Transformational work with psychedelics requires an open, warm, non-judgmental attitude towards your own experience, however painful or bizarre it might seem. Compassion meditation is a direct route to cultivating this kind of awareness. Meditation practice is not just from the head—it also comes from the heart, most immediately, in the practices of loving-kindness and compassion. Practices like metta or tonglen will teach you to become deeply intimate with yourself and your own experience.
Metta practice comes from the Theravada Buddhist tradition of generating unconditional love towards all beings, oneself and others. Developing this kind of loving acceptance frees us from negative patterns, makes difficult situations more bearable, and is said to “sweeten the mind.” Above all, it helps soften the shell of conditioning, the fearful internal tension that keeps us locked into reactive anxiety. In conjunction with breathwork and a few other key practices, metta is fundamental in opening our minds and bodies to real, grounded transformation.
Metta practice is a practice: it takes time to develop. Don’t expect to immediately and effortlessly radiate out peace and love to all beings. Start small, and keep at it. Some traditions recommend starting compassion practice with oneself as the subject, but for many people this can be the most difficult target, so do these in whatever order feels right to you.
Basic Loving-Kindness Practice
Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Ground yourself in your body, taking five or six conscious breaths to slow down and feel inside.
Bring to mind someone for whom you feel simple, uncomplicated affection—perhaps a friend, a childhood mentor, or a pet. Imagine being in their presence, sharing time and space with them. You might feel a simple sense of affection, a warmth in your heart as you do this—or you might not feel much of anything. No matter. Trust that your intention is planting seeds that will grow and blossom over time. Simply sitting and doing this practice is the most important step.
Begin to repeat to yourself, one breath for each line:
May you be happy.
May you be well.
May you be safe.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
Silently recite the words on the inhale, sending out the energy of your well-wishes on the exhale to the person you’re focusing your attention on. Take your time with this, giving yourself the luxury of unhurried meditation. Sink into the warmth of this connection, perhaps feeling a sense of warmth within your chest or near your heart. You can change the wording if you like, or tailor loving intentions for specific individuals: May you be at peace, for an anxious friend; May this hard time pass, for a loved one struggling with difficulties.
Next—or perhaps later, because you can do these in whatever order you choose – apply this to yourself. Sitting quietly, send yourself these same well-wishes, feeling the warmth of your compassionate heart radiating through your body. May I be happy. May I be well. May I be kind to myself. May I give myself what I need. If an internal voice rears up and says, This is selfish!, tell it calmly, No, this is nurturing. This can be a nice one to do if you’re having a hard time falling asleep at night.
After working with these initial practices for a while, expand your loving kindness to more neutral subject—a social acquaintance, a store clerk, the woman the next car over on the freeway—again, sending them simple well-wishes on the breath. Eventually, you begin to cultivate metta for those with whom you’ve experienced conflict. Send them your well-wishes simply as a fellow human being: May you be happy. May you be well. May you be free from suffering.
Ultimately, you can expand your practice of sending loving-kindness to all beings, human, animal, plant, microscopic—to all beings in your family … neighborhood … town … state … country … world … universe … May we all be happy. May we all be well. May we all be free from suffering.
If anger, grief, or sadness arise at any point during these practices, take it as a sign your heart is softening. You can rest in mindfulness with these feelings, or send them loving kindness and compassion through the same practice, directing these loving thoughts towards the part of you that is distressed.
- Imagine a close friend struggling in some way. See yourself really showing up for him/her. How would you respond? What you would say and do? What tone of voice would you use with her? Now, think about yourself in a difficult situation. How do you respond to yourself? What are the words and actions; what’s the tone of voice? If there is a difference between these two situations, explore why. How might things change if you treated yourself the way you treat your friend?
- Here’s a simple exercise (from Harry Palmer, ReSurfacing) to cultivate equanimity and compassion in the world. You can do it in public places, with strangers from a distance. Or try it with family members, people with whom you have difficulties—even other life forms, like animals or plants. Choose an individual, and run the following thoughts, one breath for each:
Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness in his/her life.
Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.
Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.
Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.
Just like me, this person is learning about life.
Stephen Levine, Guided Meditations, Explorations and Healings, and many other books
Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
Kristin Neff, guided meditations and exercises on self-compassion: