When we call suffering beings to mind and extend metta – loving-kindness, or friendliness – we face reality while centering ourselves in our true self, which is boundless and interdependent with all of life. We recognize the wellbeing of others is not separate from our own wellbeing. It might seem like metta practice would open us up to even more suffering, thereby increasing our own fear and anxiety, but this is not the case.
In fact, metta helps us face reality – an absolutely essential part of our Buddhist practice – while aligned with our deeper nature. This alignment results in a sense of plenty – of having resources to share. It results in a sense of strength, because we are centered in our boundless self and have given up our self-centered concern and defensiveness. Metta practice also counteracts our sense of powerlessness in the face of tragedy or difficult circumstances, and awakens our compassionate impulses to help.
Today, I am talking about metta practice for suffering beings as a way to free ourselves from fear and anxiety in stressful and difficult times.
Metta can be translated as goodwill, love, loving-kindness, friendliness. Metta is the first of four Buddhist Brahma Viharas, or sublime social attitudes as I like to call them, or sometimes also called divine abiding. They begin with metta or goodwill, then compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Classic metta practice involves calling someone to mind and then repeating these verses while summoning sincere feelings. May so-and-so be free from fear and anxiety. May they be at ease. May they be happy.
You might repeat those lines while trying to cultivate the sincere feeling of goodwill, loving-kindness, or friendliness, however you like to think about it. You generally start this practice with someone for whom it is easy to feel this unconditionally. It might even be a pet, because sometimes it’s hard to feel unconditional goodwill, or maybe for a child, and then for someone for whom it is fairly easy, and then a little more challenging, expanding our ability to feel sincere metta outwards until we can include everyone, even people with whom we have difficulty or disagree. We make sure, at some point along the way, that we include ourselves. That might be early on in the process if it’s fairly easy or later on in the process if it’s quite hard. Metta practice opens our hearts, cultivates generosity, helps us see, enact, and feel interdependence.
A Practice of Metta for Our Current Situation
I’m proposing that metta can be an antidote to our own fear and anxiety. When we call suffering beings to mind and extend metta, we face reality. While centering ourselves in our true deeper self, which is boundless and interdependent with all life, we recognize the well-being of others is not separate from our own well-being, and this might make it seem like metta practice would open us up to even more suffering thereby increasing our own fear and anxiety, but this is not the case. In fact, metta helps us face reality, which is an absolutely essential part of our Buddhist practice while we are aligned with our deeper nature.
This alignment results in a sense of sufficiency or plenty, of having resources to share, and it results in a sense of strength because we’re centered in our boundless self and have given up, for a moment at least, our self-centered concern and defensiveness. Metta practice also counteracts our sense of powerlessness in the face of tragedy or difficult circumstances and awakens our compassionate impulses to help. Start off with some actual metta practice, and then go on to explore more about why and how it helps us mitigate our fear and anxiety, helps us increase our sense of connection and plenty, and gives us strength.
This is a short metta practice built around our current situation on the west coast of the US right now, with unprecedented wildfires driven by climate change. If you are able to sit in a comfortable position and become aware of your posture, of your contact with the floor or the chair, or if you are moving, just be aware of the simple movements of your body—your breath. Now, call to mind the people suffering from wildfire smoke on the west coast of the US. Think of the people whose forests are burning—the sky is orange and hazy—who need to be on double lockdown inside their homes, who may or may not have the resources to have air purifiers or air conditioning: May they be free from fear and anxiety. May they be at ease. May they be happy.
Now call to mind the people who were unhoused before the fires, who now remain outside breathing the hazardous smoke twenty-four-seven, the smoke that is so unpleasant that those of us who have the option can’t bear to be out in it for more than a few minutes. Think of the people living unhoused and outside: May they be free from fear and anxiety. May they be at ease. May they be happy.
Think of the people who have had to evacuate their homes, leaving almost everything behind in the path of wildfires, living in hotels or shelters, are crammed in with family or friends despite the pandemic, wondering whether they will return to their homes to find them burned to the ground, people who have perhaps experienced this already in the last few years: May they be free from fear and anxiety. May they be at ease. May they be happy.
Think of those who have lost their lives, those who have lost loved ones, people burned alive because they could not outrun the flames: May they be free from fear and anxiety. May they be at ease. May they be happy.
Call to mind the many firefighters, many of them volunteers out there in the forest, in the heat and the danger, running toward the flames instead of away: May they be free from fear and anxiety. May they be at ease. May they be happy.
Think of our beautiful, life-giving, oxygen-producing forests that filter our water, hold the earth in place, and all the wild creatures and plants that lived in the forests before they burned: May they be free from fear and anxiety. May they be at ease. May they be happy.
It is good to end a metta meditation with a bit of gratitude. You can always find something to be grateful for, even if it is just still being alive.
First, a Disclaimer: Metta Is Not a Replacement for Action
There are several things that I want to note about metta practice. It’s not a replacement for action. That’s like sending people thoughts and prayers and figuring no more is required than that.
After all, when we wish beings to be free from fear and anxiety, to be at ease, we aren’t just wishing for a miraculous and inexplicable change in their attitude, we’re also wishing for their circumstances to be conducive to happiness. Metta, or goodwill, becomes compassion (the second Brahmavihara, or Sublime Social Attitude) when we witness beings suffering, and sympathetic joy when see them happy.
We really do sincerely want beings to be happy. That is the nature of metta or goodwill. As Edward Conze wrote in his book, Buddhist Thought in India:
“…it must really be left to the practice of sympathetic joy to overcome the negative sides of compassion, i.e. despondency and cruelty. Sympathetic joy sees the prosperous conditions of others, is glad about it, and shares their happiness… To most people success means material prosperity. When they are elated by having made some money, having got a better job, or a new new house, or because their children get on in the world, the spiritually minded are easily tempted to respond to this elation with a mixture of derision and pity… [However] To rejoice with the children of the world in what they value as successes requires a rare spiritual perfection.” 
Metta practice help us tap into our interdependence experientially; if practiced sincerely, extending it out as far as we can, it’s an antidote to a selfish sense of happiness which depends on prioritizing the wellbeing of ourselves and ignoring or denying responsibility for the wellbeing of others.
A Couple of Clarifying Notes
Another couple quick clarifying notes before I go on to talk about how it is that metta helps us deal with our fear and anxiety. Usually, when you’re talking about metta, you’re talking about it in a formal sense, a practice with form, particular phrases, a particular time that you spend doing it, but it doesn’t have to be that formal. Metta is something that you can turn to in each moment if you notice yourself stressed or troubled, inclined to turn away from suffering because it feels so overwhelming. You can just insert a little moment of metta, of trying to tap into that feeling.
Another quick note: You might say I’m going to go on to analyze how metta works, and why it’s effective at reducing our fear and anxiety, and if such analysis isn’t helpful to you, don’t worry about it. Let the words flow in one ear and out the other. Just try the practice and explore your own experience. Personally, though, I find that my mind needs to be engaged in my practice as well as my body and heart. Understanding, exploring intellectually, helps me open up to a practice, trust it, and engage it more fully.
Metta as Facing Reality
First, when we’re doing metta, we turn toward reality, opening our perception, we listen, we look, we acknowledge, we call to mind. According to Buddhist teaching, the truth is always liberating. Sometimes it’s scary or painful or troubling to face, but denying the truth and hiding out in ignorance really isn’t a viable option. It can only temporarily be blissful. There’s an argument to be made that it can actually never really be blissful because part of us knows we’re indulging in ignorance, one of the three poisons. Part of us knows our happiness is conditional and fragile, depending on denial. In metta practice, we turn toward a being or beings, and even if we’re not doing it because we know they’re suffering acutely, just to turn toward a being is to turn towards some degree of suffering because we all experience it. Certainly calling difficult, stressful, terrible situations to mind during metta practice counteracts our natural tendency for denial or turning away.
Naturally, we need balance, so this is the practice that I call bearing witness, and that’s one of three aspects of our practice. The others being, taking care of ourselves, of our lives, of what is around us, and then taking action. This part of bearing witness, we need to make sure we do it the right amount, adjust as necessary, so that we’re doing this enough to face reality and open our hearts, but not so much that we succumb to despair, or overwhelm, or obsession.
Of course, this advice applies if we’re fortunate enough to have the option to decide what doses we want to take our suffering in. It’s worthwhile to call to mind, with metta, sometimes people who don’t have that option. We shine the light of awareness on suffering in difficult circumstances. It’s better to know what’s there at the very least, and just this can bring some sense of ease because we’re no longer working at denial. There’s no longer part of our body, mind, and heart, nurturing a quiet, unexamined anxiety about a situation we’re refusing to acknowledge.
Breaking Out of the Prison of the Small Self
The second way that metta helps liberate us from fear and anxiety is that, as we do it, we shift our attention away from our self-centered concerns. You might call this breaking out of the prison of small-self, at least temporarily. Now, simply turn—the act of turning the mind, for example, away from, in this situation, worrying about my house, the air quality in it, will exposure to hazardous air make me or my husband sick? Will the economic impacts of wildfires on top of a pandemic end up threatening my financial security? What is next year going to look like? All of these valid concerns, things that I should think about if I’m being responsible—for a moment, I’m shifting my attention away from them to the well-being of others.
This shift in perspective might only be for a brief time, but the ability to redirect the mind, and this way to break out of the prison of anxiety, fear, worry, etcetera, for any amount of time, not only gives us relief, it reminds us that our mind state is changeable and we can make choices that affect our state of mind. This shift can happen even if the metta we’re practicing is for ourselves because, in a weird way, it’s almost like we have to step outside of our small self in order to send it loving-kindness. We need to face the reality of our own fear and anxiety, so we’re kind of including that whole part in the situation when we’re sending metta, to turn toward our experience as opposed to being focused on the external circumstances that are troubling us.
Generating a Sense of Sufficiency
The third way metta can help us is that when we do it, we’re performing an act of generosity, however subtle and small, and thereby we shift from a sense of lack to a sense of sufficiency or even plenty. The power of compassion, which is goodwill or metta, when we see beings suffer, has power and value, and we don’t need to get intellectually concerned about how much our metta actually helps.
When we open up to compassion, goodwill, sympathetic joy—we experientially recognize its power from a place of loving-kindness and compassion, we have energy, potential. This is why in many Soto Zen morning chanting services, we include the Universal Gateway of Compassion Sutra, which is from the Lotus Sutra, and it’s about the Bodhisattva of compassion, which is sometimes referred to as Avalokiteshvara, sometimes Kanzeon.
This is why we chant the Universal Gateway of Compassion sutra during our morning chanting service:
When living beings suffer hardships,
Burdened by immeas’rable woes,
the power of Kanzeon’s wondrous wisdom
can relieve the suf’ring of the world.
Fully endowed with miraculous powers,
Widely practicing wisdom and skillful means,
in every land and in all directions,
in no realm does she not appear.
In all the various evil destinies,
of hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals,
the suf’rings of birth, old age, sickness, and death,
are gradually relieved by Compassion.
This sutra is suggesting that compassion has miraculous powers, that in all the different situations and circumstances unfortunate in this world, the sufferings, real sufferings, birth, old age, sickness, and death can be relieved by compassion, which of course, starts from a basis of goodwill.
What’s interesting is that the version of the Universal Gateway of Compassion Sutra that we chant at my Zen center is one that I actually—it’s kind of an abridged version that I created, so it didn’t sound too, over-the-top magical, as if we were praying to some kind of deity called Avalokiteshvara or Kanzeon and hoping for them to deliver us, but it’s worth exploring what the original version of the chant sounds like. Here’s part of it, and in this chant, The Bodhisattva of Compassion is called Avalokiteshvara instead of Kanzeon. This is from the Universal Gateway Scripture from the Lotus Sutra. (Avalokiteshvara=Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion by different names):
Even if someone with harmful intent
should push you into a fiery pit,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
the pit of fire will tum into a pool.
If floating on a vast sea,
menaced by dragons, fish, or demons,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
the billowing waves cannot drown you.
If from Mount Sumeru’s lofty peak,
someone were to throw you down,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
like the sun you would stand firm in the sky. 
It goes on at great length in a similar vein. Now, I don’t believe, myself, that mentally generating a feeling of metta or compassion for someone is literally going to save them from a fire, or drowning, or injustice, or from falling, so they will just float or fly. I don’t believe this in some magical sense, which is why I don’t include these verses in our chant. Some people do actually think of the Bodhisattva of Compassion that way, or think of the power of these less than material or scientifically provable powers in the world.
However, if you set aside the literal interpretation, what other than compassion, is motivating, for instance, the firefighters who are risking their lives to keep the wildfires from people’s homes, going toward the scary, towering, unpredictable, fast-moving flames. Metta ends up manifesting in acts of generosity and kindness in difficult times, strangers helping one another in the way they wouldn’t ordinarily do, manifests in many tangible and impressive ways.
Metta Offers Strength Through Boundlessness
Finally, metta helps us, liberates us from fear and anxiety, gives us strength, because it opens us up to an experience of interdependence, because wherever we sincerely feel empathy, connection, goodwill, loving-kindness, compassion, it reveals our connection with other beings, with life. We are not alone, and ultimately, there is no one to protect. Our true self-nature is no self-nature, or you might say our true self-nature is not a small, limited self-nature, bounded by our skin, or our home, or our possessions, our personal relationships, our identity, etcetera. What’s real is our moment-by-moment experience. As humans, we can anticipate what might happen to us, so we take action in the present in order to prevent future misfortune or suffering for ourselves and our loved ones.
This is natural and appropriate, but the narrative we create about our lives, what’s happening now, what might happen, what we need to do—the narrative we create is just a narrative. As Pema Chödrön says, wherever you go, there you are.
Whatever happens to us, we have the capacity to meet it directly, summoning all the strength and skills and wisdom we can, at that moment. There’s immense power in boundlessness, and this doesn’t make sense intellectually because we think of power as one body or force impacting another body or force. However, the power of boundlessness arises from tapping into the energy of life itself, and therefore it doesn’t involve opposition. Metta practice is an effective way to align ourselves with our boundless true self without intellectualizing about it. In a way, you could say metta is not something we create. It’s not some special or artificial feeling we generate within ourselves. It’s what arises when we align with reality, when we move into a posture which opens up to our boundlessness, our emptiness, our interdependence. It’s comparable to, let’s say, a practice of works that involves going out to stand in the sunshine. You don’t generate the warmth just by moving yourself to a different location. Doing so allows you to access the warmth.
Similarly, we practice aligning our body, mind, and heart in such a way that we feel metta and compassion and sympathetic joy, and at such a point, we are centered in our own true nature.
Note: Zen teacher Shintai Dungay offers metta practice on Mondays, 6:30pm Pacific Time on Zoom. See Wy’East Zen Center: https://wyeastzencenter.org/metta-monday-evening
 Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1973. (Original copyright 1962)