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Creative Commons License photo credit: kalandrakas

It is arguable that both insight and loving kindness (metta) meditation practices should be developed together. For metta strengthens mindfulness which in turn strengthens metta. The Indian tradition of sharing merit generated from a religious act such as insight meditation with all living beings gives us good reason to suppose that the two should be developed together. Firstly, though, it will pay to compare the two practices by way of an account of what each entails.

The techniques of insight meditation are described as the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness. They are: the contemplation of the body, feelings, consciousness and mental objects. Sati or mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition refers to non-distraction and non-confusion in terms of being constantly present in the awareness of the things that one comes into contact with and responding to them appropriately. The goal of insight meditation is the elimination of attraction, delusion and aversion and the attainment of Nibbana. The context of the practice was to be carried out in solitary. This is different from modern lay group insight meditation practice.

Mindfulness of the breath is an aspect of the contemplation of the body, one of the four foundations of mindfulness. It is especially notable because it is the basis of insight meditation practice and allows for the creation of access concentration, a fundamental requisite. Interestingly breathing is the only function controlled both consciously and unconsciously because it is regulated by both branches of the nervous system through two independent sets of nerves. By controlling one’s breathing one can control some of the body’s functions that were never meant to be controlled, like heart rate. Deep relaxed and very refined breathing is incompatible with a stressed and anxious mind. The body thus adjusts its physiology to one’s breathing via a feedback loop.

As with all the foundations of mindfulness techniques of insight meditation, contemplation of the breath is not control of the breath but passive observation. The breath becomes something constant that the mind can be returned to each time it wanders. Similarly, in the contemplation of feelings there is no reacting to the identified feelings. The feelings are just known as they are. Instead of habitually responding to the feeling the practitioner is able to investigate the nature of the feeling and be aware of the feeling itself as opposed to the mind’s response to the feeling. In this way the linkage of feelings to aversion or craving becomes weakened until eventually it is broken and the aim of insight meditation culminates. An inner space is made where the growth of loving-kindness and compassion, contentment, patience and forbearance can occur.

One can see a connection between insight and metta in that insight sets up the basis for the development of more skillful feelings and virtues such as loving-kindness. However, that is not to say that insight meditation must first be developed before metta can be practiced. In fact Insight and metta practice can effectively come together in combination. Just as insight meditation breaks down craving and aversion metta meditation develops loving-kindness that is unbound by preferences and prejudices.

To illustrate this point one of the five hindrances to insight is hatred and ill will. While the best way to deal with this hindrance is to be mindful of it when it occurs if it is too overwhelming it can be effectively dealt with by the generation of loving thoughts exactly in the way metta meditation is practiced. Conversely, the simply being aware of what it happening in the present moment without reacting of insight meditation can give birth out of balance and detachment to unconditional loving-kindness. In fact insight and metta meditation complement each other very well. Practicing one enriches the experience of the other. He notes that in the end both meditation practices are about developing awareness.

Some suggests a pre metta meditation preparation technique that frees the mind from tension and grudges by asking for and extending forgiveness. The practice proper of metta meditation begins with the ability to feel metta towards oneself because the ability to feel metta towards others is dependent upon this. This is achieved by directing phrases of loving thoughts towards oneself, for example “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be free of suffering”. The point is not so much the words but to encourage a feeling of kindness and warmth towards oneself. Next one visualizes a person dear to oneself and suffuses them with overflowing rays of loving-kindness. Attention is then focused on neutral people whom one has neither like nor dislike. Such people are visualized and loving-kindness is then radiated to them each in turn. Finally, one visualizes persons for whom one has a dislike, hostility or temporary misunderstanding and radiates loving-kindness and the wish that they be happy and free from suffering.

The practice of metta has been described as going hand in hand with mindfulness. Without metta one’s practice of mindfulness will never successfully break through one’s craving and rigid sense of self and in turn mindfulness is a necessary basis for developing metta. Much like insight meditation, in metta meditation there is a knowing and acknowledgment of who one really is without trying to control or judge the emotions one feels. If one has strong mindfulness born out of insight meditation practice then this can be brought to bear in metta meditation. Conversely a foundation in metta meditation can aid one in overcoming that aversion that gives rise to hatred and ill will. Greed, hatred and delusion obscure the natural radiance of love and compassion in one’s minds. As the clouds are cleared away through the unfolding of insight, the qualities of loving-kindness begin to shine forth naturally.

Metta meditation may be used before insight meditation to create a space of acceptance which one carries over into the bare attention of insight meditation. Alternatively metta meditation is often practiced after insight meditation. It is traditionally believed that the practice of meditation generates merit and it is traditional to share this merit with all living beings at the end of meditation sessions. In the Buddhist context the merit generated by insight meditation is dedicated to the welfare of all living beings.

Here we have two further reasons why insight and metta meditation practices should be developed together. Importantly, in the development of insight meditation it is possible for one to become too detached as equanimity grows. There can be a feeling of being above it all when really one has become cut off from one’s basic warmth, care and kindness. It is here where metta meditation can play an important role.

In life one will always encounter those who somehow manage to push one’s particular buttons. Without mindfulness combined with loving friendliness one will respond automatically with anger or resentment. With mindfulness one can watch how one’s mind responds to certain words and actions giving one time in which one can choose to respond with wisdom and in a skillful manner born out of universal loving-kindness.

Practiced together metta meditation aids in overcoming hindrances to insight while mindfulness developed in insight meditation strengthens the practice of metta in the world. The practice of metta before and after insight meditation frees the mind from tension for more effective insight meditation practice and shares any merit generated with all beings. Practiced alongside each other metta and insight meditation each effectively strengthens and reinforces the other. Therefore both insight and metta meditation should be developed together.

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