The practice can be pretty simple—it basically involves conjuring up feelings of love and compassion and mentally bestowing them upon yourself, specific others, then humanity in general. I’ll describe my practice in more detail below. Maybe you could try it and see what happens for you. Later in the week, I’ll share some of the crazy things that have happened to me when I’m in full-on love mode.
Research on the effects of meditation is well established. Meditation improves immune function, reduces stress, and improves mood. Most of this early research examined Transcendental Meditation (where you attempt to transcend thought, usually by repeating a mantra) rather than Loving Kindness Meditation.
Research specifically looking at Loving Kindness Meditation has suggested that compassion can be learned, among a host of other benefits.
According to fMRI research by Dr. Richard Davidson, practicing compassion increases activity in the areas of the brain that produce feelings of wellbeing and happiness and areas that are responsible for motor planning, so that meditators are physiologically poised to act on their felt compassion. Loving Kindness Meditation decreases activity in the areas of the brain that perceive boundaries between oneself and the rest of the world, promoting that feeling of oneness that characterizes meditation.
Here are the basics of how I practice Loving Kindness. It’s important to know that there is no right or wrong way to do it; although there are some pretty established methods, it’s more an art than an exact science:
The idea is to generate and really bask in feelings of love and compassionate, then project them toward others. I usually do this in bed at night, in the last 15 minutes or so before I fall asleep. I begin by seeing myself surrounded by a bright light. I try to create the feeling of being consumed–hugged almost–by the light. Then I offer myself compassion. The way I was taught was to say, “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from just suffering.” The exact language you use does not matter. All that matters is that you say something that feels good to you. For a while, it felt pretty good to me to say the phrases the way I was taught. Now I say, “May I be well. May I be happy. May I have everything my heart desires. I rock.” It feels better to me to take out the “free from suffering” part because, frankly, I just didn’t like saying “suffering” in the middle of my meditation. This language is more natural to me and the way I speak.
After offering this Loving Kindness to myself, I offer it to others around me. I recommend starting with people you actually love. It’s usually pretty easy to offer Loving Kindness to babies and pets; it gets a little messier with complex, speaking adults. So start easy. I picture my husband, my dogs, my immediate family, my closest friends, create the feeling state, and say, “May you be well. May you be happy. May you have everything your heart desires. You rock.” Once I’ve hit my A-list, I start searching for other people I know less intimately. I may visually go down the hallway at my last job focusing on each person, or scroll through my list of Facebook friends in my mind. Eventually—and this is where it really becomes powerful—I move on to people I don’t always love so much.
Try this: imagine someone you are at odds with. That one person who always gets to you, or the person from your past you’ve never managed to forgive. Visualize them clearly as if they’re on a movie screen in your mind. This alone can be painful. Now, take all that love and compassion you just offered your adorable new kitten and transfer it on to your least favorite person. See that person as clearly as you can, basking in the love you are offering him or her. Tell them they rock and that you truly hope they get all their heart’s desires.
Having fun yet? Don’t worry, it gets easier. And easier, and easier, until you can actually picture this person in your meditation and easily offer them compassion. Then, you can think of them in your daily, waking life and you don’t get that feeling in the pit in your stomach. You start ruminating about them less. Before you know it, your resentment is gone. The best part is, this has nothing to do with them and it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Lately, I’ve been taking this practice out of my bed and into the street. I offer Loving Kindness to people on the train or at Target. I usually focus on one person at a time–although you can just as easily do it with an entire room–telling them (in my head) they rock, I love them, they look pretty; again, what you say is less important than how you feel.
So what happens? Here is my challenge to you: try it yourself for a few days and see what you experience. I’ll post some of my more unbelievable experiences later this week. May you be well. May you have fun!