There is an increasing amount of attention being paid to the risks of meditation, a practice that – through its mainstreaming – has wholly been associated with calmness and mental health benefits. However, a growing body of research and first-person accounts are revealing that mindfulness meditation – particularly when it’s intensive and prolonged, as on a retreat – can, for some, induce or exacerbate psychosis, depression, anxiety, and paranoia.
This has made me wonder whether alternative meditation practices, such as metta bhavana (loving-kindness meditation) can reduce or avoid these risks entirely. Could a practice that involves focusing one’s intention on well-wishing, on the positive emotion of (non-romantic) love, ever worsen your mental health? While metta, as I will suggest, may be a safer form of meditation than mindfulness, this does not mean it cannot result in emotional distress and various challenges. Nonetheless, the safety profile and unique benefits of this practice can motivate someone may decide to focus on metta meditation instead of – or alongside – mindfulness.
Metta bhavana literally means “loving-kindness development”. It is an ancient form of meditation that helps you to cultivate benevolence, friendliness, and goodwill towards oneself and others. It is one of the brahma-viharas (“sublime attitudes” or “divine abodes”), which are the four key virtues or the four highest emotions in Buddhism: metta, karuna (compassion), mudita (empathetic joy, or taking joy in the happiness of others), and upekkha (equanimity).
When you practise metta bhavana, you silently repeat phrases of well-wishing. There are five stages, with each stage involving a different object of focus. The first stage is yourself, corresponding to the idea that to extend well-wishing to others you must first have the capacity to show kindness towards yourself. Practitioners can use different variations of phrasing. I personally use the following:
May I be well
May I be free from suffering
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy
You then replace the “I” with “you” in the second, third, and fourth stages, which correspond to a good friend, a neutral person (someone you neither like nor dislike, e.g. a shopkeeper), and a difficult person (someone you experience conflict with, towards whom you have negative feelings), respectively. You keep these people in mind during the respective stage and direct feelings of benevolence towards them. The fifth stage includes all sentient beings, so you cycle through the phrases, “May all beings be well”, “May all beings be free from suffering”, etc.
While not as popular for improving mental health as mindfulness, there are studies indicating it can be effective at alleviating emotional distress, as well as enhancing positive emotions. A systematic review published in Frontiers in Psychology found that metta bhavana is, indeed, an effective practice for promoting positive emotions and, interestingly, “interventions focused on loving-kindness were more effective [at doing so] than interventions focused on compassion”.
A paper published in Mindfulness showed that the combination of metta group meditation and subsequent tailored individual therapy focusing on kindness towards oneself and others (metta-based therapy, MBT) led to greater improvements in depressive symptoms than a control group in patients with chronic depression. A separate study published in the same journal suggests that mindfulness and metta-based trauma therapy (MMTT) can help improve self-regulation and well-being, and reduce PTSD, anxiety, depression, and dissociation in people who have experienced one or more traumatic events.
I have not come across any reporting of adverse events in the research on metta-based interventions. This may not be surprising to most people, as it may seem strange to imagine that there could be any danger in cultivating unconditional love towards oneself and others. If you struggle with low self-esteem and self-criticism, how can more kindness towards oneself be harmful? And if you have a difficult person in your life who generates feelings of anger, irritation, or even hatred in yourself, wishing them well during metta bhavana is meant to have the effect of soothing these negative emotions. How can developing a mindset of kindness, extending to all beings, entail any downsides? There is research indicating that mindfulness can exaggerate selfish tendencies, make people feel less guilty about wrongdoing, and derail people’s moral compass. Metta bhavana seems likely the perfect antidote to these ethical risks.
While this latter point may be true, metta bhavana can still carry some risks, including a worsening of mental well-being. For example, during metta bhavana, some people may feel overwhelmed by compassion. While metta is a positive emotion, during metta bhavana, you are encouraged to send out loving-kindness towards oneself and others who may be unwell and suffering. If you are struggling with severe emotional distress and trauma, painful emotions may enter the forefront of your mind, perhaps becoming difficult to handle. Karuna bhavana (compassion meditation) is intended to cultivate compassion towards oneself and others – the experiencing of one’s own and others’ physical and mental suffering and the wish to alleviate it. Karuna bhavana is not the same as metta bhavana, although the two do overlap; both involve the same five stages, and feelings of compassion often arise during metta. Compassion is considered a positive emotion, but being overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world is also a real possibility during either karuna or metta bhavana.
Another risk of metta bhavana, reported by many people, is that you may feel nothing – no positive emotions you expect to experience – thus making you disheartened and discouraged. If you can’t genuinely feel love towards yourself or others, you might believe something is wrong with you, or you might feel guilt about struggling to extend goodwill towards others, including friends, strangers, and difficult people.
During the fourth stage, where you keep a difficult person in mind, you could end up feeling more ill-will towards them since focusing on them could just intensify those negative feelings. Might there also be a risk of becoming lenient with bad people? Wishing difficult people – including immoral people – to be well, free from suffering, peaceful, and happy is not meant to make you like those people or excuse or ignore the harmful things they say or do. Yet perhaps there is a risk of developing metta without also maintaining a sense of justice, boundaries, and assertiveness. This is why the first stage of metta bhavana is crucial; one must be willing to stand up for oneself and distance oneself from others out of self-love and self-protectiveness. Metta bhavana can be challenging, however, because often it is harder to direct genuine intentions and feelings of metta towards oneself than to others.
From a Nietzschean perspective, metta bhavana may carry the risk of weakening oneself and shutting oneself off from higher states of happiness, if it cultivates pity and comfort, which the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche strongly opposed. Nietzsche warned about the wish to abolish suffering because of the relationship between suffering and growth. In his view, the problem is not the existence of suffering per se but senseless or meaningless suffering. When engaging in metta bhavana, however, there is no distinction made between meaningful and meaningless suffering; there is only the wish for oneself and others to be free from suffering and danger and to be peaceful and at ease. A Nietzschean may be suspicious of this wish, believing that it can lead to comfort and, in turn, mediocrity. Strong characters, according to Nietzsche, fashion themselves out of pain, and it is anti-human and anti-life to desire a life free from pain. This won’t really be considered a risk among meditation practitioners since they are actively trying to alleviate their own suffering and be calmer and more compassionate people, but for a Nietzchean, metta bhavana can be thought of as a risky activity.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist monk, delivered a talk titled “Metta Can Hurt” (here’s the transcript). He notes that a lot of people like the brahma-viharas because it feels good to think, “May all beings be happy” or to send compassion to someone who is currently suffering. But he adds:
you have to realize the brahma-vihāras are not entirely pleasant, especially the first three, because after all they’re involved in wishes. May all beings be happy. May all those who are suffering be free from their suffering. May all those who are happy or doing good things, may they continue to be happy. May, may, may. But you look at the world. Not everybody is happy. A lot of people are suffering or doing things that are going to cause suffering both for other people now and for themselves on into the future.
In other words, metta can hurt. Looking at the world can be painful. This is why Ajahn Fuang Jokito – a Thai Buddhist monk and abbot in the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism, who Thanissaro Bhikkhu studied under – taught that metta needs upekkha (equanimity) if it’s not going to turn into a source of suffering. Equanimity is the quality of remaining stable, calm, clear, accepting, and non-reactive when faced with pleasant and unpleasant experiences. It is a state of neither attraction nor aversion, neither grasping nor rejecting. It is being in the middle, at peace in all situations. But metta benefits upekkha, too. “This is why the brahma-vihāras come in a set. Mettā keeps upekkhā from becoming cold and heartless,” says Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The brahma-viharas work together, complement, and enhance each other. Thanissaro Bhikkhu adds that:
there are the times when you can disguise your lust or anger as forms of mettā, thinking that by engaging other people with your lust, or expressing your anger over their behavior, you’ll be doing them an act of kindness. That kind of thinking can be very convincing, but also very deceptive and harmful. This is why we have to teach our discernment to be heedful and wary. If you think you can trust your quote-unquote “innate” compassion, you’re setting yourself up for a fall—and you’ll hurt others in the process.
You have to learn how to bring discernment to your practice of the brahma-vihāras so that you can turn them into right concentration – the kind of concentration that’s useful for gaining insight – especially when you want to make them sincere. Sincere mettā is painful. That pain is why you need the equanimity in order to counteract mettā, to give you a place where the mind really can settle down in a way that feels solid, secure, with a strong sense of well-being, and it’s clear enough so that it can use the concentration as a basis for insight.
Metta bhavana may carry additional risks, then, if you practise it in isolation – separate from the other brahma-viharas and without insight into the actual intentions behind your metta. The problem is that many people (myself included) may only practise metta bhavana alongside mindfulness. Upekkha bhavana and mudita bhavana are, therefore, also important for ensuring the development of virtue.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu has also delivered a talk called “Goodwill for Bad People” (transcript here). Again, he speaks about how metta without the other brahma-viharas can lead to pitfalls. He underscores that:
there are the people who, regardless of how much you wish for them to be happy, are just determined not to understand, not to look for true happiness. That’s where you have to exercise equanimity.
The equanimity there helps save your goodwill from turning into burnout or disappointment or cynicism. You realize that, for the time being, that person just doesn’t want to get the message. Some people you can’t speak to about anything that has to do with true happiness because they simply won’t listen. That’s where you exercise equanimity.
We live in a world where there are a lot of people you can’t help. Even the Buddha couldn’t save all living beings. This idea of a bodhisattva who aspires to save all living beings is totally unrealistic. There are a lot of people out there who are just determined to stay here in this wandering-around for the foreseeable future.
When you see they’re beyond your help, you have to exercise equanimity. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have goodwill for them. The goodwill is there. It’s just you want to make sure that it’s realistic.
When you spread thoughts of goodwill it’s for protection. On the one hand, the texts talk about spreading thoughts of goodwill to actually protect yourself from outside dangers. But goodwill also protects yourself from yourself: your own unskillful actions, the things you’re likely to say and do or think when all you can think about is how horrible that person is and how much they deserve to suffer.
If you place limitations on your goodwill, you’re going to suffer. Hence, Thanissaro Bhikkhu argues that metta bhavana is not so much about who does or doesn’t deserve your goodwill; you need it, and you benefit from making it limitless.
In light of this discussion, I hope I have clarified some of the ways in which metta bhavana may lead to negative emotional states or outcomes in life. Based on the available research, it seems that a regular practice of mindfulness carries greater risks – especially for those with pre-existing mental health problems and those who practise intensively – than a metta bhavana practice. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that there are far more studies on mindfulness. Metta-based interventions are understudied. While adverse events may not show up in the literature (as far as I can tell), there are certainly anecdotal reports of emotional difficulties.
Overall, however, metta bhavana – including intensive, prolonged metta bhavana – could be a safer form of meditation than mindfulness. Moreover, even if you focused on metta bhavana to the exclusion of mindfulness, you can still enjoy the benefits of the latter. This is because metta bhavana involves focusing attention on phrases (and the intention/feeling behind them) and objects of attention. And as in mindfulness meditation, it is normal to be continually distracted when practising metta. So you will still learn how to calmly notice your distraction and bring your attention back to the phrases.
Of course, developing mindfulness and metta in tandem (perhaps on alternate days) can help enhance both practices. Mindfulness benefits metta by helping you develop the one-pointed concentration you need to focus on the phrases and associated emotion, and metta comes in handy if you find yourself facing emotional difficulties during mindfulness – after all, showing kindness towards yourself can be ameliorative. In this way, metta may help buffer the harms of mindfulness.
Whether or not you can practise metta bhavana too much, to your own detriment, remains to be seen. According to Buddhist meditation teachers, it’s best to view the brahma-viharas as a set and not focus on one virtue to the exclusion of others, as this will ensure your mental health is protected when facing the suffering in the world and the negative traits of others that arise during metta bhavana.