The Challenge: We know we’re not supposed to sweat the small stuff…but we can’t help it!
The Science: Practicing loving-kindness meditation can help us deal with everyday stress.
The Solution: Here is the art & science of loving-kindness meditation!
The other day, after a long day at work, I found this note tucked into my windshield wiper: Please learn to park in the lines – and not on them…. Sincerely, the person parked next to you.
At first, I was taken aback: How could someone be so rude and passive-aggressive? My car was certainly not intruding on either of the adjacent parking spots, and as a New Jersey native, I can’t exactly be expected to drive with grace and finesse. After a few moments of mulling this situation over, I reminded myself of the importance of non-judgment, and my annoyance quickly turned to pity and empathy. My emissary was clearly suffering – and likely not only because of my slapdash parking job.
In our fast-paced, high-pressure society, we are continually faced with situations that induce stress, anxiety, frustration, and disaffection. In moments like this, practicing loving-kindness – an ancient form of meditation – can be extraordinarily useful. Loving-kindness helps “take the edge off,” making it easy to respond to difficult people or situations with empathy and openness rather than anger and frustration.
So what is loving-kindness?
Known as mettā in Pali and maitrī in Sanskrit, loving-kindness is a type of meditation to help cultivate the four “immeasurables,” or cornerstone virtues, of Buddhism: loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative/sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Loving-kindness is similar to benevolence, or the deliverance of goodwill upon others – whether or not they deserve it. Gautama Buddha developed the practice of loving-kindness over 2500 years ago. Currently, loving-kindness is practiced worldwide by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
How exactly does one cultivate loving-kindness?
Here is the basic mantra or script you will use for each step of the meditation:
May ___ be safe.
May ___ be happy.
May ___ be healthy.
May ___ live with ease.
In this progressive meditation, each “blank” represents a particular person:
- First, deliver self-compassion upon yourself: May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease. This can be surprisingly difficult for a lot of people, so be kind to yourself.
- Next, imagine someone who you love very dearly. May they be safe, happy, healthy, and live with ease. In this stage, I often think about my partner, sister, parents, and close friends.
- Now, it gets a little trickier: think about someone with whom it is challenging or difficult to work, live, or exist. May they be safe, happy, healthy, and live with ease. Again, this can be difficult, so make sure to be patient. If it is too difficult to visualize this stage, then simply repeat #1 (self-compassion).
- This is one of my favorite stages: bring someone to mind with whom you interact frequently but do not know very well. Sharon Salzberg suggests a grocer or postal worker; I often deliver loving-kindness to my neighbors, administrative support, and local baristas.
- To conclude, broaden the scope of your deliverance. Sometimes, I think about the students and faculty on my campus; at other times, people in my neighborhood or country; members of my identity groups, such as Latinas/os and LGBTQ+ persons; or even the entire animal kingdom. The basic idea is to extend compassion and goodwill to groups we may or may not know or even like.
One of my favorite parts of this meditation is the flexibility it affords me and the control I have over my practice. On days that I practice, I feel immense clarity, focus, benevolence, agreeableness, and compassion. Research suggests that I am not alone.
In 2008, Cendri Hutcherson, Emma Seppala, and James Gross reported that even an abbreviated loving-kindness induction led to deeper feelings of social connectedness and warmth towards strangers. That same year, Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues demonstrated that loving-kindness practice increased adults’ social support, purpose in life, mindfulness, and life satisfaction. Since these seminal investigations, numerous other empirical studies have identified additional benefits of cultivating loving-kindness:
- Decreased symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (link)
- Improvement in back pain, anger levels, and psychological health among sufferers of chronic back pain (link)
- Reduction of repetitive thoughts (link)
- Improved cognitive processing (link)
Loving-kindness is not simply a Buddhist tradition. For instance, closely related are the Hebrew virtue of chesed, the Hindu/Jain value of ahisma (“nonviolence”), and the Greek concepts of agape (“unconditional love”) and theoria (“loving contemplation”). You don’t need to identify as Buddhist, religious, or spiritual to practice and reap the benefits of loving-kindness mediation. All you need is an open mind – and soon your heart will follow.
My challenge for you? Practice loving-kindness meditation. Try it once (but you will reap the most benefits if you make this a regular practice). You can do this anywhere – in your office when waiting for a doctor’s appointment or while riding public transportation. If possible, I suggest that you meditate somewhere quiet and peaceful, free of interruption.
There are many versions of loving-kindness meditation that vary in length, scope, and format (e.g., written text, guided audio). Your task will be to find a method that speaks to you.
Here are some of my favorite loving-kindness meditation resources:
- Emma Seppala’s 10-minute Loving Kindness Meditation (Download)
- Lovingkindness Meditation by Sharon Salzberg (Audio CD or Download)
- Loving Kindness Meditation by University of North Hampshire Health Services (free audio recording on YouTube)
- The Practice of Loving-Kindness by Ñanamoli Thera (includes historical background as well as text from the original Pali Canon)
- Thinking Healthy’s Loving Kindness Meditation Script (free text)
- The Metta Institute’s Brief Instructions for Loving-Kindness Meditation (free text)
- Loving Kindness Compassion Meditation, courtesy of Tom Von Deck of the Deeper Meditation Blog (free audio recording on YouTube)
- Metta Bhavana Loving-Kindness Meditation (free e-book by the Venerable Dhammarakkhita)