An Adapted Buddhist Lovingkindness Meditation for Christians

Years ago, I stumbled across a book by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, and it changed me forever. To my astonishment, nothing in it contradicted my Christian faith and the author’s straightforward and thorough way of explaining spirituality struck me as something I needed, something wholly true, because my own experience could testify to it. . Most memorably, Thich Nhat Hahn was tackling Jesus’ command to “love thy enemy.” I had heard this command all my life, and had done the best I could to be loving towards all, but no matter how hard I tried, I was judgemental, patronizing, and even hateful towards those who held views different from me, those I considered enemies. How could Jesus give us such an impossible mandate without a user’s handbook on how to actually love those who make our lives difficult? And how could the Apostle Paul give us list upon list of spiritual attributes to live up to without telling us how to embody these states of being? For me, I found the answer when Thich Nhat Hahn wrote, “before loving your enemy, you must first understand him. Understanding comes before love.” A lightbulb went off.

I had in my mind hundreds of examples of what it looked like to love from the Christian scriptures: the Good Samaritan, the woman giving her last coin to the temple, Rahab protecting Joshua’s men in her home, Ruth and Naomi sticking together through thick and thin. These were all stories I loved dearly, but oftentimes, when I found myself acting lovingly and generously towards others, I didn’t have loving motivations, and ended up with resentments. How to love in word, deed and in my heart?

In Eastern languages where Buddhism originated, the word for “mind” is the same as “heart.” Much of Buddhist teaching is about thought processes and observing the mind, but in our English translation, we miss that it is also about the heart, about feelings. The Buddha taught that the fruits of spiritual practice would be lovingkindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. Therefore, if we sit and meditate all day and these attributes are not the natural result, it is not the Buddhist Way that we are practicing. Learning all this, I felt myself inching closer to Jesus’ command to love my neighbor, and even my enemy.

Years later, I discovered the formal practice of “lovingkindness meditation,” also called “Metta.” In this meditation, one practices cultivating a feeling of lovingkindness towards oneself, those one already loves, neutral people in one’s life, and to those with whom one is experiencing conflict. Typically four phrases are chosen and repeated over and over. The traditional phrases are below, but you can adapt them to your liking:

May you be happy

May you be safe and protected

May you be healthy and strong

May you be peaceful and free from suffering

Set aside about 15-25 minutes to do this meditation. Begin by settling into a comfortable position and taking a few deep breaths, relaxing your muscles, and releasing any tension. (As Christians, we can take some time to invite the Holy Spirit into this experience with us.) Then begin to recite the Metta phrases first to someone who is easy to love, someone with whom we have no conflict. Often, it is easiest to start with a young child or a pet because they have a magical way of opening our hearts. Imagine your Loved One in front of you, and you are saying the wishes/prayers directly to them. I like to imagine the Light of the Spirit enveloping them in a warm embrace. Take a few moments to just sit and notice how it feels to love another. Appreciate this feeling, this moment. We naturally return to what we noticeably appreciate. Take this feeling with you throughout this meditation.

Next, recite the phrases for yourself. Remember that Jesus wants you to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  This means that loving yourself is not selfish, but essential in the process of loving others. Let the Light of the Spirit embrace you as you pray with the Spirit. Really take some time to have compassion for your present circumstances. If it is particularly difficult at this time in life, you may want to stay with yourself for several minutes, repeating these well-wishes for yourself again and again:

May you be happy

May you be safe and protected

May you be healthy and strong

May you be peaceful and free from suffering

When you feel ready to move on, let a benefactor come to mind, someone who has helped you in your journey and toward whom you feel gratitude. Repeat the phrases several times for this person, allowing them to be true in your heart with no strings attached. If more benefactors come to mind, feel free to switch to a new person. Remember, the Spirit is guiding the process, so whoever comes to mind is likely just the right person!

Now allow a neutral person to come to mind, someone with whom you have no strong feelings towards. Perhaps this is a co-worker, a barista at a coffee shop, or a stranger you passed on the street today. Send the phrases of lovingkindness and the Light of the Spirit toward them. You will notice that when you practice this in silent prayer and meditation, it will become natural to think these thoughts when encountering strangers, and will result in more loving interactions.

Next, choose someone you are having a difficult time with, perhaps someone from the news, a politician, or someone who cut you off in traffic this morning. It is important to not choose the most difficult person in your life right now. When first practicing, we warm up to more difficult people by first focusing on those with whom we have small conflicts or irritations. It is likely that after repeating these phrases for them, when you see them the following day the conflict will have diminished because your attitude will have changed. When we wish our “enemies” to be happy, we are really wishing for a more peaceful world. We know that those who cause harm and those who feel hatred in their hearts would not do so if they themselves were happy and at peace.

Lastly, we send the Lovingkindness phrases to all people around the world, and then to all living beings, to those with four legs or six legs, those with fins or feathers, and to those with roots and leaves. All living beings deserve to be free from suffering, and in the interconnectedness of all life, we all do better when we are all thriving.

This Buddhist practice has been a great blessing to my life, and has enhanced my Christian understanding of the Gospel in a very close and personal way. When I know I am loved unconditionally by the Creator, love naturally flows out of me to all beings. Taking intentional time to receive lovingkindness and compassion for myself, to send it to others, and to view the entire Creation through this lens of love has transformed my resentful non-love to Metta. I pray that this practice would also be a blessing to you.

May you be happy

May you be safe and protected

May you be healthy and strong

May you be peaceful and free from suffering.

Amen.