Metta Meditation: The Power of Self-Compassion

We cannot be happy and healthy fighting against ourselves. But often we are kinder to others than to ourselves. The practice of metta meditation can help us develop more self-compassion.

Metta Meditation

Don't you wish for a person who is always there for you? Who takes you as you are - in good times and in bad? Who is patient and compassionate - without judging you? We often direct this desire outwards and hope that friends or partners will take on this job. But they are overwhelmed with this expectation and cannot live up to it.

But there is someone who can always be there for you because he is close by 24/7: yourself. Unfortunately, we are often “fair weather friends” ourselves. We are kind to ourselves when everything is going perfectly. On the other hand, when we are confronted with our flaws or a failure, we mutate into our harshest critics: "Fool, you never learn that!", "How flabby your stomach is - no wonder you're single!", "At some point you'll notice your boss knows that you're not good at it."

The inner critic is never satisfied

While we can always have understanding and compassion for those we love, we are merciless to our own imperfections. Suddenly weaknesses seem totally unacceptable to us. We compare ourselves to an imaginary, perfect version of ourselves and find fault with ourselves in the hopes of one day being so good, slim, successful and enlightened that we finally get a benevolent nod from our inner critic.

But the hope that we can improve ourselves with toughness and discipline is deceptive. Studies show that people who are kind to themselves are more productive and healthier. Self-criticism, on the other hand, tends to lead to binge eating and frustration attacks. In the long term, depression and psychosomatic complaints can be the result. Because your body cannot tell whether someone from the outside is attacking you or whether you are at war with yourself. In both cases, stress hormones are released. Fortunately, the opposite also works: If we treat ourselves with love, our body produces the bonding hormone oxytocin, which creates feelings of contentment and connectedness.

More empathetic thanks to self-compassion

But wait: don't we become selfish when we're nice to ourselves? Studies can also refute this prejudice: they have shown that people who are kind to themselves are also more compassionate and loving towards others. There is also a lot to be said for the idea that we can only give when our own bowl is full.

The wisdom traditions also encourage self-compassion. Christianity says: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And Buddha once said: “Search the universe for a being more deserving of your love and affection than you are, you will not find them anywhere. You deserve your love and affection just as much as any other being in the entire universe.” Unconditional, all-encompassing love always includes ourselves.

The practice of metta meditation

In the Buddhist tradition there is even a practice in which we and ourselves give unconditional compassion and gradually extend it to all living beings: metta meditation. Metta comes from the ancient Indian Pali language and means something like "loving kindness", "kindness" or "warmth of heart".

During metta meditation, four short phrases are repeated internally, similar to mantras . They not only help your mind to anchor itself in the here and now, but also to cultivate positive, loving feelings. Each sentence is like a seed that eventually germinates and grows - and ultimately leads to a deep connection.

The traditional metta phrases are:

  • may i be happy
  • May I feel safe and secure.
  • may i be healthy
  • May I live carefree.

The wording can be adjusted a bit. But once you've decided on sentences, you should stay with them for a while so that they can take full effect. And even if you can't connect to the sentences at first or don't feel anything, it's worth continuing. Just try to keep an open mind and not expect any specific outcome. Positive feelings almost always set in over time. Many speak of the three Ws: softness, width and warmth.

Old wisdom in a new light

Western psychology is also increasingly discovering the many benefits of being a good friend to yourself. American scientist Kristin Neff researches the positive effects of self-compassion. She describes three essential aspects of this inner attitude that we can consciously activate (e.g. when we experience a difficult situation):

1. Mindfulness:

This means that we face our experience with an open, accepting attitude and consciously perceive our thoughts, feelings and body sensations.

2. Connectedness:

We remember that all people face difficulties and painful experiences. We are not alone in our pain.

3. Self-kindness:

We take care of ourselves like a good, understanding friend or a caring mother. We don't judge ourselves for our experience.

Amazingly, change often succeeds precisely when we develop self-compassion for our weaknesses, difficulties and mistakes. The famous psychotherapist Carl Rogers once put it this way: "The strange paradox of life is: Only when I accept myself as I am can I change."

Learn more & try:

Would you like to try metta meditation? Here's a nice guided version:
Metta Meditation with Dr. Wilfred Reuter

Instructions for metta and self-compassion meditations are available in English from Tara Brach:
Loving Kindness Mediation with Tara Brach (Podcast/English)

You can learn more about self-compassion in this TED talk by Kristin Neff:
The Space between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion

Recommended books & CDs:

  • Sharon Salzberg: "Metta Meditation - Buddha's revolutionary path to happiness", Arbor Verlag 2003 (The classic on the subject)
  • Marie Mannschatz: "Buddha's Heart Meditation", GU 2015
  • Kristine Neff: "Self-compassion - How we reconcile with our weaknesses and become our own best friend", Kailash Verlag 2012
  • Christine Brähler: "Developing self-compassion", Scorpio Verlag 2015

Our recommendation: