Loving-Kindness Meditation: What It Is and How to Practice

In our fast-paced lives, many of us are turning to meditation and other ancient practices for finding peace and stability. It has stood the test of time and benefited millions of people before us. Different meditation techniques offer slightly different benefits, although many benefits of meditation are common to all practices.

One such technique is loving-kindness meditation, which allows us to transform feelings of an8ger, hate, or indifference into compassion and friendliness. It’s a popular Buddhist practice that can boost our well-being and reduce stress.

In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about loving-kindness meditation (LKM).

What is loving-kindness meditation?

The original name for loving-kindness is metta in Pali or Maitrī in Sanskrit. The practice of cultivating Metta toward oneself and others is known as metta Bhavana, and it is a popular form of Buddhist meditation. Metta means love, friendliness, or kindness, and Bhavana means cultivation or development.

Loving-kindness meditation is a Buddhist practice designed to help us overcome anger, hate, and bitterness toward others, and cultivate self-love. In this meditation, we cultivate feelings of love and friendliness toward ourselves and others. It may sound easy, but it takes practice to send love to the people we have conflicts with or allow ourselves to receive our own love.

Although this meditation is popular in Buddhism, the concept of loving-kindness is not new to spirituality. Hindu and Jain texts before Buddha also emphasized the importance of cultivating friendliness toward others.

Loving-kindness and friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the sorrowful, joy for others and equanimity, or being undisturbed by events and not being drawn into judgment or contempt are the four attitudes that will bring peace of mind.

Yoga Sutra, 1.33 (Hinduism)

Benevolence towards all living beings, joy at the sight of the virtuous, compassion and sympathy for the afflicted, and tolerance towards the insolent and ill-behaved are the right sentiments.

Tattvartha Sutra, 2.11 (Jainism)

Benefits of loving-kindness meditation

Scientific studies continue to explore the benefits of meditation. Most studies test mindfulness meditation, but many studies also analyze the benefits of other meditation techniques, such as transcendental, open monitoring, and loving-kindness meditation.

Before we get into scientific studies, let’s look at what the Buddha says about metta. He has listed 11 advantages of cultivating loving-kindness:

1. He sleeps in comfort.
2. He awakes in comfort.
3. He sees no evil dreams.
4. He is dear to human beings.
5. He is dear to non-human beings.
6. Devas (gods) protect him.
7. Fire, poison, and sword cannot touch him.
8. His mind can concentrate quickly.
9. His countenance is serene.
10. He dies without being confused in mind.
11. If he fails to attain arahantship (the highest sanctity) here and now, he will be reborn in the brahma-world.

Anguttara Nikaya XI.16

LKM is especially useful for making us more compassionate and fulfilled. It affects areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and empathy. Here are some benefits of loving-kindness meditation backed by science:

1. It increases positive emotions

2008 study found that practicing loving-kindness meditation for seven weeks increases positive emotions, such as love, hope, interest, contentment, and gratitude. These increased feelings, in turn, have positive effects on our lives. The participants experienced increased mindfulness, decreased symptoms of illness, and an increased sense of purpose in life. The study concludes that loving-kindness meditation increases our overall life satisfaction and improves our well-being.

Another study, published in 2013, found that regular practice of loving-kindness meditation increases vagal tone – a physiological marker of well-being. This means they had an increase in positive emotions.

2. It increases compassion and empathy

Study shows that loving-kindness meditation increases the volunteers’ empathic responses to others’ suffering. The researchers observed that the participants reacted negatively before the compassion training, but metta Bhavana increased positive affective experiences, even in response to seeing others in distress.

Loving-kindness meditation is a very effective practice for increasing compassion, according to a review of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs). Another study examined the effects of loving-kindness meditation on a group of participants and concluded that it increased the prosocial behavior of participants. This means loving-kindness meditation also makes you a more compassionate and helpful person.

3. It reduces pain symptoms

pilot study analyzed the effects of an eight-week loving-kindness program on chronic low back pain patients. They assigned the participants to loving-kindness intervention or standard care.

They concluded that loving-kindness meditation is beneficial in reducing anger, pain, and psychological distress in chronic low back pain patients. The study even found that the more you practice loving-kindness, the lesser pain and anger you’ll experience.

In another study, 27 migraineurs, who were all new to meditation, attended a 20-minute loving-kindness session. The findings suggest that even a single session of loving-kindness meditation can significantly reduce pain and emotional tension associated with migraines.

4. It reduces self-criticism and increases social connection

All of us have a voice inside our heads that chatters constantly. More often than not, this voice can be downright nasty. Research shows that loving-kindness meditation helps us tame that inner critic. Not only that, but the participants also noted improvements in positive emotions and self-compassion.

Metta Bhavana also enhances our social connections. A study observed the impact of a 6-week loving-kindnessprogramon social and intergroup relations. The researchers conclude that loving-kindness meditation decreased the participants’ implicit bias against minorities.

Another study revealed that the people who report increased positive emotions due to loving-kindness meditation also reported more gains in the perception of social connection.

5. Other benefits

2011 study observed the impact of LKM on participants over 15 months. The researchers found that the volunteers who continued to meditate regularly after the initial intervention experienced enhanced positive emotions. Positive emotions also correlated positively with the amount of time spent meditating. This suggests that LKM can help us lastingly change our lives for the better.

Telomeres are small bits of your genetic material and a biological marker for aging. The shorter your telomere length is, the quicker you’ll age. We already know that stress decreases telomere length, but an eye-opening study found that women who experienced LKM had relatively longer telomere lengths as compared to age-matched controls. This means regular LKM practice can slow down biological aging.

Apart from that, LKM also increases gray matter related to emotion regulationdecreases PTSD, and helps you handle social stress.

While more quality research is required to confirm the extent of the benefits of LKM, there are no risks or costs involved. So, if you decide to give this practice a try, you’ve got nothing to lose except for a few minutes every day.

Ways to awaken feelings of loving-kindness:

When it comes to cultivating feelings of loving-kindness for yourself and others, you have three techniques at your disposal:

  1. Visualization: Conjure up a picture of the person. See that person smiling back at you or just being joyful.
  2. Reflection: Think about the positive qualities of that person and the kind acts they’ve done for you or others.
  3. Affirmations: Repeat an internalized mantra or phrase. This is the simplest but probably the most effective way. We’ll discuss some phrases in the next sections. They are generally more effective when you say them out loud, but repeating them inside your head will also work.

Visualization, reflection, and affirmations are techniques we can use to awaken feelings of metta for ourselves and others. You can use all of them or choose the one that works for you.

When the feelings of loving-kindness arise, switch your focus from the technique to the feeling. Focus your attention on the feeling. If the mind strays or the feeling weakens, resort back to the technique and strengthen the feeling. The primary object of meditation is the feeling of loving-kindness.

The 5 stages of loving-kindness meditation

The practice of metta Bhavana is done in five stages. Spend around 2-5 minutes on each stage, and it’ll take you 10-25 minutes to complete one session of meditation. Here are the five stages of loving-kindness meditation:

  1. Cultivating loving-kindness toward yourself. Some people find this challenging. Difficult emotions may arise, and it’ll take some practice before you can allow yourself to receive your own love.
  2. Cultivating loving-kindness toward your loved ones. Choose someone with whom you have a loving relationship. Perhaps your friend, your son or daughter, or someone else you’re close to.
  3. Cultivating loving-kindness toward a stranger. Choose someone for whom you have neutral feelings – neither positive nor negative. Strangers are the best people for this purpose: a local shop owner, a bus driver, or anyone you don’t know.
  4. Cultivating loving-kindness toward someone is difficult. This is where it gets tricky. You need to choose someone you don’t particularly like; somebody with whom you have a difficult relationship. Think of someone who irritates or frustrates you.
  5. Cultivating loving-kindness toward everyone. In this stage, you send loving-kindness to every sentient being: humans, animals, trees, insects, etc. Wish wellness to every creature on the planet.

Now that you know what steps LKM involves, let’s discuss each of them in detail:

1. Toward oneself

The first being you should send your loving-kindness to is yourself. Buddhism specifically advises us not to start anywhere other than with ourselves, as it can arouse difficult emotions. We may feel fatigued if we try to cultivate loving-kindness toward a neutral person, sadness if our loved one is suffering, or anger when we bring up the image of someone we dislike.

So, one should always start practicing loving-kindness with oneself. Become aware of your body and focus on the feelings of love and tranquility. Form a picture of yourself and gently repeat the following phrases to yourself (you can also create new phrases):

May I be well?

May I be happy?

May I be healthy?

May I be free from suffering?

Focus on the feeling of loving-kindness for a few minutes. Radiate heartfelt compassion for yourself and enjoy this feeling for two to five minutes. Then, move on to the second stage.

2. Toward a good friend

Once we’ve cultivated loving-kindness toward ourselves, the next step is to do it for someone close to us, whom we respect and love. That being could be your sibling, friend, parent, partner, or someone else.

Decide who you will choose in advance, so you don’t waste time in indecision during the actual practice. Also, stick with one particular person for around a week so that you can strengthen the connection you have with them. But you probably have more than one friend and want to deepen your connection with each of them. So spend a week on a person and move on to the next one.

Focus on recalling the qualities or kind words of that person and the moments you shared with them. Let the feeling of affection grow within you and repeat the following phrases either mentally or verbally:

May you be well.

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you be free from suffering.

Focus on the feeling of loving-kindness. Radiate heartfelt compassion for the person and stay in this feeling for two to five minutes. Then, move on to the third stage.

3. Toward a “neutral person”

In this stage, we cultivate loving-kindness toward people we have no strong feelings toward. This person could be a store worker, a delivery guy, or anyone you don’t know or have no emotional relationship with.

Most people in our lives can be categorized as “neutral people”. We have little to no emotional connection with them, and perhaps we won’t even notice if suddenly they cease to exist. Here, we’ll take the sufferings of those unknown people seriously. We’ll learn to care for the wellbeing of people who we usually ignore.

Bring to mind someone you’re indifferent to. Now, wish them well using your imagination or repeat the following phrases with utmost sincerity:

May those around me be well.

May those around me be happy.

May those around me be healthy.

May those around me be free from suffering.

Focus on the feeling of loving-kindness. Radiate unconditional, heartfelt compassion for people around you and stay in this feeling for two to five minutes. Then, move on to the fourth stage.

4. Toward a “difficult person”

This is the most difficult stage of LKM. Here, we intentionally think about someone we are in conflict with and cultivate loving-kindness toward them. This person can be someone you have a long-standing conflict with, or you may just be annoyed by them.

You can imagine that it’s been years now, and both of you have resolved any conflicts and have become good friends. It’s easy to trick the brain into dropping any judgment or resentment toward a person. You can also reflect on any good qualities they may have or think about what you have in common. These are some ways to let go of any negative thoughts and develop loving-kindness toward a difficult person.

You may feel angry thinking about how they’ve wronged you or jealous of their success. Notice any tendency you may have to wish them misfortune or think badly of them. The first step to cultivating metta is to let go of these tendencies. Then, wish them well using the following phrases:

May you be well.

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you be free from suffering.

Focus on the feeling of loving-kindness. Let go of any anger or resentment and radiate heartfelt compassion for this person. Stay in this feeling for two to five minutes. Then, move on to the last stage.

5. Toward all sentient beings

This is the ultimate stage of metta Bhavana. Here, we’ll include everyone in our circle of compassion, wishing everyone well. Start with yourself, your close ones, neutral people, and difficult people. Then, see all four together and develop loving compassion equally toward all four. Finally, widen your circle until you’re wishing well for all sentient beings. Repeat the following affirmations mentally or verbally:

May all be well.

May all be happy.

May all be healthy.

May all be free from suffering.

Focus on the feeling of loving-kindness. Radiate heartfelt compassion for everyone on the planet. Let yourself become a limitless source of loving-kindness. Stay in this feeling for two to five minutes.

Why develop loving-kindness for bad people?

There are some bad people in the world. Okay, there are many bad people in the world, and you may well wonder why you should develop loving-kindness toward those who commit heinous crimes, especially when they seem to enjoy their lives despite being evil.

While it may look like bad people are having the time of their life, it’s not the case. They’re suffering way more inside their heads. Evil deeds may lead to material wealth, but they never lead to spiritual wealth. Their mental tendencies will continue to torture them, making them animalistic and restless. You’re not supposed to imagine any of this; it’s the truth.

Though he is going about in the human world now, nevertheless after a certain number of days he will find himself in one of the eight great hells or the sixteen prominent hells.

Visuddhimagga, 9.20            

When you consider the above fact, you naturally feel pity for those people. Then, you can cultivate loving-kindness toward them so that they may gain some wisdom and change the course of their lives.

And as for a person who is impure in his bodily behavior & verbal behavior, and who does not periodically experience mental clarity & calm, how should one subdue hatred for him? Just as when there is a sick man—in pain, seriously ill—traveling along a road, far from the next village & far from the last, unable to get the food he needs, unable to get the medicine he needs, unable to get a suitable assistant, unable to get anyone to take him to human habitation. Now suppose another person were to see him coming along the road. He would do what he could out of compassion, pity, & sympathy for the man, thinking, ‘O that this man should get the food he needs, the medicine he needs, a suitable assistant, someone to take him to human habitation. Why is that? So that he won’t fall into ruin right here.’ In the same way, when a person is impure in his bodily behavior & verbal behavior, and who does not periodically experience mental clarity & calm, one should do what one can out of compassion, pity, & sympathy for him, thinking, ‘O that this man should abandon wrong bodily conduct and develop right bodily conduct, abandon wrong verbal conduct and develop right verbal conduct, abandon wrong mental conduct and develop right mental conduct. Why is that? So that, on the break-up of the body, after death, he won’t fall into the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, purgatory.’ Thus the hatred for him should be subdued.

Dutiyaāghātapaṭivinaya Sutta (AN 5.162)

I’m not suggesting that you can “wish” people into becoming good. Your loving-kindness may not have any impact on them, but it’ll certainly have an impact on you. It’ll open your heart and allow you to be truly compassionate. You’ll also reduce the amount of intolerance and hatred in the world by reducing them in your own heart.

Recommended books on loving-kindness meditation

1. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

In this book, Sharon Salzberg, one of America’s leading spiritual teachers, shows us how the Buddhist path of loving-kindness can help us discover the radiant, joyful heart within each of us. The author draws on simple Buddhist teachings, wisdom stories from various traditions, guided meditation practices, and her own experience from twenty-five years of practice and teaching to illustrate how each one of us can cultivate love, compassion, joy, and equanimity—the four “heavenly abodes” of traditional Buddhism.

2. Loving-Kindness in Plain English: The Practice of Metta

In this book, Bhante Gunaratana shares with us how we can cultivate loving-kindness to live a life of joyful harmony with others. Through personal anecdotes, step-by-step meditations, conversational renderings of the Buddha’s words in the suttas, and transformative insights into how we live in and relate to the world, we learn that peace here and now is possible—within ourselves and in all our relationships.

3. Real Love – The Art of Mindful Connection

In this book, Sharon Salzberg, with positive reflections and practices, teaches us how to shift the responsibilities of the love that we give and receive to rekindle the powerful healing force of true connection. By challenging myths perpetuated by popular culture, we can undo the limited definitions that reduce love to simply romance or passion and give the heart a much-needed tune-up to connect ourselves to the truest experience of love in our daily lives.

Final thoughts

The regular practice of loving-kindness has many physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits. It makes us better people and instills compassion in our minds. It also improves our relationship with others, and most importantly, with ourselves.

Learning to cultivate loving-kindness takes time and gets easier with practice. Once we’ve gotten the hang of it, we can practice metta any time of the day. Whenever we meet a friend, a neutral person, or a troublesome person, we can consciously radiate compassion for them and wish them well, expecting nothing in return.

I hope this article was able to acquaint you with this wonderful practice. Good luck and happy meditating! 😊

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