The benefits of mindfulness meditation are well-known, but one type of mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness meditation, works particularly well when it comes to sharpening your capacity for compassion and empathy. The beauty of this meditation is that it shows you that you can practice being loving and kind just as much as you can practice a headstand or your latest balance pose – and you can become far better at it, too.
A UW-Madison study found proof of this when they took fMRI scans of the brains of Tibetan monks and meditators who had at least 10,000 hours of practice meditating on loving-kindness. The scans showed that brain circuits used to detect others’ emotions and feelings were far stronger in those who had practiced loving-kindness meditation than in those who didn’t. What's more, the longer they had practiced, the stronger the connections were. Meditators displayed a heightened capacity for positive emotions (read: happiness!) as well.
In particular, the insula – a region near the front part of the brain linked to bodily representations of emotion – exhibited significant activity during loving-kindness meditation. The strength of its activity measured even higher in those who claimed to be meditating more intensely. The temporal parietal juncture – linked to the perception of others’ mind states and emotions – lit up as well. Both areas are linked to one’s capacity for sharing emotions and empathizing with others.
So, what does this mean, exactly? According to Dr. Richard Davidson, psychiatry and psychology professor at UW-Madison and the director of the study, “People are not just stuck at their respective set points. We can take advantage of our brain’s plasticity and train it to enhance these qualities.” In other words, compassion can be learned. And who couldn’t use a little more compassion?
What makes loving-kindness meditation so powerful is that it increases your capacity for wholly unconditional love. Often we reserve compassion and love for those closest to us – family and friends – but with loving-kindness meditation, that love extends much further – to oneself, strangers, and the whole world. Perhaps most difficultly, this meditative practice requires you to extend love and compassion to those you’re struggling with, too.
Here’s how to do it, according to the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.
- First, take a very comfortable and relaxed posture.
- Focus on your chest area, or heart center.
- Breathe in and out, as if you are breathing from the heart.
- Generate feelings of loving-kindness toward yourself. Feel any mental blockages, numbness, self-judgment, or self-hatred. Move beyond those sensations to a place where you care for yourself and want strength, health, and safety for yourself.
- Continue to breathe. Use either these traditional phrases, or a similar set of phrases of your own. Repeat the phrases several times.
May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected.
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May I be free of mental suffering or distress.
May I be happy.
May I be free of physical pain and suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.
- Next, repeat the same phrases, but direct your loving-kindness meditation to a person who you naturally feel pure, unconditional loving-kindness toward. Often this is a mentor, parent, child, or benefactor. Repeat the phrases: “May she be free from inner and outer harm…”
- Next, move to a dear friend and repeat the phrases again, making sure to breathe in and out of the heart center, the main focus for your mindfulness focus and energy.
- Next, move to a neutral person, someone you don’t have strong negative or positive emotions toward. Repeat the phrases for this person, extending loving-kindness toward them.
- Now, move to someone you have difficulty with. This could be someone you’re hostile toward or resent, even someone you have ill will toward. Repeat the phrases for this person. If it is too difficult to do this, add, “To the best of my ability, may you be happy…”
- Lastly, repeat the phrases for all beings: “May all beings be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease…”
As loving-kindness practitioner and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard said, “Meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree. It changes your brain and therefore changes what you are.” With loving-kindness meditation, you have the power to hack into a more compassionate and happy life. Because this practice requires no special time, place, or tools, it's easy to fit it into your daily routine. Next time you're sipping your morning tea, relaxing into savasana, or even zoning out driving down the highway, consider adding ten to 30 minutes of loving-kindness to your day.
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