*If you haven’t read Meditation for Eating Disorder Recovery then I’d recommend you start there.
You learn to meditate by meditating. You learn more slowly if you think you can skip this part.
That is why I’m jumping straight into the meditation itself in this article, and then I’ll go on to explore the power of Metta Meditation afterwards. But for now…
Begin by finding a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. Start by developing a feeling of loving-kindness towards yourself. This is the desire to ease any suffering and be at peace with yourself. It might be helpful to visualize that feeling you get when you go outside in summer and sunlight gently warms your skin and makes you feel all tingly. Or it might be helpful to use an aspiration for nourishment and self-care, such as:
‘May I do what is best for me and my health so my fears get weaker and my true self gets stronger.’
You can put this aspiration into your own words to make it more personal to you. If you find it too difficult to cultivate these feelings towards yourself at first, then you can start cultivating loving-kindness towards someone you love – a child, a parent, even a pet. For example:
‘May my Dad do what is best for himself and his health so his fears get weaker and his true self gets stronger’.
Once you cultivate this feeling, see if you can awaken loving-kindness towards yourself. As you deepen this feeling, widen the circle of loving-kindness to:
- Someone you love
- A friend
- A stranger or someone neutral
- Someone you find difficult or offensive
- All of the above equally
- All beings
Spend one to two minutes awakening loving-kindness for each of the individuals and groups before slowly coming back to the present moment and seeing if you can keep that feeling of loving-kindness with you as you get on with your day.
What is Metta Meditation?
‘Metta’ translates as ‘loving-kindness’. It means compassion. It is unconditional kindness. It is the wish that we are all free from suffering. It is a universal, unselfish, and all-embracing love. This all-embracing love includes the people closest to you, your friends, your enemies, strangers, and all of humanity. It also includes YOU. Because, until you accept your flaws, it is very difficult to accept anyone else’s. And until you connect with self-love, is very difficult to share that love with anyone else.
When it comes to using Metta meditation as a way to overcome chronic dieting or disordered eating and heal your relationship with food, the self-love it cultivates it crucial simply because it’s is very difficult to nourish and care for someone you do not love. When self-love is missing, self-criticism, self-neglect, and self-abuse (through starving, bingeing, over-exercising…) will be high. But, once you begin feeling this self-love, you will be able to let go of these unhealthy habits and thought processes. And, as you let of all of these things that have been keeping you hostage, you will feel better. And as you feel better, you will do better. And as you do better, this love you started by cultivating for yourself, will overspill into the world.
This is why meditation can be so transformational – not just on a personal level, but on a social level too. Because the beauty of recovering from disordered eating is that it’s not just about healing yourself. It’s about healing the world. But it has to start with YOU.
Loving-Kindness and Compassion
Metta meditation originates in Buddhist traditions where Metta (loving kindness) is one of the four qualities that forms the foundation of the Buddhist ethical system along with:
- Compassion (karuna)
- Sympathetic joy – feeling happiness at others’ happiness (mutida)
- Equanimity – calmness, especially in challenging situations (upekkha)
These qualities are what we need to cultivate within ourselves to help us understand our own minds and the world around us, and live a life that is free from suffering and misery. In the context of Fear-Free Eating, this means freedom from the misery and suffering imposed by dieting, disordered eating, and self-critical thoughts on your weight, shape, and body.
And research into Metta meditation suggests that it enhances happiness and compassionate love, as well as reducing depression and anxiety.
We are finally starting to embrace the power of loving-kindness and compassion in healing. And psychologists have developed these qualities into a therapy known as Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT).
Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)
CFT is designed for people who are highly self-critical. This is incredibly common if you suffer from disordered eating and chronic dieting. Behind this self-criticism is often the threat of shame – being judged (by yourself and/or others) as fat, ugly, unfit, out of control, undesirable, unworthy, unwanted…
So, instead of numbing these feelings of fatness or ugliness or unworthiness through starvation or bingeing or another destructive coping strategy, CFT is about meeting these self-critical thoughts and feelings with compassion. Self-compassion includes:
- Awareness: Acknowledging that we are suffering
- Intention: A wish to relieve our suffering
- Action: Making steps to relieve our suffering
In the context of binge eating this means:
- An awareness that binge eating is causing us harm
- A wish to stop binge eating
- Taking steps to stop binge eating (e.g. asking for help, stopping dieting, nourishing yourself with regular, healthy meals)
Both the scientific approach of CFT and the spiritual approach of Metta Meditation recognise that humans have infinite capacity for love, kindness, and compassion. They also recognise that, unless we are mindful of what goes on in our mind, humans have the potential for being destructive. And this tendency for self-destruction is not our fault – the human mind creates dysfunctional loops and neural pathways automatically (read more about the neuroscience of habit formation here: Is Your Eating Disorder a Habit?).
Just remember, self-creation and self-destruction and not compatible – you can only do one or the other. Likewise, you can stop self-criticism with self-care and self-compassion.
This is why Metta Meditation can be incredibly empowering in healing. Not only because it’s a form of self-care and self-creation but because it encourages us to:
- Turn towards our anxiety, fears, and pain with compassion rather than avoiding them.
- Develop the wisdom to know what to do to about them in a way that reduces our suffering.
This is not just about having the intention to heal, but in taking the actions required to heal, no matter how difficult it may feel. In the context of Fear-Free Eating, this might mean:
- Turning towards the urge to binge eat with compassion rather than acting on it by bingeing or pretending it doesn’t exist.
- Developing the wisdom to know what to do about the urge in a way that reduces our suffering (sitting with the anxiety, allowing the urge to pass without acting on it, reaching out and asking for help, increasing self-care…)
I would recommend practicing Metta Meditation for 5-10 minutes every day. It might feel challenging to start with. Especially if you have been highly critical of yourself for years. But, just like learning to swim or juggle or ride a bike takes consistent practice, so does learning to be compassionate towards yourself.
When my clients begin their Metta Meditation practice, they find it helpful to write their name with their non-dominant hand in a notebook at the end of each practice. At first, it feels uncomfortable and unnatural and their writing is wonky and unreadable. But, with practice, it begins to feel more comfortable, their writing becomes more fluid and their name becomes readable. The same is true for compassion. At first it can feel uncomfortable and unnatural, but soon it begins to feel comfortable, natural. Compassion grows with practice. And I would recommend you begin practicing today.
Let me know how you get on in the comments.
Read more about the potential for compassion and loving-kindness to help recovery from eating disorders and mental health issues here
Learn more about CFT here
Read a study on the benefits of two weeks of metta meditation here