I recently attended a weekend silent loving kindness (“Metta”) meditation retreat and would like to share with you some of the ideas I learned about this powerful practice. Loving-kindness is a meditation practice in which you repeat phrases that reflect love and kindness, caring and compassion, for yourself and others. While the idea of sending oneself and others thoughts of love and kindness may seem a little flaky, there are compelling reasons for why it is a beneficial practice to follow, particularly if you, like most of us, have a strong inner critic.
Shaping your brain pathways
You may have heard of how neuroscience has discovered that the mind is neuroplastic, – meaning that we can change our brain pathways throughout our lives, not just during the early years of childhood and adolescence. While the scientific evidence of this has only emerged in recent years, I was surprised to learn that William James (who is often referred to as the father of American psychology) wrote (as far back as 1890!) “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.” What a brilliant mind to recognize that we are now discovering to be true – we can shape our brain pathways by actively choosing what we focus on.
Change your brain
This is how you can change your brain – by focusing on positive experiences and thoughts, you will activate positive pathways that you want to strengthen. By choosing not to focus on and repeat negative thoughts and behaviours, you will weaken negative pathways. As the adage about the brain and body goes – “Use it or lose it”. Here we want to use this principle to help us lose unwanted patterns of thinking and create new ones.
Activate compassion and love
So how does this relate to Loving Kindness meditations? To develop self-compassion, the idea is to activate compassionate and loving brain pathways by choosing to meditate and repeat such loving thoughts over and over. You already have the capacity for love and kindness within you. If you cultivate it, it will grow. Our teacher also pointed out that the Buddha said you “can’t treat hatred with hatred.” So being harsh with yourself when you notice you are thinking negatively is not the way out of negative thinking patterns. Compassion and kindness to yourself begins the process of forgiving yourself and developing a healthier relationship with the person you want to become.
How to do it
The structure of the loving kindness meditation involves four statements of loving kindness which are sent in turn to each of the following:
- a benefactor or Mentor
- a friend or person you care about
- a neutral person or stranger
- a difficult person
- and finally, all sentient beings
The four statements are along the lines of:
- May I (you) be safe
- May my (your) mind be at peace.
- May my (your) body be healthy and free of pain and suffering.
- May I (you) have a joyful life.
Feel it in your body
If you do not feel comfortable with the wording of the phrases, feel free to change them to fit with more how you would word it, keeping the themes around safety, inner peace, health and a fulfilling life. The idea is not to use the sayings as a repetitive mantra without much meaning, but to allow yourself to really reflect on and connect with the good intentions you are sending out. See if you can really enhance this connection by feeling the feelings of love and compassion in your body as you focus on the words and meaning behind them and send them to yourself or others. You will find that your mind will inevitably wander as you do this, and when it does, use the phrases to help you refocus and reground.
Free from pain and suffering?
Being an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) therapist, I was initially not entirely comfortable with the idea of wishing I or others were “free” of pain or suffering. Not only would this be impossible in the face of the reality of life, it could set up a struggle to get rid of unpleasant emotions which only compounds difficulties, especially if you are grappling with chronic anxiety or pain.
However, the point made by my teacher was that you define “free” as “not ruled by it, not enslaved by it,” so it does not run your life. This would fit in beautifully with the ACT approach with its emphasis on creating a rich and meaningful life in spite of conditions of pain and emotional discomfort. So when we are sending good intentions and wishes for ourselves and others to be free of pain and suffering, we are not really expecting that person to never experience these negative states. We are hoping that such states will not be enslaving them and determining their actions and how they live their life.
A way of coping with unpleasantness
This Loving Kindness meditation can also give you a container in which you can hold unpleasant emotions and body sensations. If you can observe and open up to the fear and pain, instead of struggling to get rid of it, a lot of energy can be freed up to put into things that really matter to you.
Loving Kindness and Mindfulness
Another invaluable aspect of the loving kindness practice is that it cultivates in you acceptance of all people, be they a benefactor, friend or someone you dislike, you practice sending them good intentions by saying something like “Just like me, may you too have safety peace health, and joy.” Ultimately this cultivates nonjudgemental awareness, the basis of all mindfulness.
Your own loveliness?
One of the interesting suggestions by the teacher was to begin with reflecting on your “own inner loveliness”. Such an idea seemed really alien, and quite a stretch especially in our culture which does not typically value the idea of stroking our own egos. Our culture and heritage seems to cultivate within us strong inner critics. Indeed, in the days of primitive man, being aware of our shortcomings had survival value as we would be less likely to annoy the other tribe members. The risk of ejection from the tribe (leading to probable death) was much less likely if we were constantly seeking and monitoring if we were fitting in and had the approval of others. This was great for the tribe, not so good for the individual. So, “reflecting on our inner loveliness” is not something that comes naturally.
Begin with a smile
So how to begin reflecting on our own loveliness? Our teacher helped us kick start it by suggesting we think over times we had been kind to others. In addition, when teaching this to my own clients, I begin by asking them to visualize a smile and the body sensations that arise with this smiling imagery. I invite them to also put a “half smile” on their face. Research has found that intentionally making muscle movements of a smile will generate a positive emotional state as it stimulates certain circuits in the brain. You can activate the compassionate pathways in your brain by putting a friendly, kind expression on your face with this half smile.
Free Loving Kindness downloads
If you would like more guidance on how to do Loving Kindness Meditation, I invite you to go this link where I have some free downloadable mp3s. Here you will find an audio where I take you through a loving kindness meditation, along with additional audios with introductory information and some ideas on how to apply loving kindness in your daily life. For other free loving kindness audios by a leading psychology professor who has done ground-breaking research into how love and other positive emotions enhance your life, go to Dr Barbara Fredrickson's website here.