Depression can be a complex condition to treat. I’ve tried to change my lifestyle in all sorts of ways to ease symptoms of depression. However, one lifestyle change that I feel has helped to address the deeper causes of my depression has been a regular meditation practice. Mindfulness meditation has led to clear improvements in my mental health, but so has another, often neglected technique: metta meditation (or loving-kindness meditation).
My aim has been to use this practice to combat the recurring features of my depression. It seemed like the perfect antidote to the unkind thoughts I often have about myself, which I have long struggled with.
I have been practising metta meditation on and off for some years now, partly because it complements a mindfulness practice very well. After all, the more you develop kindness towards yourself, the smoother the practice of mindfulness will be, as you will be less likely to give yourself a hard time if the practice becomes challenging. Moreover, repeating — and focusing on — phrases of loving-kindness during the metta meditation helps to cultivate present awareness.
Unfortunately, simply repeating kind phrases to myself doesn’t mean the practice will work the way I want it to — this won’t banish my depressive symptoms, never to return again. Moreover, practising metta isn’t always a walk in the park. I have encountered some of the same challenges with mindfulness meditation, like trying to bring my attention back to the practice over and over again after becoming lost in thought. Yet I have found there are unique obstacles associated with metta meditation as well.
I’d like to describe the different sorts of challenges I’ve encountered when practising metta meditation. Some of these relate to the practice specifically, whereas others, I think, are more to do with the obstacles that depression creates.
What is Metta Meditation?
Metta meditation is a Buddhist form of meditation, also known as metta bhavana (bhavana means “development” or “cultivating”). The Buddha teaches the practice of metta (loving-kindness, benevolence, friendliness, goodwill) throughout the Pali Canon, the collection of the early Buddhist scriptures written in the Pali language. It is elaborated as a practice in certain scriptures, such as the Patisambhidamagga. However, the practice of metta did not originate in Buddhism. The importance of developing loving-kindness is expressed in ancient Hindu texts like the Vedas and the Upanishads, except the term used is maitri instead of metta.
Metta meditation overlaps somewhat with karuna bhavana (or compassion meditation), so they are sometimes used interchangeably. Both forms of meditation belong to the brahma viharas, also known as the “sublime attitudes” in Buddhism. They are four key Buddhist virtues, each involving a distinct form of meditation that helps you to cultivate the virtue in question. These virtues include metta, karuna (compassion), mudita (empathetic joy, or taking joy in the happiness of others), and upekkha (equanimity).
While metta and karuna may appear (or even feel) similar, they are nonetheless different. In metta meditation, you are focusing on sending out unconditional love, whereas during karuna meditation, the focus is on feeling deep and genuine sympathy for those who are suffering and cultivating the desire to alleviate this suffering. Of course, both loving-kindness and compassion are complementary, so by practising karuna meditation as well, you could further help to improve your well-being and relationship with others.
The Formal Practice of Metta Meditation
The formal practice of metta meditation usually involves silently repeating four phrases and in five stages. In each stage, you alter the phrases slightly and change their meaning. This is because in the first stage of the metta meditation, you direct loving-kindness towards yourself, then in the other stages you try to cultivate feelings of benevolence towards others. The exact wording of the phrases can differ depending on who is teaching or communicating the practice, however the same sorts of phrases tend to be used. In the first stage of the metta meditation, you may repeat the following sorts of phrases:
May I be filled with loving-kindness
May I be well
May I be safe and free from danger
May I be healthy
May I be free from suffering
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy
Normally, though, you would focus on four phrases to repeat. After wishing yourself well, you do the same to others. In the second stage of the metta meditation, you bring to mind someone you love or care about deeply and recite a variation of these phrases accordingly (“May you be well”, “May you be happy”, and so on). In the third stage, the person you focus on is a neutral person, someone you don’t really know that well but who you have come into contact with before, like a shopkeeper, for example. The fourth person is someone who you experience conflict with (probably the most difficult stage of the meditation). Finally, in the fifth stage, we alter the phrases again so that they apply to all sentient beings (“May all beings be safe”, “May all beings be peaceful”, etc.).
Why I Started Practising Metta Meditation
The Pali Canon mentions many benefits of developing metta, including sleeping easy, being kind to people and non-human animals, improved concentration, and a bright complexion. Which all sounds pretty great. I think part of what got me interested in the practice, however, was research I had been reading on how metta meditation can effectively treat depression. For example, a study published in Contemporary Buddhism by psychologist Beatrice Alba found metta meditation can lead to significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression, anxiety, and stress.
I was tired of falling into depressive episodes and felt I needed to address the underlying causes of the condition, or at least, what I thought was causing it. I have since come to realise that a central reason for my depression — which I’m sure many others can relate to — is my negative relationship with myself.
It took me some time to notice that the way I thought of myself was often unhealthy and having all sorts of negative impacts on my life. I guess because it was so habitual and normal I took these thoughts as granted. I also accepted them as true. I didn’t try to challenge my negative self-image, self-criticism, low self-esteem, or self-loathing because they all seemed justified. But I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I challenged them earlier than I did. These ingrained, repetitive ways of relating to myself have made me extremely unwell at times, fuelling severe episodes of depression. These kinds of thoughts have made me isolate myself. They’ve zapped my motivation, caused problems in my relationships, and often made me socially anxious.
There are many approaches in psychotherapy that can help you challenge self-judgemental thoughts and the depression they can lead to, some of which actually rely on Buddhist principles such as mindfulness and compassion. This would include approaches like cognitive behavioural therapy (Driessen E. et al.), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MacKenzie M.B. et al.), and acceptance and commitment therapy (Levin M.E. et al.). There is good evidence suggesting that these treatments can effectively alleviate depression, but like all therapies, they can be expensive. The advantage of metta meditation is that you don’t need to pay a therapist to help you to do it. It is a simple practice to learn, and you can do on your own, any time and anywhere.
I think I first learned about the practice through the renowned meditation and Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. He outlined the practice and its benefits in his book A Path With Heart (1993), which has become a classic guide on Buddhist meditation. I had practised mindfulness meditation before, but I discovered that metta meditation actually made it easier to stay mindful, and it had a unique kind of self-soothing and mood-enhancing quality to it. After experimenting with different phrases, the ones I have stuck with now are:
May I be well
May I be free from suffering
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy
When I practise metta, I tend to visualise myself or others in the state relevant to the phrase (e.g. healthy, free from suffering, peaceful, or happy). I might picture myself or others at a previous time when in this state or imagine how I or others would look and feel if going from an absence of the particular state I have in mind to its presence (e.g. changing from a state of suffering to a state of being free from suffering).
Obstacles I’ve Encountered
One challenge I’ve run up against with metta meditation (which is kind of a superficial one) is that the word loving-kindness sounds quite saccharine and hippy-dippy when I think of it or say it out loud. But whenever I feel myself cringing at the word or becoming a bit cynical about the meditation, I remind myself that there is nothing overly sentimental or woo-woo about it. Put simply, it’s an effective practice for promoting positive emotions.
A second and more significant challenge with metta meditation is the first stage of the practice. I often find the self-directed stage of metta meditation difficult because I am generally much more critical and punitive towards myself than others. I have noticed that directing warm and kind wishes for myself is met with more resistance than when sending such messages to a friend, neutral person, all beings, or even the difficult person sometimes.
During the first stage, a judgemental commentary may be going on as I try to focus on the phrases. I might judge this part of the meditation as being self-indulgent, embarrassing, and a bit too self-helpy. During more pronounced periods of depression, when I struggle more with a critical inner voice, I may try to harness feelings of kindness towards myself, but a lot of the time, I’m just repeating the phrases robotically, empty of any genuine intention. On the other hand, when I move onto the other stages of the meditation, I can cycle through the phrases with more ease and feel love and kindness arise with little (if any) resistance.
The fourth stage of the meditation, where I bring someone difficult to mind, can be challenging. Often it’s the most challenging part, especially if the conflict I have with this person is fresh and I’m not particularly close to the person. For example, this difficult person could be a stranger who acted disrespectfully towards me or who irritated me in some way. A pattern I notice in this stage is that as soon as I begin reciting a phrase of loving-kindness, the phrase or intention is sometimes immediately shut down by a feeling of animosity towards the person.
I would say it’s rare for me to think of anyone I know who elicits a strong negative reaction. Often the difficult person is just someone who irritates me in some way. However, during those times when this stage is difficult, I find it hard to see past the irritation and realise that this person is worthy of metta as much as anyone else, and that directing metta towards them would actually make me feel better as well.
Depression can make metta meditation a challenge in general, particularly if the depression is severe, in which case, the meditation can feel impossible to do. I will often find myself trying to force feelings of loving-kindness towards myself and others, and then if I can’t do this or I give up meditating, this can end up fanning the flames of frustration. The irony of depression, for me, is that the worse my symptoms are, the more necessary it is for me to do metta meditation and to do it regularly, yet it is precisely because of the intensity of those symptoms that metta becomes so difficult.
Depression can leave me with little motivation and focus, as well as feelings of hopelessness and intense irritation towards myself and others (even those close to me who have done nothing wrong). Everything about this state of depression deserves metta. But there’s a difference between easily identifying a need and easily satisfying that need. One of the biggest challenges with metta, for me personally, is making sure I cultivate it when I need it the most.
If I’m struggling a lot with depression, I may only do the first stage of the metta, but for around the same amount of time as the whole meditation. This can definitely be valid and justified. After all, if I cannot cultivate metta towards myself, it tends to become difficult to direct it towards others. But the pitfall of depression is that self-criticism and guilt can set in when I focus on myself rather than others. I’ll judge this as a selfish thing to do. And to be honest, it is kind of selfish in a way, although not in the negative sense I imagine it to be; it is justifiably and therapeutically selfish.
Why the Challenges Are Worth It
Despite all of these challenges, metta meditation has proven to be extremely useful in combating core features and causes of my depression, such as feelings of inadequacy and the incessant stream of negative chatter in my head. Metta meditation is by no means a cure for depression or a quick fix. I regularly practise it and try to implement it when I’m not meditating, but this doesn’t prevent depression from arising or make it disappear when it rears its head.
Nonetheless, metta meditation has made depression somewhat easier to handle. I’m more likely to soothe myself and prioritise self-care now than I would be if I never practised metta. There are also clear mood-enhancing effects from cultivating metta towards specific people and all beings in general.
It’s also been interesting to see that the kinder I am towards myself, the less likely I am to struggle with the fourth stage of the meditation. This is because I feel more bothered by other people when I’m already in an irritable state, which tends to involve strong feelings of irritation towards myself. Metta meditation has helped me to uncover this pattern of projecting irritation.
One of the most illuminating aspects of metta meditation, however, has been the realisation that there are these untapped reserves of kindness in myself. In the lowest of lows, metta can still arise, even if it’s faint or apparent for only a fleeting moment. I have also had experiences during meditation where very intense feelings of metta have arisen spontaneously. Whenever this happens, it always feels like a massive burden has been lifted.
Another aspect of metta meditation that makes me hopeful about it is that consistency in the practice translates to noticeable benefits. This ends up creating a positive feedback loop. The more I practice metta, the easier it is to practice the next time around, which further improves my well-being, which makes it easier to practise metta, and so on.
Metta meditation is one habit among many that help with my depression, both in terms of dealing with existing symptoms and in terms of preparing me for any future emotional difficulties. I now consider it an essential part of my mental health toolkit.
This article originally appeared on Invisible Illness