3 reasons we all need to practice loving-kindness meditation
You may have tried meditation in the past. Perhaps you kept it up for a couple of days and thought ‘this feels difficult.’ So you stopped and assumed meditation is just not right for you.
But did you know there are thousands of ways to meditate; from mindfulness, breath-based or mantra-based meditations to open focused or visualisation-based practices. So perhaps you just need to shop around a bit to find the one that’s the best for you. They do say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince, after all.
If you think of the different meditation practices as racehorses, you might assume that mindfulness is the one at the front of the field right now. Mindfulness as a kind of mind management tool is everywhere and it’s been the subject of a lot of research. But more and more evidence is building for a lesser known practice known as ‘loving-kindness’ and here are 3 reasons you might want to give it a try right away:
#1 It increasing positive emotions and improves overall wellbeing
In a landmark study, Barbara Frederickson and her colleagues found that just seven weeks of loving-kindness practice led to more positive emotions in meditators and less depressive thoughts, which, in turn, resulted in increased self esteem, life-satisfaction, sense of purpose and less symptoms of illness.
The research suggests that loving kindness is a particularly useful ‘mind sculpting’ practice as our thoughts are known to shape our brain. Improved self compassion produces the kind of positive emotions that are a real antidote to the hedonic treadmill on which many of us find ourselves in today’s fast moving, goal focused world.
#2 It silences your inner critic
A 2014 study by Shahar et al found that loving-kindness meditation was effective for those who suffer with low self esteem and constantly beat themselves up.
After a few weeks of practice, meditators reported reduced self criticism and symptoms of depression and increased self compassion and positive feelings. What’s more, the improvements were still there 3 months later, indicating that loving-kindness provides both instant gratification and mood uplift yet has long-lasting and enduring effects too.
#3 It slows down the aging process
Stress decreases telomere length. Telomeres are the tiny bits of our chromosomes that are the biological markers of the aging process.
In 2013, Hoge et al found that women who practiced loving-kindness meditation had longer telomere length compared to women of the same age who didn’t have a meditation practice. Now it looks like we can all save money by cancelling the next trip to the cosmetic surgeon and making an appointment with our self instead!
So there you have it; solid evidence that loving-kindness works. But how do you do it?
Loving-kindness: the basics
Traditionally, you decide on a set of compassionate statements that feel comfortable and appropriate for you and then you recite them silently, over and over. Here are some traditional ones:
May I be peaceful
May I have ease of well-being
May I be happy
May I be free from suffering
May I be healed
May I dwell in peace
May I be at ease
After trying some out, settle on three or four that fit closest to your intention to cultivate kindness and goodwill toward yourself and others. Don't worry if it doesn’t feel genuine at first. After doing it for a while, the practice itself will work its magic and it will feel authentic.
Traditionally, loving-kindness statements are directed at different groups of people. Select one, more, or all of the following:
First, direct your chosen phrases towards yourself.
Some people find it hard to be kind to themselves because, from years of conditioning, they've actually become their own harshest critics. But we can change our inner programming by ‘uploading some new software’. It was Buddha who said ‘The mind is soft and pliant’ which means you can transform your inner enemy into your inner best friend. Think of your mind as a clean slate and start filling that slate with thoughts of kindness, benevolence, and love for yourself.
In your imagination, you might see yourself as a child and begin to extend love and kindness towards that child. This is particularly helpful if you had a difficult childhood or felt unloved.
After a time, begin to direct your compassionate statements to someone for whom you feel deep gratitude. It might be an influential teacher in your life. You might even imagine yourself as that child looking into the loving and compassionate eyes of you, the adult or parent figure.
A Beloved Friend or Family Member
Then, direct your compassionate statements to a person you love unconditionally, like a family member. Silently say the person's name or bring an image of his or her face to mind.
A Neutral Person
Next, direct your phrases to a person in your life who you don't have strong feelings about one way or another, like the postman or the girl on the checkout at the supermarket.
The Difficult Person
Then direct your statements to a person who you may feel an aversion for or feel angry with. This can be more of a challenge and it's best to begin with someone who doesn't pose a great difficulty for you, like a friend you’ve had an argument with, or even a public figure who you disagree with.
Finally you might extend your loving-kindness towards the whole planet, imagining the world and all the people on it as a revolving globe in front of you.
The goal of loving-kindness is to cultivate feelings of benevolence. After a while it will feel increasingly natural to think of all living beings with kindness and friendliness......including yourself!