Metta bhavana is an ancient Buddhist meditation practice that aims to cultivate the emotional virtue of loving-kindness, known as metta. I have previously explored the benefits of metta meditation for depression, as well as the potential pitfalls of the practice. I would like to return to the benefits of this form of meditation again, specifically in terms of how it may help individuals process psychedelic experiences.
Metta Bhavana and Psychedelic Integration
It is common to come across recommendations to take up a mindfulness meditation practice after a psychedelic trip in order to enhance the benefits. And these recommendations are justified. After all, post-trip, mindfulness-related capabilities are enhanced, which is linked to well-being, so building on these capabilities through a formal, regular practice can entail further mental health benefits. Selina Heuser — a researcher investigating the synergy between meditation and psychedelics — describes in a post for the MIND Foundation that mindfulness benefits a psychedelic journey before, during, and after the experience. Related to this discussion on integration, Heuser writes:
Psychedelics can alter the content of a person’s thoughts and destabilize negative belief systems. However, if a patient does not develop new healthy belief systems after the session, they are more likely to relapse eventually. Engaging in a continuous practice of non-judgmental awareness may make negative beliefs and thought patterns less compulsive. It may also ensure continuous, healthy mental strategies for coping with unhealthy thoughts. This theoretical idea is supported by the success of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which employs mindfulness practice to prevent relapse in addiction and depression. In sum, mindfulness practice could be invaluable for sustaining the positive outcomes of psychedelic-assisted therapy.
However, I believe that metta bhavana should also be included as a potential tool for psychedelic integration. This is because many psychedelic insights, and the most profound moments one has during these experiences, are characterised by positive emotions — loving-kindness, in particular, being a recurring theme. A consistent practice of metta bhavana can help one reanimate the feeling of loving-kindness from the psychedelic state, allowing it to spill over into sober life, which is connected to many psychological and relational benefits.
The Theme of Loving-Kindness in the Psychedelic State
The term ‘loving-kindness’ may sound a bit saccharine to some, yet it is still a feeling that we deem important in life. Loving-kindness, or metta, can also be called tenderness, affection, warm-heartedness, goodwill, and benevolence. It is the genuine wish for oneself and others to be happy, and crucially, this wish is meant to extend to all sentient beings, so it is a practice of universal love. This sense of universal love may also be felt in the psychedelic state, which is often tied to the dissolution of the ego (since boundaries between oneself and others dissolve) and the feeling of being interconnected with all that exists.
The feeling of loving-kindness can arise spontaneously during psychedelic experiences, seemingly out of nowhere; although this does not mean it arises randomly, without reason. If feelings of love and kindness towards yourself and others are lacking, then their arising in the psychedelic state can be viewed as a corrective, a bringing to the surface of what is needed for the sake of one’s well-being. In this way, the experience of loving-kindness during a psychedelic experience — which is often intense, and perhaps even felt to be sacred — aims towards inner healing and restoration. Loving-kindness can be viewed as the remedy for the ailments of self-hatred and separation from others (both of which are typically intertwined).
Integrating Loving-Kindness Into Your Life
The spiritual teacher Ram Dass said that “love slowly transforms you into what the psychedelics only let you glimpse.” And this was in the context of how people get trapped within psychedelic experiences — that is, there is a tendency to want to remain in the euphoric, love-filled psychedelic state, but to actually transform as people, we need to take these glimpses of profound love and make that feeling a regular part of our everyday lives. Metta bhavana is the practice that will allow this to happen.
The formal practice of metta bhavana involves silently repeating four phrases in five stages. Each stage is meant to expand your capacity for loving-kindness. In the first stage of the meditation, you direct phrases of well-wishing towards yourself; then the next recipients of this emotion are as follows: a good friend or loved one, a neutral person (someone who you have no strong feelings about either way), a difficult person (someone who evokes negative feelings in yourself or who is a source of conflict), and all sentient beings (so all humans on the planet and all non-human animals who have subjective experiences and feelings).
There are common phrases used in metta bhavana that are intended to encapsulate the intention and feeling of loving-kindness. However, you can vary these phrases as you like. Typically, though, you repeat a set of four. Some examples of phrases include:
May I be filled with loving-kindness
May I be well
May I be safe and free from danger
May I be healthy
May I be free from suffering
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy
In the second, third, and fourth stages of the meditation, you just swap the “I” out for “you”, and then in the fifth stage you swap out the “you” for “all beings”.
Emma Seppälä — science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education — wrote an article for Psychology Today on the research-backed benefits of loving-kindness meditation, which encompass different categories:
- Increases in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions
- Increases in baseline vagal tone — a physiological marker of well-being
- Decreases in migraines
- Decreases in chronic pain
- Decreases in PTSD symptoms
- Decreases in negative symptoms associated with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders
Improved emotional intelligence:
- The activation of empathy and emotional processing in the brain
- Increases in grey matter volume, which is related to emotion regulation
Improved stress response:
- Increases in respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), an index of parasympathetic cardiac control (i.e. your ability to enter a relaxing and restorative state)
- The slowing down of biological ageing
Enhanced social connection:
- Increases in positive interpersonal attitudes and helping behaviour
- Increases in compassion
- Increases in empathy
- Decreases in your bias towards others
- Increases in social connection
- The curbing of self-criticism and depressive symptoms, and improvements in self-compassion and positive emotions
Furthermore, loving-kindness meditation is effective in small doses (practised in a single short session lasting 10 minutes) and it has a long-term positive impact.
Many of the above benefits can also be seen after psychedelic use, often during what is known as the ‘afterglow’: the days and weeks following a trip where you still feel heightened positive emotions. Nevertheless, the afterglow is a short-term experience. To maintain positive feelings, attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs, you will need to cultivate them — and this is the goal of metta bhavana.
Practising loving-kindness meditation in the days and weeks following a psychedelic experience will help to solidify these positive states of mind, especially since this is a period of enhanced neuroplasticity (when your brain has an increased ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function). This is why the afterglow period is also called a ‘critical period’, as this is when psychotherapeutic interventions can be especially effective. Likewise, any positive influence — including a metta bhavana practice — can be highly impactful during the afterglow period. Researchers have also found that positive emotions are correlated positively with the number of minutes spent doing the loving-kindness meditation, so this is worth keeping in mind too.
By spending 10–30 minutes a day practising metta meditation following a psychedelic trip, you will increase your chances of sustaining feelings of warmth and kindness towards yourself and others, whatever personal situations or types of interactions may arise. This is particularly important from a therapeutic point of view, as our relationship with ourselves and others matters in terms of preventing and minimising emotional distress.
Of course, if you keep up the practice before your experience, then it will be easier to continue with it after (since you’ll already be familiar with it and have it ingrained as a habit). Also, having this regular practice in place beforehand can set you up for a more positive psychedelic experience and allow you to better handle any challenging emotions (either during the experience or after).
Metta Bhavana Deserves More Attention in the Psychedelic Space
Growing research in the field of psychedelic therapy indicates that emotions and insights are key to therapeutic effects. For example, there are studies showing that emotional breakthroughs predict long-term positive psychological changes. The Emotional Breakthrough Inventory (EBI), which is used to measure this effect, consists of statements such as “I faced emotionally difficult feelings that I usually push aside” and “I was able to get a sense of closure on an emotional problem.” The stronger that participants agree with these statements, the greater their increases in well-being after a psychedelic experience.
Mystical experiences (i.e. experiencing ego dissolution, unity, ineffability, profound positive mood, transcendence of space and time, and sense of sacredness) and psychological insights (a clear understanding of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviour) have also been linked to positive outcomes following psychedelic therapy. However, as researcher Jannis Ulke suggests in a piece for the MIND Foundation:
When psychological insights are accompanied by intense emotions or awe-inspiring, mystical-type effects, they may have much more transformative potential than either experience alone. And it goes without saying that any insight must be properly integrated, which entails actively reflecting on one’s experience and exploring how to put it into practice to invoke enduring change.
Psychedelic experiences are often, especially in moderate to strong doses, accompanied by intense emotional states. The most profound emotional states tend to be those characterised by compassion, love, and kindness; and there is often a related message that one’s life should be infused with — and informed by — these emotion-based virtues. These positive emotions also matter in terms of how individuals work through difficult psychological material during and after their journeys.
When it comes to psychedelic integration, more attention should be paid to loving-kindness meditation because many people find that this emotion takes on profound meaning in their altered states and — as we have seen — metta leads to many positive changes when it is purposely cultivated.