The practice of cultivating loving kindness (maitri in Sanskrit and metta in Pali) is a Buddhist approach toward opening one’s heart to others. It is very ancient, very simple, very direct and very effective.
The heart of the practice is generating four positive wishes for all beings:
May you be safe
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you be at ease
We include beings we care for, those we don’t care for, and those we don’t care about. We even include ourselves!
Naturally it’s easier to generate these positive wishes for our parents (in most cases), our children, our pets, our teachers, our friends. In that case maitri or loving kindness flows unimpeded.
It is challenging to generate that kind of attitude toward people we are indifferent to and it is very challenging indeed to generate it toward people we don’t like.
To prepare the ground for practicing maitri, it can be helpful to consider that the way in which we categorize other beings will change over time, sometimes very quickly, sometimes more slowly. Whatever we experience is subject to impermanence.
For example an anonymous person we meet in the supermarket can become our lover and later on can become our wife and later on become our not so welcome (in some cases) ex-wife! We have gone through all three categories with one person.
Also we can recognize that the way we look at people is very much related to causes and conditions. It is not absolute. If we are having a bad day it is much easier to get irritated at somebody, maybe even somebody we fundamentally like. If we have had an abusive childhood, we can feel that the whole world is against us and we want to strike back. On a beautiful sunny Spring day, sometimes everybody looks great and we are in love with everything and feeling groovy!
So causes and conditions set the stage for our attitudes toward the world and we can and do affect those causes and conditions. It is practical to train our minds further so that we are not governed by our negative habitual patterns.
And finally it is worth noting and tuning into our most fundamental nature. What are we like when we are open, clear and fully present? What is our true nature? Do we really really actually wish others to suffer? Do we really really wish to create the causes and conditions for our own suffering? What is wrong with cultivating open hearted and positive wishes for ourselves and others? Have we really become that cynical?
So practicing maitri is simple. Just take a comfortable seat in a quiet place and close your eyes. First think of somebody you love. Send them the four wishes. You can either repeat each for a time with that person in mind or just think about how those wishes might manifest and affect that situation. You can be creative about it.
Then move on successively to yourself, a “neutral person” (somebody you don’t know well or already have strong feelings about), and then finally take the plunge and send the wishes to an “enemy.” You may even notice that the choice of who the enemy is moves around and that’s fine. As mentioned already, yesterday’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally. Also it’s fine just to notice what comes up for you while you are trying to do this practice and simply allow space for that as well.
At the end, conclude by simply radiating out your loving kindness, your kind, sweet, loving open heart to all beings and send your good wishes to all of them (friends, oneself, neutrals, enemies, humans, animals, ghosts — anybody you can think of). Then simply dissolve the meditation and sit quietly for a moment or two.
This practice might feel too “touchy-feely” for some of us. At first I thought maybe it was too innocent, too sweet. But it is an ancient practice dating all the way back to the Buddha and it can be surprisingly powerful.