I attempted a bit of research on the history of loving kindness mediation and quickly got in over my head. There are references in the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain text. Loving kindness meditation has been around far longer than you and me. The purpose of this post is to share what loving kindness mediation is, my experience and the many benefits.
What It Is
Loving Kindness Meditation also referred to as metta or maitri mediation is the practice of cultivating goodwill, benevolence, happiness, contentment and peacefulness towards others. It is done by silently repeating certain phrases that express kind wishes for ourselves first, then a series of others. Typically the phrases are a variation on May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe (or free from danger). May I have a life of ease (or filled with peace). There are many loving kindness guided meditations on line, variety of lengths, styles and voices. Here is one to check out.
In “Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation”, Sharon Salzberg provides my most favorite explanation of loving kindness mediation.
Sometimes lovingkindness is described as extending friendship to ourselves and others–not in the sense of liking everyone, or dispensing universal approval, but more as an inner knowing that our lives are all inextricably connected. Lovingkindness is a power of the heart that honors this connection. When we practice it, we acknowledge that every one of us shares the same wish to be happy, and the same vulnerability to change and suffering.
Lovingkindness is a form of love that truly is an ability, and, as research scientists have shown, it can be learned. It is the ability to take some risks with our awareness–to look at ourselves and others with kindness instead of reflexive criticism; to include in our concern those to whom we normally pay no attention; to care for ourselves unconditionally instead of thinking, “I will love myself as long as I never make a mistake.” It is the ability to gather our attention and really listen to others, even those we’ve written off as not worth our time. It is the ability to see the humanity in people we don’t know and the pain in people we find difficult.
My first experience with a loving kindness mediation was in a yoga class. The instructor was experiencing personal challenges and felt it would be helpful for her if we all shared in this practice. She encouraged us to bring to mind someone that we felt love and warmth towards – a family member, friend or even a pet. Once we had this someone in our mind, we were to repeat the next few statements until she shared the next instructions. I am unable to recall the exact phrases. It felt like a lot of words, more than I could comfortably remember. May your heart be peaceful and free. May your mind be happy. May your body be healthy and strong. May you be well and happy. Next we were to bring a neutral person to mind. Someone we may see often but don’t really know. We were instructed to again silently repeat … May your heart be peaceful and free. May your mind be happy. May your body be healthy and strong. May you be well and happy. Next hold a difficult person in our minds. This is when the instructor began to cry but she pushed through. With this difficult person in mind, silently repeat the statements and lastly “all beings”. We wished everyone loving kindness. To this day, I remember the surprise when instructed to hold a difficult person in mind. It was powerful. But I wasn’t really interested because the phrases were too long and wishing goodwill felt a little forced. Hopefully it helped her but I wasn’t ready for it.
Years later, while reading Dan Harris’s book, “10% Happier”, I was impressed when he commented,
I am not going to claim that what happened next was purely the result of doing metta (loving kindness mediation). There may have been other factors, like the inevitable effects of maturation, or subtle peer pressure from my new friends in mindfulness subculture. Whatever the cause, the the months after I started adding compassion in to my meditation practice, things started to change.
He goes on to explain how his days now included long strings of positive interactions and how at work he got better at abstaining from gripe and gossip sessions. In his very honest and engaging manner he explains other benefits which encouraged my exploration of loving kindness mediation.
I appreciated the simplicity of the phrases from “10% Happier” … May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you live with ease. He also commented if you didn’t like the words he offered, make up your own. I felt empowered to come up with my own well wishes. Although it felt a bit forced at times, I found repeating wishes of goodwill to be a stronger point of focus than the breath when attempting to meditate or calm my mind. Thoughts of loving kindness became my friend. I would repeat the phrases to ease my frustrated mind when stuck in traffic or unable to sleep in the middle of the night.
Two activities from “How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness” by Jan Chozen Bays converted me to a committed loving kindness practitioner. The first activity was Loving Kindness for the Body. In this activity, we were instructed to be aware of fresh oxygen and energy entering the body on the in-breath and on the out-breath to send the energy throughout the body along with these silent words, May you be free from discomfort. May you be at ease. May you be healthy. We simplified the process in time simply saying ease on the out-breath whenever attention came to the body throughout the day. I liked it. It took away the awkwardness of the other loving kindness mediations. I was not forcing thoughts of loving kindness on people that bothered me. Life had been feeling hectic and it felt good to take care of me with my silent wishes.
The second exercise was Secret Acts of Virtue. We were encouraged to engage in secret acts of virtue or kindness each day. To do something nice or needed for others, but to do so anonymously. Dr. Bay shared a personal favorite practice drive-by meta. As she drives to work, she quietly says to pedestrians, bikers and especially rude drivers ~ May you be free from anxiety. May you be at ease. She explains that whether the practice benefits the recipients she is unsure but it definitely helps her. The days she practices drive-by meta always go more smoothly. I liked it! It did not feel forced. I found it to be an intriguing combination of sneaky and super powerish. Without anyone knowing it, I wished them well. I walked around with a silly grin on my face when I remembered to practice Secret Acts of Virtue.
Research + Benefits
I am a big fan of scientific research. Meditation, mindfulness, loving kindness mediation, these are hot topics for researchers and the health and medical fields. As much as I love it, it is frustrating. For every significant research finding, there are contradictory reports. Breakthrough discoveries are accused of having faulty research methods. Makes me crazy but information is impressive. Dr. Emma Seppala includes supporting research in her article, “18 Science-Based Reasons To Try Loving-Kindness Meditation Today!” “Proven” benefits include: increases positive and decreases negative emotions, decreases migraines, decreases chronic pain, activates empathy & emotional processing in the brain, increases gray matter volume, slows aging, increases compassion and empathy, increases social connection, curbs self-criticism, is effective in small doses and has long-term impact.
Even more impressive to me are personal experiences, real-life, day-to-day exploration. You can tell me a million times about some whizbang, new way to do something and how it will change my life but until I first-hand experience the benefits and can tell you the impact, I am a bit of a skeptic.
Summing It Up
Loving kindness meditation has changed me. It works for me. At this point, I am not a sit-on-a-cushion kind of meditator. Three years ago, I was not a loving kindness meditator. Today, I automagically wish the world well. Recently, while on a run, I realized I was silently wishing people well. Everyone I saw (including dogs and squirrels), with a big grin on my face, I silently repeated, May you be well. May your day be great. May you be happy. It was just happening! It was not part of a challenge or a mindfulness game. I began to pay attention to other changes in my brain and behavior. I worry less. People’s drama does not pull me in as often. I am more accepting of what is and spend less time wishing it would change. I have more time to do what matters to me because I am not doing the last few things I mentioned. This transition occurred slowly but without a huge effort on my part. I have not “trained” for it but while living life, my brain shifted. I am filled with joy and compassion.
Are you interested in cultivating loving kindness in your life? I highly recommend the books above. Are you in the process or is loving kindness already cultivating you? Love to hear from you. Share your questions, comments or stories below. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you live with ease.