Of the many different types of meditation, I practice two: breathing meditation and loving-kindness meditation. The purpose of breathing meditation is to develop mindfulness, while the purpose of loving-kindness meditation is to develop compassion, kindness, and altruism.
(Note: You may also hear loving-kindness meditation referred to as “metta meditation” or “loving friendliness” meditation.)1
In loving-kindness meditation, you walk your mind through a series of positive thoughts and positive visualizations. You send well wishes to yourself and your loved ones, your friends and acquaintances, people you dislike, and finally the whole world. The thoughts you repeat to yourself express the hope that people will be happy, healthy, successful, and at peace. And as you think the thoughts, you visualize them coming to fruition.
Now, if you’ve read much of my work, you’ll know that I’m much more interested in positive action than in positive thinking, so my advocating for loving-kindness meditation might come as a surprise. Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that by thinking these positive thoughts, you’ll activate the so-called “Law of Attraction” and cause good things to come true. That is, in my humble opinion, magical nonsense. The true purpose of loving-kindness meditation is brain training, and research has revealed that the practice has numerous tangible benefits.
Emma Seppala, Ph.D., is the Science Director at the Stanford Center For Compassion And Altruism Research And Education as well as the Co-Director of Wellness at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Citing numerous research articles, she neatly summarized the benefits of loving-kindness meditation in a blog post titled, “18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness Meditation Today!” which I’ll further condense here.
Loving-kindness meditation has been shown to:
- Increase positive emotions and life satisfaction
- Decreasing negative emotions and depression
- Strengthen the parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation
- Reduce self-criticism and increase self-compassion
- Reduce the severity of PTSD and schizophrenia
- Improve the two-way connection between the brain and the cardiovascular system
- Support a healthier response to stress
- Reduce genetic signs of aging
- Reduce symptoms in cases of chronic pain and chronic migraines
- Increase empathy and compassion for others
- Reduce biases against others
- Increase helpful and generous behavior toward others
- Have short-term benefits, noticeable in weeks, as well as long-term benefits that accumulate with continued practice2
In short, loving-kindness meditation can make you happier, healthier, and nicer. It has a positive effect on both your internal state and your actual behavior. It does so, in part, because it directly targets the “Thoughts” component of the feedback loop that controls your life:
I usually advocate for focusing on changing your behavior because actions speak louder than thoughts, but long-term psychological growth requires improving both your thinking and your behavior, and loving-kindness meditation is a powerful way to improve your habitual thoughts.
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” –Marcus Aurelius3
Translating Aurelius into modern neuroscience, the repetition of particular thoughts causes the brain to rewire (neuroplasticity) and grow (neurogenesis). These neurological changes can be cultivated at any age. The clay never dries.
For all these reasons, long-kindness meditation is arguably more important than breathing meditation. I recall reading somewhere (sadly, I cannot remember where) that the Buddha advised people to do loving-kindness meditation four times as often as mindfulness meditation.
There are many different versions of loving-kindness meditation. What most have in common is that they begin with a focus on you and/or your loved ones radiate out from there in an expanding circle of compassion.
You can follow a script written by someone else, use guided audio, or create your own version the meditation. The script that I’ve created appears in chunks throughout this post, and in full at the end (after the works cited section) along with a few guided audio choices.
As with breathing meditation, it is typically done sitting up straight in a comfortable position (using a chair is fine), with your eyes closed.
You Begin With Yourself
Loving-kindness meditation begins with wishing yourself well, offering yourself compassion and love, and “banishing thoughts of self-hatred and condemnation.”1
Bhante Gunaratana, author of Mindfulness in Plain English, offers this as a way to begin the process:
“At the beginning of a meditation session, say the following sentences to yourself. … really feel the intention:
May my mind be filled with thoughts of loving friendliness: compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. May I be generous. May I be gentle. May I be relaxed. May I be happy and peaceful. May I be healthy. May my heart become soft. May my words be pleasing to others. May my actions be kind.
May all that I see, heart, taste, touch, and think help me to cultivate loving friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. May all these experiences help me to cultivate thoughts of generosity and gentleness. May they all help me to relax. May they inspire friendly behavior. May these experiences be a source of peace and happiness. May they help me be free from fear, tension, anxiety, worry, and restlessness.
No matter where I go in the world, in any direction, may I greet people with happiness, peace, and friendliness. May I be protected in all directions from greed, anger, aversion, hatred, jealousy, and fear.”1
You need not use such a long and complicated opening to your loving-kindness mediation. This simply serves as an example of the spirit of self-compassion from which to begin the practice. It also clearly shows that starting with yourself is not selfish. The intention is not personal gain or self-serving satisfaction. The purpose is expressing to yourself the hope that you will be well enough to be of service to others.
When asked whether or not compassion should be directed at your own self, the Dalai Lama replied: “‘Yourself first, and then in a more advanced way the aspiration will embrace others. In a way, high levels of compassion are nothing but an advanced state of that self-interest. That’s why it is hard for people who have a strong sense of self-hatred to have genuine compassion toward others. There is no anchor, no basis to start from.’”5 In other words, we must first love ourselves before we can offer love to others.
The pattern of self-first in loving-friendliness meditation is echoed in my daily life. I begin each day with a routine of self-care because I know that I cannot fully show up for others if my needs are not met. By taking the time to set my head right for the day before I go out into the world, I’m more likely to be helpful, generous, and kind throughout the day.