Very few exercises in the modern mindfulness tradition are so difficult for skeptics to get into. Simple breathing meditation combined with psychological hacks are one thing to try in our mind driven world, but repeating a phrase like ‘May you be healthy, may you be well’, no that is one bridge too far.
However, there is now increasing scientific evidence that loving-kindness meditation (or
This article covers what loving kindness is, includes a script for you too follow and has a guided
So let’s Dive into it.
What is Loving Kindness or metta meditation?
What is Metta?
In its essence, metta is not an emotion but an aspiration. It is an aspiration for whoever you direct your loving kindness to, to be well.
Often it is practiced by repeating a phrase like “May you be happy” over and over again while directing your ‘loving kindness’ towards yourself or towards another person.
At that moment, you might be inclined to direct a warm fuzzy feeling towards yourself or the person. Equivalent to pampering another person.
Whereas in fact, the road to being well is sometimes rocky. Sometimes, we need to be confronted with whatever we need to better in our lives.
But when somebody tells us we need to get our lives up the tracks again, the way it is told makes a huge difference. If
This is something we should all remember when our inner critic is again being really harsh on us, pointing out everything that went wrong in our lives.
So, metta is the aspiration directed out for the wellbeing of whomever we are directing it to.
But remember to include the person we forget most often and that is ourselves.
How do you perform loving kindness meditation?
In the classification of mindfulness practices,
This in contrast to full mindfulness practice, which chief aim is to understand oneself better
That is why in metta, all you do is repeat a few phrases:
- May you be healthy
- May you be well
- May you be happy
These phrases could be in in the first person also: May I be healthy, May I be well, may I be Happy.
As strange as it may sound, directing these phrases towards somebody you like, will tend to give you a
The whole point of the meditation is to get in touch with this feeling and then try to extend it as broadly as possible.
Generating easy metta
Unfortunately, getting in touch with loving kindness in ourselves is not always an easy feat. That is why most meditation teachers recommend that you first take on someone for whom it is easy to evoke
Traditionally, one starts out by wishing good things to ourselves. This has been the place to start for many centuries now. However, our modern western psychology tend towards self hate making ourselves a poor choice as a ‘Metta starter
So you need something surefire to start off your feelings of loving-kindness. Ajahn Brahm, for instance, is really fond of kittens and starts there. Take a few moments to reflect on this question. What person or other sentient being are you the fondest of?
Now that you got your loving kindness flowing, you can start extending it outwards. You can add persons for whom the love does not come so easily.
First we take persons that are a bit further from us, like an aunt that you see only once a year. Further down the road are perfect strangers, like a homeless person or somebody you just happen to see on the bus.
And lastly, we try to extend our love to a
Aspirations due to metta
As I said in the beginning of the article, loving kindness is not about the fluffy warm feelings that we experience when directing our love to someone special. I said it was an aspiration.
An aspiration for what?
When you progress into your cultivation of metta, you will start to wonder what all these phrases lead to. Are you, or the people you are wishing well any better off for you wishing them to be well?
The answer is no, not really. So what is the missing ingredient?
The missing ingredient is action. You need to actually do something for your wishes to be actualized. And that is where the real magic happens. Since you are now focused on happiness, you will be far more likely to actually help.
And from research in the psychology of happiness, we know there is a direct correlation with overall well-being and giving our time, money or other resources to a cause that we are passionate about.
Now imagine you being passionate about all the people of the world. Imagine that the random person you meet on the bus would bring you as much joy and happiness as seeing your best friend (that you only see once a month any more). Imagine that the sight of the person you used to dislike now leaves you with nothing but wanting to help this person become a better person.
That is the lofty goal of metta meditation.
Pitfalls of metta meditation.
There are two main pitfalls towards practicing loving kindness.
People are and will always be different and they will make choices that we disapprove of. It is not other peoples duty to make us happy. Metta makes us aware that by helping them, we actually help ourselves. It is not the other way around.
Second, loving kindness is not complacency. It is not because you dearly love your children that you will not discipline them. You would be doing them a disservice.
No, you would punish them, but always with love. And with the sincere wish that it will better them and help them in their later life.
We should actually discipline ourselves in the same way: because we know it will make us better people. But always do this with love for ourselves because we know we are only human and make mistakes.
Why do people have trouble with loving kindness meditation?
First, I need to confess something. Like many westerners, I am extremely focused on the brain. The emotional side of me has always been repressed a bit.
And frankly, I have never been really at ease when emotions are being discussed. So in my first MBSR course, when the teacher told us to repeat ‘may you be well’, I was quite uncomfortable.
And I see this same tendency in my students and also in myself as a teacher of metta in MBSR. It looks like I have to answer for my choices.
If you are also in this case, know that the research is out (see the section in this article) and there are only benefits to metta meditation.
The science of happiness is also clear on the fact that, yes, money is needed to be happy, but having a few good friends is actually worth more. So invest in your social interactions and THE tool to do this is loving-kindness meditation.
Metta meditation script
- Start by assuming a relaxed although alert posture. It could be sitting or lying down, it makes no difference. The only thing is that you need to be able to relax in this posture and keep awake. That is why in general, the sitting position is better for beginners.
- Next, bring your attention to your whole body. Feel it sitting or lying down. If you feel
tensionin any part of your body, gently bring your attention towards the tension and examine the tension. If it is possible, let go of this tension. If it is not possible, acknowledge this fact.
- Now, think about somebody for who you have nothing but respect. It is best to not take somebody for whom you have romantic aspirations, as this might conflate two emotions. Now bring forth this person in your mind and repeat the following phrases:
- ‘May you be healthy’
- ‘May you be Safe’
- ‘May you be at ease and happy’
- If these phrases do not resonate with you, feel free to create some other that better convey for you this feeling of caring without attachment. The giving just for the pleasure of the giving.
- Repeat these phrases in your mind for a couple of minutes and see if there is a warm feeling arising. If it does, acknowledge it. You mind want to kindle the feeling. If it does not, just let it be. Do not try to force the feeling, that is not necessary.
- Next, bring yourself to mind and repeat these same phrases. Lift on the feelings you generated for the person you admire. If the warm feeling disappears, that is ok. Rome was not built in a day. Just repeat the phrases nonetheless for a couple of minutes.
- Finally, bring forth a person towards whom you have no particular feeling. A beggar or a person you saw on the bus. And repeat the phrases for this person. Gently let the love take hold and do not try to force any particular state.
- At the end of the session, take a few minutes to just be in the feelings you generated. Or turn your attention back to the body. Does it feel differently? In my case, I
sometimehave a feeling as if my heart was opened. But that is certainly not always the case. Sometimes, nothing happens at all.
If you prefer video, you can follow along with the following guided mindfulness meditation. As an added incentive to follow along, this particular recording was used in a scientific study that proved that only a small dose of metta meditation (this one!) already could improve your feeling of wellbeing! Speaker is researcher Emma Seppala, Ph.D, Author of “The Happiness Track“. Enjoy.
Scientifically proven benefits of loving kindness meditation
Loving-kindness has many benefits and the strange thing is that these are not only psychological benefits. No, there are things that change in our biology due to
Mental benefits of metta meditation
- Maybe one of the most important findings is that loving kindness reduces self-criticism. To me, self-criticism is one of the most important western mind diseases. It is linked to depression, so if this is reduced, that is a great thing. The study conducted by Shahar et al (2014) found that Loving Kindness Meditation was effective in reducing self-criticism and depressive symptoms, improving self-compassion and positive emotions. Changes lasted for 3 months! If that is not a great success, then I do not know what is 🙂
- Metta meditation was found to be an effective booster for well being. Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008 found that practicing 7 weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement, and awe. Furthermore, it activates empathy & emotional processing in the brain (Hutcherson, Seppala & Gross, 2014).
- Increases gray matter volume in areas of the brain related to emotion regulation: Leung et al (2013); Lutz et al (2008); Lee et al (2012)
- It was also found that increases compassion, Increases Empathy, Increases Social Connection, and decreases your bias towards others. All of those also associated with an increased well being.
- A study by Kearney et al (2013) found that an intense Loving Kindness Meditation course had reduced depression and PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) symptoms among veterans diagnosed with PTSD for a fair amount.
Physical benefits of loving kindness meditation
- If you are looking for the one reason to start a
mettapractice, this will be it: it is known since some time that stress makes you age faster. Scientists measure this by the length of your telomeres (a compound structure at the end of a chromosome). Hoge et al (2013) found that women with experience in Loving Kindness Meditation had relatively longer telomere length compared to age-matched controls. So doing mettameditation effectively slows down aging!
- As early as in 2005, Carson et al. found that
mettacould reduce the pain of patients with chronic low back pain. This is one of the study areas that is also addressed in regular MBSR. But being more gentle for yourself has the possibility to enhance the benefits.
- Even a small amount of loving-kindness can reduce migraine pain and alleviating emotional tension associated with chronic migraines. This was demonstrated by Tonelli et al (2014).
- Loving-kindness meditation is also associated with reduced inflammation in the body. However, for this effect, one needs a fair amount of practice. Practicing only sporadically doe not reduce the inflammation in any significant way.
I hope I convinced you that loving-kindness meditation has only benefits. From the social, over the personal, to the physical, this is a practice worth incorporating in your weekly routine.
To start out, you can follow along with the many great guided meditations that youtube has, but if you want to step up the game, there are also great options.
My go to for science based spirituality is Sounds True. They have a lot of the great international teachers that have courses there. Bestselling author and psychotherapist Rick Hanson has an eight-part video series on new insights from neuroscience into our loving nature that is quite inexpensive.
Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher, author, and teacher, offers a more in-depth (and expensive) course. Luckily, you can try the course out in a free 3 video series here.
You can always browse around yourself in the huge library of books and courses at Sounds True yourself. But as said, there are plenty of free option on youtube also
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