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Jul 7, 2022

Metta/Lovingkindness & Mindfulness, Essential Tools for Counselors

In preparation for the final stage of certification as a Mindfulness Meditation Teacher, I am focusing on ways to teach Metta or lovingkindness and Mindfulness in easy accessible ways. Metta is the Pali word for unconditional kindness—friendliness and acceptance. In Mahayana Buddhism, Metta meditation is one of the vehicles to ultimate freedom. Why would a counselor want to bring Metta into a session? My teacher Jack Kornfield says that Metta is “who we are in the end.” He says that Metta is “our true nature, which is consciousness and love itself.” Most people seek out counseling because they no longer feel like loving, accepting, friendly beings, to themselves or to others. If we can model love, acceptance and friendliness, we are establishing healing connections as well.

Metta is the kind of love we cannot measure, quantify or restrict. It is love that transcends ego needs. To understand this kind of love, a love that is universal and different from romantic attachment, we have to look deeply. Metta is one of the four "immeasurables, along with Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity. They stemmed from Mahayana Buddhism. As a counselor and human, I can attest to the power of this practice to help us turn toward what matters while debunking the myth of separation that promotes unnecessary suffering. The benefits of cultivating Metta, are not confined to the intrapersonal level; they extend to the interpersonal and are the foundation for healing connections. Metta, when permeating the environment, sentient and non-sentient beings, also promotes universal harmony. 

Rather than theorizing about Metta, I want to share a few examples of it. In my culture, people in the countryside practice something called Juntas or Convites; a gathering of farmers to plant and to harvest together. There is no division between people, all work together for the benefit of all. In the end, everyone leaves with something to feed their family, no money is exchanged, just hard work, and love. That to me is Metta.  For us, country people from the Dominican Republic, individuality is nonsense.  The concept of pulling oneself by the bootstraps is totally outrageous. We know that without community nothing is possible.

Metta is indigenous wisdom passed down from one generation to the other. Perhaps for some, this ancient stuff is outdated, no longer relevant in modern times. Quite the opposite, it is needed now more than ever. For so long, we have witnessed the horrific outcome of gun violence. Two weeks ago, the minister of environmental issues in my country, the Dominican Republic, Orlando Jorge Mera, was killed by seven gunshots pulled by one of his closest friends. The minister was around my age; we were part of the same cohort in college, although not personal friends. A childhood friend turned dirty politician and gunshot owner put greed in front of love, and today a whole nation mourns the loss of a man who was making a difference in environmental care.

The moment a friend pulls a gun to kill another friend, we know there has been a terrible disconnection; the illusion of separation has taken hold of the person. We wouldn't pull the trigger if we saw our image in the other. Where is Metta in this deplorable act? The minister’s family sent a message to the nation saying: “Our family forgives the person who did this. One of Orlando's greatest legacies was to not hold grudges." I want to think that common humanity, seeing ourselves in the other, no matter the circumstances, has a lot to do with this statement of Metta.

Let's think of the African philosophy of "ubuntu" — a concept in which our sense of self is shaped by our relationships with other people. It's a way of living that begins with the premise that "I am" only because "we are." The Kenyan literary scholar James Ogude believes ubuntu might be the solution to the trauma of separation and a way to affirm decolonizing practices. In an interview with Steve Paulson and Anne Strainchampts, he says: "Ubuntu is rooted in what I call a relational form of personhood, basically meaning that you are because of the others." 


 Bishop Desmond Tutu's theology was based on ubuntu. Nelson Mandela also leaned on this model and successfully opposed the apartheid racism in South Africa.  Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence was based on Metta, as was Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of “interbeing.” In The Way of the Bodhisattva, the Indian scholar Shantideva, teaches the benefits of cultivating a mind that seeks to benefit all sentient and non-sentient beings with lovingkindness. This mind nurtures a sense of peace and happiness within us first; then, it extends as a radiating light to others. The work of these men has left a legacy worth keeping, as well as the blueprint for healthy masculinity.

Recently, I have two guests in my Podcast What a Word is Worth, (,  who embody Metta, Dr. Amy Banks and Isaac Knapper, authors of Fighting Time. A book that accurately depicts how to break down the illusion of separateness that causes unnecessary suffering in the world. A testimony of true love and reconciliation. Amy’s father was murdered in New Orleans and Isaac was wrongfully accused and convicted of the murder. Isaac and Amy were 16 when the murder happened. After Amy and her family learned that the man in prison for the murder of their father was innocent, she and her sister Nancy went to meet him. She described Isaac as a man who said words that felt like a surprisingly soothing balm to their pain. She writes: "His words to Nancy were steady and filled with feeling.” Amy recalls Isaac’s words to her sister: “I kept thinking of you when I was in prison--when I first got there, I already knew Dr. Banks had a young child. I wanted to reach out to you to see what I could do to help." Amy writes, "Isaac didn't look away, he didn't harden to the anguish or try to push it aside. He simply and directly asked, Can I give you a hug?" That is Metta, lovingkindness. A practice that calls for us to break down divisions and practice interconnectedness.

Metta is the heartfelt wish for the well-being of oneself and others. Buddha used the analogy of a mother caring for her only child. Metta relates to softening the heart to allow empathy with the happiness and sorrows of all we encounter. Loving-kindness can also be described as the innate friendliness of an open heart. However, Metta is more than conventional friendliness; it includes keeping our hearts open toward those we consider our enemies, which we do via empathy or insight into our shared humanity. When cultivated, Metta increases our capacity for unconditional love and acceptance. The practice does not imply we lean on positive thinking or an artificially produced attitude. Rather, we focus on our intentions. At the core of the Metta practice is the intention of expressing our wishes for the well-being and happiness of ourselves or others.

When practicing Metta, we water the seeds of our innate goodness. If these seeds are never watered, they won't grow. A regular Metta practice is like the automatic sprinkler that waters and stimulates growth, sometimes in unexpected ways. For instance, we might begin to soften around situations we once thought unsurmountable, like forgiving someone who intentionally or unintentionally harmed us. Amy and Isaac recognized and expressed goodwill toward each other. A simple Metta practice includes sending lovingkindness to a loved one, then to a neutral person, then to someone we struggle with and lastly to all sentient and non-sentient beings.

Metta is not always easy. Sometimes it evokes feelings of tenderness and warmth. At other times it reveals painful, buried emotions. Allowing, accepting the emotions to be just what they are, is one function of Metta. The absence of lovingkindness can serve as a bell of mindfulness, slowing us down so we can pay more careful attention to what is happening, without judgment, as in the practice of Mindfulness. These two practices support one another. The practice of Metta complements Mindfulness (being present in the moment, with an open mind) by inviting an attitude of receptivity toward our experiences, the good, the bad and the in-between. As counselors, we can use both Metta and Mindfulness to show up as fellow travelers carrying a backpack of lovingkindness and unconditional positive regard as we walk along a segment of our clients’ journeys.

Marianela Medrano is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Stamford, CT. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and four books of poetry.


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