In honor of Thanksgiving, I want to give thanks to you AND I wanted to share one of my all-time favorite meditations with you today. This is commonly known as the “loving kindness” meditation, and it is a powerful and life-changing one if I do say so myself.
Give it a try, and I promise you’ll see what I mean. (Seriously, try it, then post a comment below!)
First, I want to address a recent concern I’ve heard more of recently – what good is meditation in times like these?
Well, if you’re thinking meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practices in general are all about checking out, escaping, and not dealing with the “real world,” I’d say you don’t really know what these practices are then.
See, the reason I often say MINDFULNESS IS RESILIENCE TRAINING is because these various practices are precisely about checking IN (not out), cultivating CONNECTION (not disconnecting), and WAKING UP by honing your awareness of what is real and present (not numbing out).
As we develop these practices, we’re better able to roll with the proverbial punches as they arrive; we’re better able to stay connected to our loved ones versus isolating and driving wedges even deeper between us; and we’re better able to be a part of the solution when we can focus on what is practical and requires intentional, directed attention to solve, heal, or otherwise address.
Sure, meditation can be spiritual, but it can also be VERY practical.
Moving right along…
Now, I’d like to provide a brief introduction to and background about this type of prayerful meditation. If you want to just skip right to the meditation itself, I hear ya. Scroll down to the underlined “So how does this work?” part.)
So, as for that background on this whole approach…
In our current society, we might often feel like we are always faced with situations that induce stress, anxiety, frustration, and competing priorities. In these types of moments, or as a simple start or end to your day, practicing loving-kindness – an ancient form of prayer meditation – can be really useful.
This is another type of meditation that can help to “take the edge off,” making it easy to respond to difficult people or situations with empathy and openness, rather than anger and frustration. The practice is one that aims to cultivate 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. This is a type of practice that was developed over 2500 years ago within the Buddhist tradition but currently, loving-kindness is practiced worldwide, by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
Personally, of my favorite parts of this meditation is the flexibility it affords me, and the control I have over my practice. Recently, it has helped me drastically shift my attitude toward my family and toward my colleagues. This is really helpful during the holidays, eh?! 🙂
On days that I practice, I feel immense clarity, focus, benevolence, agreeableness, and compassion.
–> Thankfully, research suggests that I am not alone.
In 2008, a study from Stanford reported that even an abbreviated loving-kindness induction led to deeper feelings of social connectedness and warmth towards strangers. That same year, colleagues at UNC 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 rumination (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 meditation. All you need is an open mind – and soon your heart will follow.
So how exactly does this work?
Here is the basic script we will use for each step of the meditation:
May ___ be happy.
May ___ be healthy.
May ___ be peaceful.
May ____ be loved.
In this progressive meditation, each “blank” represents a particular person. I will guide you through a few rounds.
Please find a comfortable seat or posture lying down if you know you will be able to stay awake, alert and relaxed. After taking a few deep breaths, no longer try to control your breath. Move your focus from your breath to your heart. You may find it helpful to place one or both of your hands over your heart. If possible, meditate somewhere quiet and peaceful, free of interruption. That being said, this is a meditation you can take with you anywhere.
First, deliver self-compassion upon yourself: As you do this, say to yourself with sincerity and clarity, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be peaceful, may I be loved. Allow your breath to freely flow as you repeat these phrases. Allow your breathing to assume a natural pace here. It may be difficult to say these words to yourself or feel these feelings, do your best to acknowledge what you’re feeling, though. Be kind to yourself in this very process. Repeat may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be peaceful, may I be loved. With each breath, let these words and love reach out to every cell in your body. May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be peaceful, may I be loved. Be in this loving moment.
Now call to mind someone you care about. A close friend, a family member, a partner, someone you love very much. Someone for whom you have positive regard. Say their name to yourself. Feel their presence. It may be helpful to visualize this person sitting in front of you. Direct loving kindness toward this person. May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. As you say these words, feel the joy in your heart. Feel it as it radiates throughout your body. Visualize it radiating through your body, as well as reaching out toward this person. May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. With each wish, imagine this person receiving your love, peace, and joy. May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. Be in this loving moment.
Continue to watch the breath breathe in and out.
Now it potentially gets a little trickier: think about someone with whom it is challenging or difficult to work, live, or exist. Someone who are experiencing conflict with, where there is unhealthy communication. Say their name. Feel their presence. It may be helpful to visualize this person sitting in front of you. Notice if your breath or body changes. Do your best to keep the breath smooth. Then, direct loving kindness toward this person. May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. Again, this can be difficult, so make sure to be patient. To forgive, to understand, to accept may be difficult. Continue to let these feeling wash over you. Do not be harsh with yourself. Do your best to continue to say May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. With each wish, imagine this person receiving your love, peace, and joy. May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. Be in this loving moment.
Now, bring someone to mind with whom you interact frequently, but do not know very well. Perhaps a neighbor or a coworker you don’t know well, a waiter or waitress, or a grocer or postal worker. Pick one and visualize that person. Direct loving kindness toward them. With them in your mind’s eye or present on your heart, say to them May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. As you repeat these words, feel the joy in your heart. Feel it as it radiates from your heart to every cell of your body. Visualize it radiating out of your body and touching this person. Breathe in and breath out. May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. With each wish, imagine this person receiving your love, peace, and joy. May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. Be in this loving moment.
Now, broaden the scope of your deliverance. For instance, teachers may think about the students and faculty on their campus; or consider people in your neighborhood or country; members of your identity groups, such as veterans as a whole or another identity group with which you identify; or even the entire animal kingdom. The basic idea is to extend compassion and good-will to groups we may or may not know, or even like. With that group in mind and on your heart, repeat May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. With each wish, imagine this group receiving your love, peace, and joy. May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. Be in this loving moment.
To conclude, visualize love, kindness, wellbeing, and peace. Let these radiate from you and your heart toward yourself, toward the person who is close to you, toward the person you have difficulty with, toward the person you don’t know but who touches your life, and toward a broader group with which you identify. Wish them all well. Repeat may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved. Now return to this current space and time. Bring with you the feelings of kindness, peace, love, wellbeing, and happiness. Carry it with you and share it with others
When you are ready, open your eyes and stretch out your body.
Congratulations for trying this loving-kindness meditation. Even if this was your first time, know that this, too, is a practice. Try it once but you will reap the most benefits if you make this a regular practice. You can do it anywhere – in your office, when waiting for a doctor’s appointment, or while riding public transportation.
If possible, meditate somewhere quiet and peaceful, free of interruption.
There are many versions of loving-kindness meditation that vary in length, scope, and format. Your task will be to find a method that speaks to you.
*I teach this meditation as a part of the Resilient Leadership Retreat curriculum I run with colleague Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas. It is part of one of the three main pillars of resilience: self-care tactics, social support cultivation, and spiritual practices.