Working With Phrases for Metta/Lovingkindness

Traditional Phrases

from Jack Kornfield:

May I be filled with lovingkindness

May I be safe from inner and outer dangers

May I be well in body and mind

May I be at ease and happy

Photo by Tomwang112/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Tomwang112/iStock / Getty Images


From Sharon Salzberg:

May I be free from danger

May I have mental Happiness

May I have physical Happiness

May I have ease of well-being


In her book Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Shambala Classics, 1995) Sharon has some really helpful advice:

"We say the phrases as though cherishing a fragile and precious object in our hand. Were we to grab on too tightly, it would shatter and break. Were we to be lax and negligent, it would fall out of our hand and break. We cherish the object gently, carefully, without force, but paying close attention. Try to connect to each phrase, one at a time. There is no need to worry about what has gone by or to anticipate what has not yet come, not even the next phase. Don't struggle to manufacture a feeling of love. Simply repeat the phrases, thereby planting the potent seeds of intention, and trust that nature will take its own course." 

Creating Your Own Phrases

Let yourself be inspired by the poems we've been reading for metta incline you towards curiosity, playfulness, let yourself riff on the traditional phrases, opening to adaptions that might present themselves. Be receptive to associations and connotations that arise in your mind and feel free to come up with your own phrases.

It's helpful to anchor yourself in the traditional themes of  (1) happiness (2) safety/protection (3) health (4) peacefulness. However, even as you get creative, it is important to maintain the "may I" as opposed to "I am"; it is an invitation not a demand. We are not attempting to manipulate the present with positive thinking--honesty and a willingness to accept the reality of the present moment is very important. Metta is a practice of friendliness and it's not friendly to lie to yourself; it may not always true to say "I am happy" but it is always true that I would like to be happy, to be open and receptive to happiness even if I am not feeling it in the moment. 

I like to change my phrases to keep myself interested and alert and attentive to the effect of different phrases. For example for the idea of safety, I might say "May I feel safe from inner and outer harm, may I feel connected and supported, may I feel grounded, may I feel steady, may I feel strong."So I am layering each theme (in this case "safety" with multiple phrases. As with any technique, there is a downside--sometimes varying the phrases may start to feel fussy and distracting and it feels better to stay with one simple phrase for each of the for main themes. I go over and back. Sometimes keeping it very clean and simple is steadying and helps me focus, while at other times, I find this boring and I find that my mind wanders. So, as with formal mindfulness meditation, sometimes it helps to steady and concentrate the mind and other times it's more appropriate to open the field of awareness to whatever arises. I recommend playing with both; begin with the simplicity of one phrase per theme and when the creativity beckons and the opening up of the phrases creates interest and engagement, then that is skillful--when it starts to feel too open and you feel yourself drifting and spacing out, bring it back to the cleaner simpler phrases (either your own or the traditional ones). Think of it as widening and narrowing the lens of awareness.

The Order Of Well-Wishing

  • yourself 

  • benefactor 

  • dear friend

  • neutral person

  • difficult person

  • all beings

Many people have a hard time starting with themselves, so it can be helpful to begin with some being who is dear to you and with whom you have a fairly uncomplicated relationship (so not a lover) someone for whom it is very easy to feel love and kindness. Work the phrases for them and then once the spark has been ignited, you can kindle to fire and direct that warm loving energy towards yourself. Many of us would benefit from staying with the practice of lovingkindness for ourselves for quite a while; culturally we are depleted in this area and it often takes a while to really built up a good base. The danger in moving too fast onto the other recipients is that we are not thoroughly grounded in the peace and ease of honest to goodness love and kindness for ourselves and the offering of metta to others can be mixed in with a kind of ego game

Do you feel that the traditional practice of sitting and working with the phrases isn't always what works best for you?

When something isn't working, it's always helpful to remember that an important question for the Buddha-to-be, when he was close to death as a result of following the severe ascetic practices of his day was: 


According to the Metta Sutta, the practice of wishing well to all beings can be done whether standing or walking, seated or lying down;  standing in line at the post office or grocery store, sitting on a bus/train/plane, walking to and from any activity, lying in bed early in the morning or late at night--in other words in almost any activity you could imagine. a particular activity I find both steadying and soothing for the agitated mind and also tapping into creativity and playfulness is doing metta while coloring! click on the link and check it out