Meditation Facts: Why You Don't Have to Clear Your Mind

Overcoming Challenges in Metta Meditation

Sometimes, difficult feelings like sadness, anger, or grief can come up during your metta meditation. That’s OK. Try not to judge yourself when this happens. Feeling those feelings means you are getting in touch with your emotions, which is always good. This might sound contradictory but try to be compassionate with yourself for not having compassion with yourself.


If you can, treat these feelings with respect—accept them, be patient with them, and show yourself kindness for feeling them. This is how you move forward in your loving-kindness meditation.

Similarly, you might find yourself getting “stuck” in any of the phases of your metta meditation. You might not be able to access kind and loving feelings for certain people just yet. That’s OK, too. The point is to work up to being able to love yourself and others at every stage—work with yourself and be patient with yourself until you can get there with honesty and without judgment.


There might be people in your life whom you cannot forgive or think well of. Metta meditation does not expect you to immediately let go of these feelings—in fact, it asks you to face them head-on.

If there is someone in your life who you cannot imagine ever sending loving-kindness to, don’t start your meditation addressing them. Work up to it. Practicing with other people about whom you do not feel as strongly can help you reach a place where you can include those who have seriously hurt you. But don’t beat yourself up if you can’t.

“Like all types of meditation, the practitioner may encounter internal obstacles with metta,” Helbert explains. “Some find it difficult to accept loving-kindness from one's self, may feel cynical toward the idea, or feel that it is too overly optimistic or even saccharine, but as with other kinds of meditation, the more we practice, the more we see the benefit.”

Related: 5 Meditation Techniques to Get You Started

Integrating Metta Meditation Into Daily Life

The key to metta meditation is consistency and repetition. If you can make time for a sit-down meditation once or a few times a day or a few times a week, that’s ideal; however, even if you only meditate occasionally, maybe once a week or even just when you are feeling particularly down on yourself, you can still reap the benefits of loving-kindness meditation. Just a few minutes repeated regularly can do the trick.

You can also actively practice metta meditation when you find yourself in certain situations, such as when you are having trouble with a coworker or a boss. Take a moment, when you can, to send compassion to yourself and to them in order to approach what might be a tense and fraught circumstance calmly and empathetically. This sets you up for both compassion for yourself when dealing with a difficult situation and compassion for the other people involved.

Keep in Mind

The core of metta meditation is understanding and compassion. By practicing loving-kindness mantras that focus on your well-being, the well-being of others, and an unconditional friendliness towards all living things (including yourself), you can tackle difficult feelings like stress and anxiety and improve your social relationships by sending mantras of happiness, understanding, and peace out into the world.

Related: How to Practice Gratitude Meditation for Daily Well-Being

Frequently Asked Questions

How often do I need to practice metta meditation for it to work?

Consistency is important. Aim for once a day or a few times a week. And it doesn’t need to be a long meditation either—fitting even a few minutes regularly into your schedule can be helpful. If you practice your metta meditation regularly, you’re more likely to see its benefits.

What if I'm having trouble getting started?

If you’re having trouble jumping right into your metta meditation, that’s ok. To start, pick a mantra that feels the most accessible to you and begin with focusing just on yourself. Practice that mantra until it feels true to you (the old “fake it til you make it”), and then you can expand into including others in your metta meditation practice. Acknowledging and forgiving yourself for negative thoughts and feelings is the first step.

Read the original article on Verywell Mind.