Compassion meditation is practiced to increase our ability to remain centered in equanimity regardless of the conditions, treatment or facts we are presented. This in turn allows us to respond compassionately and honestly to our own faults and behaviors as well as those of others.
While the basic practice of compassion meditation involves focusing the mind through one of our senses on a given object and simply returning when we become aware of wandering, Metta - or compassion meditation - has us return to a certain set of phrases and feelings and direct these feelings and intentions toward specific persons.
Cultivating equanimity through compassion meditation is valuable because only from a place of equal standing - neither overly positive or negative, happy or sad, expectant or hopeless - can we accurately assess the situations of our lives and discern the most appropriate response, and finally have any hope of executing the response we know to be the best.
Begin a practice of compassion meditation after you’ve practiced another form of meditation for at least three months, to develop focus and concentration. Compassion meditation sounds simple and perhaps even a little soft, but in fact is one of the most rigorous practices you can undertake. The difficulty often arises in the form of resistance to two of the objects you are asked to direct your compassion meditation towards.
The phrases to repeat and use as your focus describe four wishes that describe compassion meditation:
May x be happy.
May x be safe.
May x be healthy.
May x be free.
“X” is filled in with one of four types of people: first, a holy person or another who engenders pure feelings of joy and for whom it is uncomplicated to wish all these things. For Christians, it may be Jesus, for Buddhists it may be Buddha. Each person must choose who it is most joyful and pleasant to make these wishes for during their compassion meditation. While your wishing good for each of your people may in some way benefit them, your primary aim is to cultivate the feelings of goodwill toward another. Since this is easiest with someone we believe deserves the goodwill, this beginning phase will bring up the least resistance and judgment from the discursive mind. Stay with this phase for about five minutes.
Texts differ on who to use as your second target of compassion meditation. The three remaining are a neutral person (someone you perhaps haven’t met and have no judgement for), and a person for whom it is difficult for you to wish well, and then ... yourself. One method of compassion meditation teaches the practice in this order, namely: good, then neutral, then difficult, then you.
When this practice of compassion meditation was brought to the West, the order changed to good - yourself - neutral and finally the difficult person. This order seems to overcome some tendencies toward resistance and judgment that are specifically pronounced in Westerners encountered over the last 50 years by teachers of meditation. Since tendencies toward judgment are nearly always rooted in how we relate to ourselves, becoming able to wish happiness, safety, peace and freedom for ourselves becomes essential to becoming able, over time, to have compassion for others as well.
Ideally, you’ll focus on one of each of the four sets - good/easy, self, neutral, difficult persons - for about five minutes each. The practice of self-compassion can be radically difficult, however, and you should not push past resistance. Rather stop, take note of what comes up: the words, feelings, memories, phrases and be with that. The next day when you return to the cushion, begin at the beginning and go as far as you can.
As with any form of meditation, no practice should be judged on one sit, or session. Compassion meditation takes form over time and repetition and it is far more meaningful to remain aware and open through a difficult meditation session when the mind seems to fly in every direction all at once, and to come back the next day than to have a “good” or “blissful” session. While it is pleasant and inherently rewarding the days when we meet ourselves in meditation and find some modicum of peace and stillness, the days that we commit to stay with our discomfort and turmoil may be the most important, and even be responsible for the precious gems of peace we are fortunate to stumble upon in our minds.