“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”- Dalai Lama
Between recent world events and the upcoming presidential election, there has been much discussion around themes of hate, racism, bigotry, and differences among people. While we may see the occasional story of kindness, the notion of being compassionate and kind all too often is undervalued and drowned out in our society. We tend to place all sorts of judgments and put people in categories about who is lovable and worthy, and who is not. We may feel that loved ones, friends, and children automatically deserve our love and compassion, while strangers, and people who look and think differently from us are not. We may even believe that people who have created difficulties in our lives are entirely undeserving of love and compassion, leading us to feel justified in disliking or even hating them.
We hold all sorts of misconceptions about what it is to be compassionate and kind, including that it makes us weak or wimpy, it is a form of self-pity, it is indulgent, or it gets in the way of success. The latter attitude, that being hard on ourselves motivates us and helps us to achieve our goals is greatly valued in our competitive, tech-driven and busy culture. The reality is that the great majority of us struggle with a judgmental, critical, and harsh voice when we don’t live up to our own expectations. While at times this approach might push you harder, it can also lead to persistent negative emotions, doubt, feelings of worthlessness, shame, and feeling disconnected from people around you. What would the world look like if we actually practiced more kindness?
One mindfulness practice, called “Loving-Kindness”, helps us take a different approach by cultivating an attitude of open, unconditional friendliness. This practice entails sending kind, compassionate, or loving intentions to several different categories of individuals: (1) one- self, (2) a cherished person or “mentor,” (3) a friend, (4) a neutral person or stranger, (5) an “enemy” or difficult person, and (6) all living beings (Salzberg, 2006). (For briefer introductory practices, see Audio.) The beauty of this practice is that you can adapt the phrases so that they resonate with you. “It counteracts the loneliness and sense of separation that comes from not feeing connected to other people. It is a powerful practice that can change how we respond to difficult situations over time. We can learn to turn down the volume on the internal, snide monologue of self-judgment and be kinder to ourselves” (Wolf & Serpa, 2015, p. 137).
Mindfulness says, ‘Open to suffering with spacious awareness and it will change’. Self-compassion says, ‘Give yourself kindness when you’re suffering and it will change’”- Chris Germer
Benefits: Through repetition comes rewiring. The more we practice setting these intentions through a formal Loving-Kindness practice, the more easily this stance of compassion and kindness becomes available to us when we are in situations where we may judge ourselves or someone else.
- Reduces stress response
- Reduces negative self-talk
- Greater sense of connection
- Softening towards others
- Greater perspective taking
- Increases empathy
- Shifts the brain into a pattern associated with positive mood states (Davidson et al., 2003).
A Note on Connection: Another major benefit supported by research and my experience teaching this practice is that incorporating Loving-Kindness into meditation helps us recognize the inherent connection among us; the realization that we are all human, that we all struggle, and that we can turn towards suffering in ourselves and others with warmth and compassion. It is the sense of “we are all in this together,” that ultimately strengthens compassion and connection.
How Does it Work? The practice works because it capitalizes on our inherent capacity to express love and compassion easily to those close to us and to have more difficulty expressing love and compassion to those at a distance or enemies, or even ourselves. We cannot choose how or what we feel, but we can set an intention for how we wish to be and respond in the world. Thus, loving-kindness and similar metta practices are about setting an intention for openhearted, unconditional friendliness, rather than about feeling friendly or loving.
Well-wishes vs. Positive Affirmations: The intention behind Loving-Kindness is what makes the practice powerful, which is quite different than positive affirmations. A positive affirmation is a skill used to produce change by repeating a phrase with a desired outcome, such as “I am happy.” In contrast, a loving-kindness phrase is a wish for something that is universally desirable and starts with, “May I…” or “May you…” However, positive affirmations can be difficult to practice if they do not match up to reality. Similarly, a loving-kindness phrase may feel out of reach at the moment, we can connect with the intention behind it, even when we feel far from it (Wolf & Serpa, 2015).We can hold the intention of Loving-Kindness wherever we are, however we are.
People will have different reactions to the Loving-Kindness practice and there’s no “right way” to feel. Remember that it is also a mindfulness practice, so invite yourself to notice what your reactions to repeating the phrases are with curiosity and kindness. You might notice frustration, doubt, irritation, or even sadness…and that is ok! It is important to remember that you don’t have to feel loving when you practice Loving-Kindness meditation. Noticing difficult feelings that arise in us during this practice can be an important step towards healing.
To listen to my brief and introductory Loving-Kindness practices listed, click here:
Davidson, R., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santarelli, S.F., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
Salzberg, S. (2006). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness (shambala classics). Boston, MA: Shambala Publications.
Wolfe, C., & Serpa, J.G. (2015). A clinician’s guide to teaching mindfulness. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.