By Sara Shah
Welcome back to today’s March Mindful Monday! Love? Kindness? This sounds kind of sappy. I know, I know, but hear me out… Loving kindness meditation is actually the meditation that impacted me the most when I started meditating. It’s also my favorite type of meditation to teach because it always makes me feel so good inside! It’s about cultivating love for not only ourselves, but for our loved ones, for the ones who drive us crazy, for strangers, and even for the entire world at large. That sounds like a whole lot to do in one meditation right? I know it sounds daunting, but it’s actually pretty simple and nice. Here’s a quick background on the what, how, and why of loving kindness meditation. May it help the world feel happier, safer, and more loved.
What is a loving kindness meditation?
Loving kindness comes from the Pali word “metta,” which means unconditional friendliness, love, or kindness. It has actually been secularized in the West, but the practice comes from an old Eastern Buddhist meditation tradition. Traditionally, a loving kindness meditation practice can begin with the mindfulness meditation exercise we performed earlier in the month. You can start by simply focusing on your breath for a couple of minutes to calm the body and mind down, and then you may transition into loving kindness meditation. Loving kindness meditation is not an awareness meditation like the mindfulness of breath or body scan meditation, rather it is a practice in cultivating compassion and positive emotions. It involves visualizations. For example, you can begin with picturing yourself. You would then offer yourself the traditional phrases of loving kindness (either out loud or silently in your own head). The phrases are:
After you have finished offering the phrases to yourself. You would then picture a loved one (a family member or dear friend), and offer the same phrases. For some people it feels awkward and difficult to begin by offering these phrases of loving kindness to ourselves, so if that is the case, feel free to begin with the loved one and then transition to yourself.
After these first two close relations, you are then invited to bring to mind a neutral person — think the mailman, or the barista that you bought coffee from this morning — it should be someone you really don’t know anything about. This is followed by a difficult person in your life, which can be a loved one or friend you’re having trouble with, to an enemy. And finally you can offer the phrases of loving kindness to all those in whichever town you are in, then whatever state, and if you’re feeling ambitious to the entire world, switching the “you” in the phrases to “all people.”
What is the science behind loving kindness meditation?
Loving kindness meditation is pretty cool because it offers the same basic perks of mindfulness of breath meditation, including stress reduction and improvement in symptoms of depression. But it goes even further than that. Loving kindness meditation has been proven to increase compassion and generate positive emotions in our relationships and in communities at large.
One study even found a brief seven minute loving kindness meditation increased feelings of social connectedness. That sounds like a pretty productive seven minute exercise to me. Another study found that loving kindness meditation improved the brain’s ability to empathize; better empathy leads to better compassion, and increases in empathy and compassion lead to better relationships and societies. And this last tidbit is probably my favorite—research shows loving kindness meditation actually decreases bias towards others (and may even reduce racism)!
At first, saying these phrases may feel a little weird, but by repeating the exercise we are actually generating positive emotions in our brain’s and even if the positivity feels a little forced at the beginning its been scientifically proven to make positive changes. So loving kindness meditation not only improves our relationship towards ourselves, but our relationship with those around us. Maybe that’s why it is still one of my favorite meditation practices to do on my own and to share with friends and students as often as I can.
When is it helpful to do a loving kindness meditation?
Human beings are not always easy to deal with. People can be hurtful and difficult, but sometimes we often forget these people are going through their own difficulties too. Life isn’t easy for any of us, so cultivating loving kindness on those hard days for not only ourselves, but for the people around us can do wonders. The last time I checked, the world could always use a little more love and care, even on the good days. So given the wonderful scientific benefits of loving kindness meditation, this can be a perfect practice to incorporate on both your good and bad days. On top of decreasing stress, it also increases positive emotions—doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me.
Happy meditating—may we all be safe, happy, and free!