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: Talking about metta practice for suffering beings as a way to free ourselves from fear and anxiety in stressful and difficult times.
Metta = goodwill, love, loving-kindness – the first of four Buddhst Brahmaviharas, Sublime Social Attitudes, or Divine Abidings
Metta practice: May ____ be free from fear and anxiety. May _____ be at ease. May _____ be happy.
Starting with someone for whom it is easy to feel this unconditionally, then someone for whom it is fairly easy, then a little more challenging; expanding until we can include everyone. Making sure, at some point along the way, including ourselves.
Metta practice opens our hearts, cultivates generosity, helps us see, enact, feel interdependence
A Practice of Metta for Our Current Situation
Starting off with some metta practice, then we’ll go on to explore more about why and how it helps us mitigate our fear and anxiety, increase our sense of connection and plenty, and give us strength.
Metta practice around our current situation on the west coast of the US right now, unprecedented wildfires driven by climate change.
Sit in comfortable meditation position… aware of posture, breathing
Call to mind all the people suffering from the wildfire smoke on the west coast of the US. May ____ be free from fear and anxiety. May _____ be at ease. May _____ be happy.
Call to mind… the people who were unhoused before the fires, who now remain outside, breathing the hazardous smoke 24-7… the people who have had to evacuate their homes, leaving almost everything behind in the path of wildfires, living in hotels or shelters or crammed in with family or friends despite the pandemic, wondering whether they will return to their homes to find them burned to the ground… those who have lost their homes… those who have lost their lives (story of family)…
People in poverty, who have to keep working every day no matter the pandemic or the wildfire smoke…
Our beautiful, life-giving forests… all the wild creatures and plants that lived in the forests that have burned…
May we be free from fear and anxiety. May we be at ease. May we be happy.
End with calling gratitude to mind… can always find something to be grateful for…
First, a Disclaimer: Metta Is Not a Replacement for Action
Several things to note: Metta is 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 them 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. And 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
Quick note: Usually talk about metta practice in a formal sense (a practice with form, particular phrases, particular time you spend doing it, etc.), but it doesn’t have to be that formal; it can be something you turn to each moment you notice yourself stressed, troubled, inclined to turn away from suffering because it feels overwhelming.
Another quick note: You might say I’m going on to “analyze” how metta works and why it’s effective at reducing our fear and anxiety. 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 my mind needs to be engaged in my practice as well as my body and heart; understanding helps me open up to a practice and engage it more fully.
Metta as Facing Reality
First, we turn toward reality, opening our perception: Listen, look, acknowledge, call to mind.
Buddhist teaching: The truth is always liberating. Sometimes it is scary or painful or troubling to face, but denying the truth and hiding out in ignorance can only temporarily be blissful. And there’s an argument to be made it can never really be blissful. Part of us knows we’re indulging in ignorance, one of the three poisons. We know our happiness is conditional and fragile, depending on denial.
In metta practice, we turn toward a being, or beings; even if we’re not doing so because we know they’re suffering acutely, just to turn toward a being is to turn toward some degree of suffering, because we all experience it
Calling difficult, stressful, terrible situations to mind during metta practice counteracts our natural tendency for denial, turning away.
Of course, we need balance, Bearing Witness the right amount – enough to face reality and open our hearts, but not so much that we succumb to despair or overwhelm (that is, if we are fortunate enough to have the option to decide what doses we want to take our suffering in!)
Shining the light of awareness on suffering and difficult circumstances: Better to know what is there, at the very least. 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
Second, we shift attention away from our self-centered concerns
You might call this breaking out of the prison of the small self.
Simple act of turning the mind from 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, etc. – all valid concerns, things I should think about if I’m being responsible – shifting attention to the wellbeing of others.
The shift in perspective might only be a for a brief time, but the ability to redirect the mind in this way, to break out of the prison of anxiety, fear, worry, etc. 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 happens even if the metta is for ourselves, because 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, and turn toward our experience as opposed to the external circumstances that are troubling us.
Generating a Sense of Sufficiency
Perform an act of generosity, however subtle and small, and thereby shift from a sense of lack to a sense of sufficiency, even plenty
Power of compassion, which is goodwill/metta when we see beings suffer; we don’t need to get intellectually concerned about how much our “metta” actually helps – when open up to compassion we experientially recognize its power. From a place of loving-kindness and compassion we have energy, potential…
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.
And this is actually a toned-down version of the sutra that I created in order to incorporate this chant into our service without confusing people new to our community. Here’s some verses we don’t include in our chant (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. 
I personally don’t believe mentally generating a feeling of metta or compassion for someone is literally going to save them from fire or drowning or injustice or anything, in some magical sense (which is why I don’t include these verses in our chant, although some people do resonate with this imagery). However, if you set aside the literal interpretation… what, other than compassion, is motivating the firefighters who are risking their lives to keep the wildfires from people’s homes, going toward the scary, towering, unpredictable, fast-moving flames instead of running away from them?
Metta ends up manifesting in acts of generosity and kindness in difficult times, strangers helping one another in a way they wouldn’t ordinarily do, because they’re moved by compassion
Metta Offers Strength Through Boundlessness
Open up to experience of interdependence, because where we sincerely feel empathy, connection, goodwill, loving-kindness, compassion, it reveals our connection.
We are not alone.
Ultimately, there is no one to protect. Our true self-nature is no self-nature… or our true self-nature is not a small, limited self-nature, bounded by our skin, or our home, our possessions, our personal relationships, our identity, etc.
What is 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. This is natural and appropriate, but the narrative we create about our lives is just a narrative.
As Pema Chodron 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.
There is immense power in boundlessness. 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 life itself and does not involve opposition.
Metta practice is an effective way to align ourselves with our boundless true self without intellectualizing about it. Metta is not something we create, 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 and interdependence. It’s comparable to a practice of warmth that involves going out to stand in the sunshine; you don’t generate the warmth by moving your body to a different location, doing so allows you access the warmth. Similarly, we practicing aligning our body, mind, and heart in such a way that we feel metta and compassion, and 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)