When a client shows up at the studio and they’re struggling with rumination about circumstances over which they have no control, they’re often dealing with what I call being sticky to their thoughts. This rumination might be about circumstances in their own life—such as waiting on test results—or in the life of someone they love—such as watching a loved one go through a difficult divorce. They can’t think about much else.
Yoga is like a Mary Poppins bag of infinite wonder. It’s endless in depth but can also be overwhelming for that reason. How do we know which yoga tool to use unless we understand when to use it?
Unsticking from thoughts by understanding the gunas
In the case of sticky thoughts, let’s consider the gunas. The term gunas comes from ayurveda, the sister science of yoga. According to ayurveda, the gunas are the building blocks of all that exists in the universe. They are like the little Legos that make up the city of your physical body, the Earth, and even your thoughts and emotions.
How in the world can one little word make up all those different things?
Gunas are qualities. They are an explicit set of 10 pairs of opposites and two bonus qualities. They include sets like hot/cold and soft/hard. For today, let’s work with the sticky/clear set of gunas.
The client sitting across from me can’t stop thinking about his sister’s divorce and whether she’ll be okay. He knows that the worry is not helpful but doesn’t know how to break this ruminative thought pattern. This wise man has just identified his own stickiness—and through the wisdom of ayurveda, we know the opposite quality that we need to nurture: clarity.
Cultivating clarity through the practice of metta
One way to cultivate this clarity is through loving-kindness meditation, or metta.
Metta meditation can promote positive and peaceful emotions that improve emotional well-being. The Buddha taught this loving-kindness or friendship meditation practice more than 2,600 years ago, and it continues to nourish hearts to this day. The practice aims to develop an effective state of unconditional kindness to all people.
Loving kindness is a practice of great clarity. When we wish for freedom from danger and the states of happiness, health, and ease, the simplicity of the phrases used and their pure intention clear the gunky thoughts.
In its traditional form, the practitioner sits comfortably and focuses their attention on a standard set of phrases. They progressively direct these phrases outward, starting with the self, then to a benefactor or cherished person, then to a good friend, next to someone who feels neutral (like an acquaintance), then a mildly difficult person, and finally to all beings everywhere.
We offer these phrases like we offer a physical gift to someone we care for: with all our love and attention.
The traditional phrasing in a metta practice is:
May you be free of danger.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you live with ease.
Seems simple enough, right? But put these words in the mouth of a new practitioner, and you may run into challenges. Let’s see what happens with a toe dip in the practice.
A one-minute metta practice you can try right now
Be at ease in your position of choice. Settle in for a few breaths.
Then try saying the traditional phrases three times over.
You’re welcome to say them out loud or silently in your head:
May I be free from danger,
May I be happy,
May I be healthy,
May I live with ease.
What do you notice?
If you’re familiar with the phrases, you may immediately feel clearer and softer.
But if this is the first time that you’ve said the phrases, you may feel silly or even a little embarrassed.
Moving through blocks to practice: Be curious and creative
The phrase that many people struggle with is “May I be happy.” For those of us who have experienced trauma or tragic loss, the phrase may bring hardening or tightening in the body. If this is the case, try these tips:
Stay curious. In this particular phrase, the word “happy” refers to feeling like you have the resources to face what arises. But traditional metta phrases can evoke strong emotional reactions—even feelings that may seem opposite of those you’re trying to cultivate—and it can take time to disconnect from our preconceptions of familiar words.
Get creative. You can create whatever phrases feel real and true to you. The traditional phrases can be a jumping-off point to show you the direction that you need to go—or not go.
Metta practice helps train your brain to soften toward yourself, those around you, and a world in great need of friendship. It also connects us all with shared intention.
What would it be like if every human being chose to practice this intention of clarity and unconditional kindness? What kind of world would we create?