Researchers of human emotion at UC Berkeley famously noticed that on the days when they studied negative emotions (this involved spending the day grimacing and making angry faces), their moods were significantly lower and the downer-effects lasted beyond the work day and well into their evenings at home.
I can relate. After four days of writing about afflictive mental states, I can feel the effects of typing the word “anger” over and over beginning to seep into my consciousness. This sheds light on the subtle way that our unconscious mind processes the plethora of input coming in through the senses. The effects of both positive and negative stimulation are multidirectional and multidimensional. Images, sound, words, and touch – both positive and negative – contain the power to transform the mind-body organism. And, in the other direction: the engagement of muscles has the equal capacity to change our mental/emotional state.
This goes a long way toward explaining why yoga works. When we use our yoga practice to encourage multidimensional attention, focusing not only on the physical form of a posture but on the power of our mind, breath, and heart as well, we create new link-ups between mind-body-spirit. Our capacity for personal growth then sky-rockets exponentially.
This is part of a series about managing afflictive emotions. One caution – I find that working with metta when the mind is very afflicted is nearly impossible. Go for your run first, or make time for that kick-ass vinyasa yoga class that always leaves you in a puddle on your mat by the end. When the mind is very agitated, sitting still isn’t the most healthy alternative. I have a friend who told me that one single argument wrecked his sitting practice for six months. SIX MONTHS. So be patient and kind to yourself and honest with your personal needs. Then, if you get curious about it at some point, try metta. In yoga teacher trainings, I like to illustrate the power metta meditation with the following Swami Muktananda story:
“A saint was once giving a discourse on mantra. A man in the audience stood up and said, “What is this nonsense about mantra? Who wants to waste time repeating the same word over and over again. Do you think if you chant ‘bread, bread, bread’ it will fill your belly?” The saint jumped up from his seat. He pointed his finger at the man and shouted, “Shut up and sit down, you stupid ass!” Well, the man was furious. He got red in the face, his whole body started shaking with rage. He sputtered, “You call yourself a holy man, and you use a foul term like that in talking to me?” The saint then said very mildly, “But sir, I don’t understand. You heard yourself called an ass just once, and look how it’s affected you. Yet you think that our repeating the Lord’s name over and over again for hours won’t benefit us.”
Metta, like virtually all forms of meditation, is deceivingly simple. I could write endlessly about it but I’ll keep it short and sweet here:
Sit. Be comfortable – the idea isn’t to wreck your physical body but if you are fidgety simply notice this too.
Repeat a phrase to yourself. You may want to follow the pattern of your inhale and exhale if that reminds you to stay with the mantra. The classical metta mantra is some variation of:
“May you be at peace.
May you be free from suffering.
May your life unfold in freedom, and with ease.”
If you find this too complicated, or if you’re a yoga teacher working with teenagers or young kids, you can radically simplify:
“May you be at peace. May you be happy. May you be well.”
I like this latter version also because it eliminates the word “suffering” – hence all of the words seeping into the conscious and unconscious mind are now positive ones.
There are four classical stages or phases of metta. You start with the easiest: directing your energy and the repetition of mantra toward a benefactor or someone to whom you are very grateful. This tends to generate a feeling-tone of lovingkindness – but this feeling-tone isn’t necessary for the practice to “work.” You can do just this first stage for years and years. I studied metta meditation with Stephen Cope at Kripalu. If you’ve enjoyed this and want to know more, I highly recommend both Cope’s books and his retreats.
Namaste and… may all beings, everywhere be at peace.
Metta is part of a series of articles about managing challenging emotions. For more posts in this series: