TLDR: Is Metta Meditation really beneficial? Jin Young shares his own personal practice and his relationship with loving kindness meditation. A 30-min guided meditation is included. You’re invited to test it out for yourself.
When you don’t know what to do, try out metta or loving kindness meditation.
Encountering Metta MeditationMy first encounter with metta was listening to Imee Ooi’s “Chant of Metta ”. Imee’s voice was angel-like, saccharine and soothing. I especially enjoyed her chanting of the Metta Sutta in Pali language, albeit not knowing much about the actual meaning behind those words back then.
My mom would sometimes play the CD around bedtime, and I guess it must have had some sort of sleep-inducing effect, much like lullabies for babies.
Lighting My Fire Of Metta
When I was fifteen, I sat through my first metta meditation under the guidance of Ajahn Brahm. Ajahn explained that the cultivation of metta is analogous to starting a fire. You can’t start a fire by lighting up a huge log.
Rather, you need kindling, easily combustible materials for starting a fire such as papers or small little twigs. Once the fire is started, one then adds on larger and larger twigs before moving on to solid pieces of wood.
When the fire is well maintained, you can further grow it until the passion of loving kindness is strong enough to embrace the whole universe and even your worst enemies.
But first, we need to start with kindling. Ajahn told us to visualize someone whom we can readily feel and send loving kindness to. For me, it was my late grandmother who had taken care of me when I was young. She showered me with unconditional love.
“The door of my heart is open to you”
“I will take care of you”
“May you be safe, well and happy”.
With these words, I felt my chest and heart glowing with love and warmth. We then proceed to send similar thoughts and wishes to our other family members, friends, acquaintances, animals, and all sentient beings.
It was an empowering experience to meditate on metta with Ajahn Brahm. The flame of “metta” was passed on from Ajahn to us, and from us to our loved ones and on and on.
Keeping the Metta Flame Glowing
Since then, I’ve tried my best to keep this flame alive wherever I go. In Selangor, I joined the Buddhist Gem Fellowship and attended a weekly guided metta meditation by Datuk Seri Dr. Victor Wee, another lay-teacher and compassionate mentor.
Dr. Wee’s cues were slightly different from Ajahn Brahm’s, but the spirit of loving kindness was the same.
I brought the practice of metta meditation with me to Japan and China, where I studied abroad for four years. Whenever I missed my family, encountered negative events, or felt like I was stuck in an uncertain and helpless situation, I turned to metta meditation for help.
I like to believe that by sending my thoughts of loving-kindness to my family and friends, they are protected by my wishes, and become well and happy.
By sending metta to a professor or a superior, he or she would give me an A+ or a pay raise (I’m only half-kidding). By sending it to someone with whom I’ve had a negative encounter, relationships will slowly turn for the better, enmity and ill will shall be transformed into love and light.
No, Metta doesn’t Solve Everything
Of course, there’s no guarantee that metta will always convert “negativity” into “positivity”, nor is it a panacea for everything in life.
However, I believe that it can help transform the state of one’s mind – To face life’s suffering and problems with a heart of loving-kindness and gentleness.
Over time, as I became a yoga teacher and started leading mindfulness retreat expeditions to the Himalayas, I’ve developed and come up with my practice and cues for leading metta meditation.
These cues are of course consolidated from the various teachers mentioned above. During this pandemic lockdown, I decided to record a 30-min long guided metta meditation. I share it with anyone keen to explore and integrate this practice into their lives.
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” This quote is often attributed to Laotzu.
Can we make metta “loving-kindness” the character and destiny of our life?
If you find it hard to send loving thoughts in your mind, find a safe space and utter them out in words.
Make it a habit to randomly wish someone to be well and happy each day, whether it’s mentally towards someone you love or to random strangers on the streets.
Meditate at least once a week to reset yourself energetically and spiritually.
TLDR: We often go through life unaware and miss out on the treasure in our heart. The jewel within that is self-awareness is this treasure that differentiates humans from animals.
What is self-awareness? We use this term to describe whether someone is self-aware or not. For example, I never thought that my father had no self-awareness when I was young. He was and still is quick to anger, dislikes any slight form of challenge (depending on who the challenger is), and loves to pick on me. I had thought that he just hates me for reasons unknown.
But as I grew older and encountered some new age spiritual books and later rational teachings by the Buddha, I realised my father has no self-awareness. Although realising his denial of this inner awareness changed my feeling of low self-esteem (being the object of his tirades) to compassion, I feel sorry he does not see the jewel within that is self-awareness.
What is Self-Awareness?
Self-awareness theory is the ability to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection according to positivepsychology.com. Although it is not possible to attain total objectivity about yourself based on the theory, there are degrees of self-awareness and it exists on a spectrum. Having inner awareness allows you to accept yourself, see the perspectives of others, change yourself, communicate better and to make better decisions.
When I was a young adult, positive psychology and studies into self-awareness was at its nascent stage. I never thought I had awareness of myself.
I thought that being able to see others’ perspectives, probe my values and how others see me, was me being overly sensitive or having empathy.
I thought my ability to reflect caused much suffering because those around me who did not reflect much, seemed to enjoy life better. They were happy with sensual pleasures such as food, exercise, travels and work while I felt there is something more than these things in life.
Thus, instead of being glad I have a tendency towards self-reflection, I detested it. It made me miserable. I wasn’t able to occupy myself from one thing and the next like the others do. I read and reflected a lot on philosophy.
This inner sense that something is not right with the general purpose in life (to work, earn and buy a home or get married) disturbed me.
I even rebelled against such a life cycle by wanting to be different. Unfortunately, I did not encounter Buddhist teachings till my 30s.
The Difference Between Humans and Animals
I was teaching a Buddhist class recently and shared how the contemplation of death can bring about a purpose in life. Based on the dhamma talk given by Ajahn Anan, he asked what is the purpose of life? He said if we ask this question, most people would not be able to answer. He added that most people live to fulfil their physical duties (work for food), eat and sleep. They repeat this cycle until the day they die. He asked, if this cycle of life is different from that of a chicken? A chicken too forages for food, eats and sleeps until it dies.
Until I encountered the Buddha’s mind training, I wished I had no self-awareness. What is the purpose of being aware of myself when I suffer pain and death? I’d rather not know. Moreover, my reflections were a torture more than a joy because others said I think too much.
But being able to be aware of the self, is what differentiates us from animals. It is also this quality that produces human intelligence.
Ajahn Anan continued to say, if we do not utilise our intelligence and mindfulness, we are no different from animals. His words made me thankful today that I have a sense of inner awareness.
The Purpose of Having Awareness
Why is having an inner sense of awareness considered having a jewel within? Without an inner awareness, we cannot embark on the path, whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhism or even scientific inquiry to find out what we really are. Our lives would be buffeted endlessly by the vicissitudes of life while we strive over and over to find impermanent solutions that are outside of us.
Self-awareness is used to great heights in the teachings of the Buddha. One can realise the liberation of the mind through inner reflection, and probing into what makes up the self.
The self is made up of the mind and the body. Both the sensations of the body and mind are conditioned by the objects our senses come into contact with. The sensations arising from our contact with objects of our senses come and go and are impermanent.
Due to our wrong views that what we come into contact with are permanent, we cling. For example, someone may make a passing critical remark and we hold onto that remark as attacking our permanent self. We may feel insulted. This causes ill will to arise, even if the person who made that remark forgets about it entirely because s/he is not mindful. This is not to say we become doormats for people to be rude or to criticise us, but there is no need to hold on and hurt ourselves. We can simply inform that person and forget about it.
We neglect to see what we see as the self, is easily collapsible. The more we hold onto having a precious self, the more fear and ill will can arise. In today’s world, catching a virus such as Covid-19 can kill us. Taking the vaccine may also kill us. In fact, natural disasters can also easily kill us. We are unaware of our vulnerabilities. St. Teresa of Avila asked, why do we crave living so much when there are so many uncertainties? She was a Catholic Carmelite nun living in the 15th century and had several episodes of ill health that nearly took her life.
The Buddha taught us to build our self-awareness – the ability to be objectively aware by first quieting the mind through the practice of virtues and meditation.
With our awareness sharpened by these practices, we begin to see in our mind the constant flux of things – such as the impermanence of materials and our thoughts about them. Seeing the constant flux teaches the mind to let go instead of clinging onto things.
Ajahn Anan often extols in his talks that we never know when we will die. The body does not belong to us. Make use of the body we have towards the true purpose of life – to build treasures in our heart (the cultivation of the heart in love, compassion, joy and equanimity) with the path taught by the Buddha before we die. It is our unenlightened hearts which clings that go on, we cannot take the body or our material possessions with us upon death.
If you find yourself reflecting on your actions and values, you have a sense of self-awareness. Be glad that you have this jewel in your heart!
Cultivate and strengthen your self-awareness with meditation.
Utilise your awareness to look within to see a constant change in your mind and body and find out what you are.
TLDR: We are constantly being acted on by people and our environment via sense contact to develop relationships. But our relationship with others grows in maturity only when we learn to have a good relationship with ourselves.
All of us have relationships. The instant we are born, we have relationships with our parents. When we grow up, we learn about friendships and later romantic love, and marriage. Although it seems like relationships are between two or more people, our relationship with others is actually a relationship with ourselves
How Our Reactions Are Triggered
Think of yourself having a stroll in a quiet park. Suddenly, someone cycles past you from behind with his speakers blaring loud music. What would your response be? You may feel annoyed with someone breaking the beautiful silent walk and turn to see who that perpetrator is. Or you may turn around just to know who is playing the loud music. What triggered the response?
Our senses are always picking up on sense vibrations in our environment. In the case of hearing loud music, the ear has come into contact with sound vibrations. When we see objects, it is the vibration of light that has contacted the eye sense. If you go to a concert, you may find that even your body can feel vibrations of sounds.
It is from the vibrations of others’ voice, tone and facial expressions that we react and respond. We ourselves produce vibrations that affect others.
In this way, we are always being acted on by people and our environment through the senses. When the wind blows and the thunder roars, we can also feel the vibration throughout our bodies. It may cause us to wear a jacket to protect against the cold or hide under our blanket. Thus, we also form a relationship with our environment through vibrations.
Our Reactions Based On Expectations
Most of us feel justified that our reactions are dependent on another person’s behaviour. If the other person is polite, we will be polite, if the other person is rude we will be rude. But haven’t you experienced that despite your warmth and courtesy, some relatives or even acquaintances remain cold and aloof?
Encounters with rude people when we are polite more often than not brings up a negative reaction from us. Since we hold expectations of how people should behave, we therefore react.
The kind of reaction we give also depends on our level of maturity. At a certain age or stage in life, we might just move on and ignore an impolite person. But if this difficult person is someone whom you live with at home, it is harder to ignore.
Relationships At Home
We cannot avoid facing our expectations of what people should be like in order to have a good relationship, especially with those we live with at home.
We expect our parents to be a certain way – perhaps we wish they are less angry, less nosy or more independent. We may also wish that our siblings could be warmer or less selfish. Where do we get these expectations from? We could have gotten them from being exposed to various forms of media to observing what others have that we do not have.
Relationships at home could be suffering or heavenly. If it is heavenly in the sense that everyone is equally caring and sharing, we may not attempt to look deeply into the relationship. But not many relationships are perfect. In the case of frictions, one may notice that when one backs off in a conflict, the altercation ends. I am speaking of normal conflicts at home, not abusive ones which require professional help. In fact, if one is in an abusive relationship, it is important to protect oneself by asking for relevant help.
However, when one backs down in a conflict, one may feel unjustified. For example, parents can feel justified speaking over their children with authority. The children, on the other hand, feel justified in saying they are right because their parents’ have an outdated view of the world.
How We Affect Those Around Us
Since we are always acted on by outer vibrations from others and our surroundings, we are as capable of acting upon others. Unfortunately, in most conflicts, people do not see the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings where he said that hate is never appeased by hate; hate is only appeased by love; this is an eternal law. The Buddha was speaking about a universal law that is inexhaustible. Most of us are aware of human laws but not universal laws, so we don’t experiment with it.
Imagine yourself yelling at someone with anger. How would your response be if that person keeps silent and agrees with you? This person then returns when you are sufficiently calmed to apologise and iron out your disagreements peacefully. How would you feel? Would anger continue to seeth within you?
Deep unresolved conflicts within the family can cause disharmony within an individual, who then brings his/her unhappiness to school or the workplace.
Unresolved strife developed in the family can also cause an individual to lead a company or society to a path of conflict if s/he becomes a leader in later life.
Conflicts do not only exist on the outside but from within. When we have thoughts of ill will such as anxiety or fear, do we appease it with love and forgiveness or more hate – such as hating ourselves for being a coward or not being able to do better? Besides having relationships with others, the key relationship in our lives is actually our relationship with our thoughts. Conflicting thoughts could be developed through reaction to unhappy family life in childhood.
Having A Good Relationship With Yourself Influences Others
The good thing about friction with others is that it makes some of us look deeper within ourselves. We may start asking if we are hateful that others are mean to us? Or we may wonder if it is due to fate that we aren’t well respected by others. Or we could feel that people are mean and that the world is a dangerous place.
When we look deeper we may discover that the other person acting on us with anger or disrespect is also suffering.
We may discover that the unhappiness in the other has nothing to do with us but everything to do with themselves. Why would a happy and contented person behave rudely or selfishly if s/he knew how to make themselves happy? With this discovery, we may learn to be more forgiving towards others and to show more care, or to just let it be and not deepen potential conflicts.
If we look even deeper, we may find that our understanding of how to be peaceful with ourselves determines our relationship with others.
If we aren’t content or peaceful, it is hard for us to behave in a relaxed and tranquil way with others. When the conflict in ourselves is attenuated, the burden within gets lifted little by little and we become happier and instead influence others with our tranquillity.
Find out if it is true that you are constantly acted upon by outer conditions through observation. When you are out walking during a hot day, do you react to the heat with thoughts? When your boss is talking to your teammate, do you start wondering what they are talking about without your knowledge?
What do you do when you notice critical thoughts about yourself arising in your mind? Do you act upon it with more criticism or with forgiveness?
Take the opportunity to test the Buddha’s teachings on hate is never appeased by hate but only by love. When someone brings his or her suffering onto you, try to respond with love and see what happens.
TLDR: Set your boundaries, learn how to self regulate, and listen with openness
Does family = sacrifice?
Being born in a typical Asian family, I have always been expected to excel in everything that I do. Honestly, as long as what my parents expect of me is reasonable, I do not really mind that. I know that they have done so much for me and doing well in life is just one way I can repay them. Besides, having them push me forward will help me grow as a person.
The problem is what happens if what they expect of me is way too demanding and I fail to achieve those goals that they have set for me. They will be so upset and disappointed in me. Being a generally filial daughter, I do not want that to happen. I love them and I want them to be happy.
However, the continuous chasing after those ambitions can sometimes be suffocating, that it jeopardises my wellbeing. The questions then, does familial love really have to be sacrificial? Can we not find a middle ground where we both can be happy?
The answer is of course we can. I have been to two extremes from rebelling against their words to following everything that they want. As you might have guessed, both methods did not work. I did not feel happy doing them. The Buddha taught the Middle Way and we can use the concept to balance parental expectations and what we want in life.
Tips for juggling with parental expectations:
(disclaimer: these are what work for me. If you find that any of the tips below do not apply to you, you may choose to ignore it.)
1. Build a relationship with your parents that is based on open communication
Communication is key in any relationship. If you want to build a harmonious relationship with them, make sure you spend time with them. Having time together allows you to understand one another on a deeper level which makes communication easier. In that way, you know what kind of attitude and tone to adopt when discussing your concerns with them.
For example, if your parents expect you to take an engineering course in the university, but you know that your passion is not that and you will dread your decision if you simply follow what they want you to do, then, talk to them in a way that you both can reach a conclusion.
While you acknowledge their concerns (e.g. stable career), you explain to them why engineering is not suitable for you and why choosing another course of your choice will be better in a long run (e.g fulfilling career). I am sure that if you talk to them logically with realistic reasoning, they will eventually understand you.
Also, when explaining our concerns, we can practise the five factors of right speech taught by the Buddha (AN 5.198). The five factors are that a statement must be spoken at the right time, spoken in truth, spoken gently, spoken beneficially, and out of goodwill.
It is also important to understand that communication is a two-way process. Just like you, your parents also want their opinions to be heard. A lot of conflicts arise not because we think that we are right and the other person is wrong, or vice versa, but because we feel that we do not get the respect that we deserve. Hence, it is important to practise effective listening if we want communication to occur smoothly.
2. Set your boundaries
It is important to understand that you are not an extension of your parents’ ambition.
As much as you want to pay back your parents’ kindness, you need to understand that you are not perfect.
There are times when you fail and that is alright. In fact, it is great that you experience failure. In that way, you know where you are lacking and where you can improve on. You do not need to feel guilty for not achieving something. Be kind to yourself and thank yourself for doing the best you can.
Also, instead of always asking what your parents want you to do, start asking what you really want to do. Because you are the pilot of your own life, not your parents. There is a difference between repaying your parents and living all your life for your parents. Understanding that, you will not be stuck with the oppressive feeling of guilt for not living up to your parents’ expectations.
3. RELAX (breathe in, breathe out, repeat)
I know that it is not easy and extremely unnatural to be relaxed when you are expected to be the best all the time, outdoing everyone else. However, being tense will only result in you underperforming because instead of focusing on what you need to do, you pay attention to your negative emotions. Then, you feel guilty for being negative which makes you even more negative and this vicious cycle continues.
The thing is, my dear friends, when you are relaxed, you can face problems with a clearer state of mind. With a clear state of mind, you can better understand your parents and why they expect certain things from you. When you are calmer, you can also perform to your fullest potential, thereby achieving your goals and meeting your parents’ expectations.
A few ways to relax are:
a. Practising mindfulness through meditation.
There are many benefits of meditation including feeling less stressed as your stress hormone, cortisol, decreases. When you are not as stressed and anxious, the condition becomes more conducive for you to relax. One mobile app that I use to keep my meditation practice in check is insight timer. There are many guided meditations if you are new to meditation 🙂 You may consider using it too!
b. Changing your perspective.
Rather than expecting tasks to be accomplished to see tasks as adventures to experience. Inducing some form of fun can also help you to calm down.
Jotting down your emotions in a form of journal, music, or poetry. Externalisation of your emotion can uplift your mood and alleviate your emotional burden.
In conclusion, I believe that when parents expect something from us, it is usually out of goodwill. It is just that when they fail to see things from our perspectives, their expectations become overwhelmingly unrealistic and difficult to achieve.
Know that you are not alone in this and a lot of us experience the same thing. I hope that this short sharing can be of some help to you and I hope that you can better juggle with your parents’ and your own expectations. Jia you!
Find a routine that increases your mindfulness and centres you
Practise holding multiple perspectives, you do not have all the right answers
TLDR: Learning to see life in death requires courage. It is a great reminder to live life well and see joy even in the downs of life
We all know that our loved ones and ourselves will pass away someday. For the majority of us, however, this isn’t something we normally bring to mind – that is until circumstances make this a reality in our lives.
For me, this reality came in late-2017 when my close uncle (Tiuo Tiuo) passed away from Leukemia. Tiuo Tiuo was almost like a 2nd dad to me, and he was by my side through my various life milestones all the way until university. From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt many life lessons – and the lessons continued even until his last days and beyond.
“There will come a year when we will have 1 less person (at Chinese New Year) compared to the previous year. It will be really sad and the memories of that person and his presence will certainly be missed. I also felt sad looking at Ah Ma’s picture on the wall. It is the first time I see a familiar face of someone on a wall like that…”
29-01-2017 (Chinese New Year)
Tiuo Tiuo was someone who enjoyed the simple pleasures in life! One of his greatest pleasures was to pluck in his earphones and immerse himself in the music on his handphone. However, he was never good with technology and often required help loading up or accessing his music. The job to troubleshoot his phone when it malfunctioned often fell to me – and honestly, it wasn’t something I enjoyed all the time (especially after a long day at school)!
“So Tiuo Tiuo’s leg has been troubling him these past 2 months, but more acutely these past 2 weeks. Old age and sickness indeed.”
Looking back, however, memories of these small acts of service give me the greatest joy. There is little regret in my heart, knowing that I overcame my laziness to help bring minor conveniences and joy to Tiuo Tiuo. Since then, I made it a personal principle never to turn down requests from my loved ones as far as possible – we never know when that might be the last time we can help.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that being of service is a blessing.
“I brought Tiuo Tiuo to A&E for his full body check up… Was informed that he was diagnosed with Leukemia, which is essentially cancer… It is hard looking at Tiuo Tiuo suffering – not just his physical pain, but his mental expectations that this would be a short one.”
Aside from listening to music, Tiuo Tiuo also loved to catch up on the latest news around the world! One of the common interests that we shared was to follow the latest English Premier League football highlights. As Tiuo Tiuo became weaker, however, these joys became harder to attain as his world turned more inwards.
“Tiuo Tiuo started his first chemo today… There is a chance Tiuo Tiuo will face many complications for his health and get more sick; or he might be on this long and gradual road to recovery and this state will hence linger for a few years. It is so uncertain.”
Being by Tiuo Tiuo’s side as he journeyed through his last days, I saw that pleasures in life are not evenly distributed throughout. Many of the more enjoyable and sensually delightful experiences are often front-loaded in our youth and early adulthood. The less pleasant parts of ageing, sickness, the dulling of our senses, and the gradual losing of things we hold dear – these come slowly, but inevitably.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that conditions go their natural way.
How We Live
“Tiuo Tiuo has been admitted to the ICU and intubated and unable to speak, and the prognosis isn’t good… But what’s for sure is that he is suffering much now, and I don’t know how to ease his suffering.”
As Tiuo Tiuo became weaker, he could not enjoy the things he used to enjoy. Instead, he sought a simpler solace from the companionship provided by our entire extended family who banded together to support him. Tiuo Tiuo lived his life in service of others. Through the decades, his humble 4-room flat played host to many of my Malaysian cousins working in Singapore who required accommodation.
As one of the respected elders in the family, he always rejoiced in our successes, and was quietly supportive in our times of struggles – even financially at times. As Tiuo Tiuo gradually grew weaker, he rested at peace with memories of a life well-lived and in the companionship of family.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that how we live, is how we pass.
“Thursday, the doctor said the falling BP and oxygen levels were signs that Tiuo Tiuo was passing away soon … I stood outside the glass door for an extended period sending metta (loving-kindness). That was the last time I saw Tiuo Tiuo alive… I went in and ma ma and mum were reassuring him that it is ok to pass; the rest were kneeling down, sis was crying badly. I did not cry. Sent metta to Tiuo and wished for him to be well and happy.”
It has been almost 3 years since Tiuo Tiuo passed away. With time, the deep feelings of loss and sadness have given way to a more subtle appreciation of the values he represented. As I pay respects to Tiuo Tiuo at his altar daily, the lessons he taught also continue to inspire me to live each day fruitfully in service of others.
While Tiuo Tiuo may no longer be around, in many ways, he lives through the lives of many around him whom he had touched. Our loved ones and ourselves will indeed pass away someday, and we do not need to wait for this to be a reality before we learn the lessons that death and dying presents.
By realising our mortality, may we learn to be less intoxicated with youth, health and life. By learning the preciousness of our human life, may we allow mindfulness and wisdom to guide us on the path towards truer and more lasting forms of happiness.
Learn to see the bright sparks in the bleakest of time, as every moment is an opportunity to find sparks
Knowing that separation is inevitable, fruitfully serve those around you
Resources to help in death (and life) contemplation: