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Try This Meditation Technique to Foster Lovingkindness

Try This Meditation Technique to Foster Lovingkindness

When times seem bleak, starting a practice of lovingkindness can warm your outlook and your interactions with others.

Updated on January 24, 2020 at 3:00pm EST.

Connecting to others from your heart is more important than ever. If you have the means and ability, volunteering to help those in need can enhance your sense of purpose—and physical and mental health—while you serve the greater good. At the same time, working inwardly can be a valuable complement to good works that everyone has the capacity to try.

One way to foster that inward connection is by developing mindfulness.

The benefits of mindfulness
Simply put, mindfulness is the awareness that comes from paying attention, non-judgmentally, with a spirit of curiosity, to the present moment. You can learn mindfulness by setting up a daily practice of meditation.

“By tuning in to our experience through mindfulness, we develop a constructive response to difficult circumstances and establish a greater sense of balance,” says Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and executive medical director of behavioral health at Sharecare. “When we do so, stressful events don’t inevitably lead to stress.”

A central element of mindful meditation that extends this benefit is a practice called lovingkindness.

“Many of us are caught in a pattern where we fixate on the mistakes we make, our flaws, what we do wrong,” says Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of several books, including Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, published in September 2020. “Lovingkindness changes the channel. It expands our perspective of ourselves and the universe of those we pay attention to.”

The result for many is being able to move away from self-judgment, fear or anger to a greater openness to others. “If we do the practice there’s such a genuine sense of caring and a tremendous feeling of connection," Salzberg says.

Here’s how to begin.

Laying the foundation for lovingkindness
Practicing lovingkindness (also known as metta) starts with setting up a basic meditation routine for yourself. You don’t need a lot of time, space or special equipment, just a quiet place and a few minutes each day.

Start by sitting in an upright, comfortable position. Notice without judgment how your body feels. Are you relaxed or tense, at ease or stressed?

Next, take a moment to think about the reason you’re meditating. Are you here to try to ease a feeling of stress or sadness, or simply to take a break from your computer? Perhaps your intention is to send well-wishes to someone in your life who is struggling.

Now, close your eyes gently and bring your attention to the flow of your breath at one point in your body. This might be the tip of your nose or your belly. Don’t try to control your breath; simply notice it flowing.

Sitting in this way, gently focusing your attention, is the essence of meditation. After a few minutes, you might feel more relaxed—or you may notice how active and agitated your mind is. Either outcome is fine.

Each time your mind wanders from your breath, gently bring it back. Each time, you have an opportunity to begin again, without judgment.

Bringing in lovingkindness
When you’ve achieved some steadiness in your meditation, bring your attention to your heart. You might imagine a feeling of warmth there or actually place your hand on your chest.

Take a moment to recite a few phrases, out loud or in your mind. There’s no set formula for what you should say or how you should say it, but the general concept is to incline your mind toward lovingkindness with the following wishes. Begin with yourself:

“May I be happy of heart.
May I be free from suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I live with ease.”

Extending outward
Once you’ve said these phrases for yourself, think of someone you consider to be a benefactor. This could be a family member, friend, teacher or mentor, anyone who has shown you kindness or support or for whom you feel gratitude. Picture them or say their name, then repeat the phrases:

“May you be happy of heart.
May you be free from suffering.
May you be healthy and strong.
May you live with ease.”

The next person you might call to mind is someone you’ve encountered in life but for whom you have no connection, only neutral feelings. This could be a neighbor you sometimes pass on the sidewalk, or a clerk at the grocery store. Even though you don’t know this person, they are no less worthy of wishes of lovingkindness. Repeat the phrases with that person in mind.

“You may not feel any big change in your formal meditation,” Salzberg says, “but next time you’re in that shop or in that place you’ll notice you feel a greater sense of connection.”

Next, try saying the phrases on behalf of someone with whom you have difficulty or conflict. This could be someone you know, or someone you’ve never met but have in mind often. “You might be letting them live in your brain, rent-free,” says Salzberg.

Regardless of how you feel about this person or what they do that may cause suffering, consider that they have a wish to be happy, just as you do. Say the phrases for them.

Doing so is not going to change the person in question. “You can’t say, ‘I’m going to get really good at this and then Uncle Joe is going to turn around,” Salzberg notes. “But the dynamic around that person often shifts because we’re different.”

Lastly, expand your wish to all living beings:

“May all beings everywhere be happy of heart.
May all beings everywhere be free from suffering.
May all beings everywhere be healthy and strong.
May all beings everywhere live with ease.”

Experiencing the benefits of lovingkindness
Lovingkindness isn’t telepathy. You can’t expect to change someone’s mind, heart or attitude by having them in mind when you meditate. But research suggests you may be able to change yours.

Sustaining a regular practice of lovingkindness may help increase positive emotions (including love, joy and gratitude), lower stress levels, help you feel more satisfied in life and even decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. These benefits, in turn, can radiate outward to your loved ones and others you encounter in life.

Lovingkindness can even change your brain. Dr. Brewer’s lab uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brain activity of people practicing lovingkindness. He’s found that while people are practicing lovingkindness, a brain region called the posterior cingulate—a network that gets activated when people are stressed, caught up in worry or even crave drugs, cigarettes or chocolate—quiets down.

This season, particularly if you are home for the holidays, consider beginning a meditation practice with a component of lovingkindness. If you’re not able to be physically present with your loved ones, you can still take time to hold them in your heart for a few moments, while potentially expanding your own capacity for compassion.

“Lovingkindness reinforces a deep understanding that we live in an interconnected universe, that however alone or cut off we might feel, our lives are intertwined,” says Salzberg.

The best news, notes Brewer: “It’s a capacity that we all have and can draw upon anytime.”

If you need a hand finding your breath or developing a meditation routine, try the free Breathe by Dr. Jud app (available for iOS and Android). For a more immersive evidence-based mindfulness experience that includes exercises in lovingkindness, sign up for Dr. Jud’s Unwinding Anxiety program.

Medically reviewed in November 2020.

Sources:

Yeung JWK, Zhang Z, Kim TY. Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: cumulative effects and forms. BMC Public Health 2017;18(1):8.
Tabassum F, Mohan J, Smith P. Association of volunteering with mental well-being: a lifecourse analysis of a national population-based longitudinal study in the UK. BMJ Open 2016;6(8):e011327.
Zeng X, Chiu CPK, Wang R, Oei TPS, Leung FYK. The effect of loving-kindness meditation on positive emotions: a meta-analytic review. Front. Psychol. 2015;6:1693.
Pace TWW, Negi LT, Adame DD, et al. Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2009;34(1):87-98.
Fredrickson BL, Cohn MA, Coffey KA, Pek J, Finkel SM. Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 2008;95(5):1045-1062.
Graser J, Stangier U. Compassion and Loving-Kindness Meditation: An Overview and Prospects for the Application in Clinical Samples. Harv. Rev. Psychiatry 2018;26(4):201-215.
Hofmann SG, Grossman P, Hinton DE. Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: potential for psychological interventions. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 2011;31(7):1126-1132.
Garrison KA, Scheinost D, Constable RT, Brewer JA. BOLD signal and functional connectivity associated with loving kindness meditation. Brain Behav. 2014;4(3):337-347.

*Remember that meditation should not be seen as a substitute for regular consultation with a healthcare provider (HCP). If you have a history of depression, PTSD or other mental illness or experience significant mental or physical distress while meditating, stop and consult your HCP.

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