Meditation is a gentle process that leads to a soft, open, peaceful feeling. It is not difficult to do. Basically, meditation leads the mind away from all the chatter going on in our heads to gently attending to something else, very often to our breath, a short phrase (a manta), or a longer set phrases. There are also techniques that encourage the mind to explore a particular idea or even to examine issues and experiences we have had, doing so with curiosity rather than judgment.
Focusing on the breath, or on some particular words or ideas, calms the mind and brain, bringing the mind to the here and now, rather than to imagined past or future issues, worries, fantasies, problems or constant chatter. The effect we experience from this is peaceful calmness. That calmness has a wonderful positive influence on our physical and mental health.
There are many measurable and subjective benefits to meditation. Among them are reduced stressed, better sleep, better health, and a greater general sense of happiness. The neuroscience segment in this section presents regularly updated discussions of research on this.
While there are some time honored traditional ways to meditate, there is no right or wrong way to meditate. Ideas about how to sit, breath, place our hands, and incline our minds come from centuries of practicing and identifying things that work well. Yet, whatever way brings you to inner peace and calm is the right way for you.
You may wish to view the video below, “Introduction to meditation.”
If I were to suggest just one meditation for parents, without a doubt it would be the LovingKindness Meditation, also known as metta. This is a simple, gentle practice that holds you, your child, or others in your thoughts and wishes each happiness. The practice cultivates love, compassion, non-judgement, joy and calmness.
The root meaning of “metta” is friend. A true friend is with us in both joyful and difficult times. Such a friend is a refuge to us when we are afraid or hurt and cares for us when we are unable to care for ourselves. The practice of metta draws on that loving quality, guiding us to be our own true friend. It then extends friendship to others. This kind of unswerving friendship reflects aspects of the first Guiding Principle, “Love Genuinely.”
In metta meditation, we repeat a set of phrases, wishing things for ourselves and then for others. Traditionally there are four phrases centering on happiness and wellbeing. Different teachers state them in slightly different ways, but the ideas are all very similar. Below are the four phrases I use in the Guided Audio Meditation. They are based on suggestions from Jack Kornfield (2002).
May I be filled with lovingkindness
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers
May I be well in mind and body
May I have ease of being and happiness
It’s perfectly fine to explore other phrases, alter these or create phrases that have particular meaning to you. As you quietly repeat each phrase, you may want to reflect on it, taking in the depths of its meaning. In the set I have suggested, the first phrase is a broad invitation to have a rich warm hearted feeling of friendliness and goodwill.
The second phrase wishes for physical and mental safety. Dangers come in many forms: threats from outside, but also thoughts from within that are harmful to ourself or others. The third phrase wishes good health physically and mentally. When this is not possible, it suggests handling illness or pain with patience, and moving as much as possible toward wellness and harmony. The fourth phrase wishes that matters of daily living flow without struggle. These include family relationships, work, friendships, material resources and whatever else comes to your mind. The phrase ends with the simple but all encompassing wish for happiness.
Your metta meditation may be as short as 10 minutes, though it is common to sit for 15-20 minutes each a day. Sit comfortably and center for a few minutes before beginning the phrases. You may wish to follow a few of your breaths, sensing the inhale and the exhale and noticing if there is tension anywhere. Breathe into areas that feel tight, relaxing as you exhale and settling into your sitting. You may then wish to bring to mind some good things that are within or a few things that make you feel happy or grateful. The Buddha suggested that you imagine yourself as a much loved little child. When you are ready, silently begin to repeat the phrases. Just let your thoughts rest on the words. Do not try to force yourself to feel lovingkindness or anything else. Remember, meditation is gentle and caring. Just be with the words.
The Guided Audio Meditation below begins with breathing and a gentle body scan to help you center and relax. It then states each phrase, allowing time for you to repeat it for yourself, then gradually leads you into saying the phrases without guidance.
As you practice, you may find unloving thoughts and irritations rise up. You may feel unworthy or even ridiculous. All of these things are okay. Just accept those thoughts and gently return to the words. After a few sessions, you may begin to feel more open and comfortable.
Traditionally metta practice begins with yourself. When you are ready, you extend it to others: family, friends, neighbors, people you find difficult, all people everywhere.
A simple metta practice for parents
You may wish to begin a Loving Kindness practice directing the phrases first to yourself and then to your child. You can expand it to others any time you wish.
You will find some additional information about LovingKindness meditation in the segment in this site called, “A Little More about LovingKindness Practices.”
Jack Kornfield (2002). The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace. New York: Bantam Books.
Expanding the meditation
If you are interested in extending this meditation you may want to follow this general guideline.
Metta practice begins with you. You begin by directing the warm friendly phrases to yourself. In a very serious traditional metta practice you would continue this for several weeks or even months under the guidance of an instructor. But it is perfectly fine to extend your practice whenever you wish, including in a single sitting. When you are ready, you begin to offer the phrases to another, again staying with that person until you are ready to move on. Typically these are offered in an order, beginning with a close person and gradually moving to someone you find quite challenging. Many meditators simply begin by extending the phrases more or less right away. You might want to direct the phrases to yourself for a week or two as you become comfortable with the practice and take in the depth of meaning expressed by the phrases.
Metta is offered “unconditionally.” We don’t offer love and good wishes in exchange for the same from someone else or as part of some other kind of barter. Metta is given freely and without expectation of getting anything in return.
This is the traditional order for extending metta.
A mentor or benefactor. Bring to mind someone who has supported you in some way that is meaningful to you. Imagine them in your mind or say their name, reflecting on what they have brought to your life. This person may have come into your life when you were a child or an adult. You may wish to thank them. Let the image of this special person fill you, then begin to say your metta phrases. Start your meditation by saying the phrases for yourself and then begin directing them to this special person:
May you be filled with lovingkindness.
May you be safe from inner and outer danger.
May you be well in mind and body.
May you have ease of being and happiness.
A close friend. Bring to mind a person you are close to and reflect on the qualities you like about them. (In traditional practice the first such special friends are not someone with whom you share sexual intimacy. As a parent, you may wish to think of your partner and that is fine.)
A neutral person. Bring to mind someone you encounter in daily life, but who you do not know well, such as someone you see at work or a clerk at a store. Imagine this person and think about how they are very much like you: they want to be loved and valued, they want to be happy and appreciated. As you hold this person in your mind, begin saying the phrases you are using and direct them to this neutral person.
The Difficult Person (sometimes called the enemy). Bring to mind a person with whom you have a significant conflict, or someone who fills you with anger, fear or rage. You may want to try this first with someone who is mildly irritating and then progress to someone who is truly difficult for you. It may help to imagine this “enemy” as a helpless infant or as someone in a vulnerable position (at the edge of a cliff for example). As you hold this person in your awareness, repeat the metta phrases directing them first toward yourself and then to this challenging other. Be patient with yourself. It may seem peculiar to offer such benevolence to someone who has challenged or harmed you. Think of it this way: if this enemy were filled with lovingkindness and felt well and happy, he or she would no longer be a threat to you.
Other Extensions. You can expand this lovingkindness practice in any way you wish — directing the phrases to neighbors; world leaders; unknown others suffering with homelessness, disease or oppression; colleagues; animals; all people; all beings. Whomever you wish.
A series of extensions for parents might progress in this way:
your child (each child separately if you have several children),
a mentor or special friend,
You might also select various people in your personal world to extend lovingkindness to during different meditation sessions. For example, you might direct the phrases to one of your child’s teachers, a co-worker, a coach, perhaps with a feeling of gratefulness or sensing that they are struggling with something.
Finding out more about LovingKindness
If you would like to learn more about metta meditation and the practice of loving kindness you may want to explore the writings and website of Sharon Salzberg. Sharon is a best selling author and one of the most accessible and gifted teachers of Buddhist meditation in the United States. Her 1995/2002 book on Lovingkindness stands out as a thoughtful, supportive and informed discussion of metta.
Salzberg, S. (2002). LovingKindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston: Shambala. (original copyright, 1995). ISBN 1-57062-903-X
This is a variation on the LovingKindness meditation you may wish to try if it feels uncomfortable to send good wishes to yourself.
Many people beginning a LovingKindness practice feel odd, shy or uncomfortable directing good wished toward themselves. Many feel they do not deserve such kindness. Some feel it’s just weird to wish well for oneself. Others feel it’s immodest. These feelings are very common.
There is a little twist you can try, that may help you move through these feelings and . . .