Building Love and Compassion through MeditationMay 17 , 2012

I’ve been focusing a lot of time on mindfulness over the last few weeks (overview here and here). Today, I’m going to talk about another type of meditation that has an equally storied history (it’s been practiced for over 2000 years) and has been shown to significantly increase happiness and positive emotions.

Loving-kindness meditation focuses specifically on increasing your capacity to love and be loved. It’s a simple meditation where you repeat well-wishing phrases quietly in your mind. It can be your primary meditation practice, or it can be interspersed or integrated into a regular mindfulness practice.

Scientific Results
Barbara Fredrickson, one of the top positive psychology researchers, recently completed a controlled 7-week study testing loving-kindness meditation in over 200 people. One group was assigned to regular 20 minute meditations where they followed instructions similar to the ones I relay below and filled in daily surveys on their emotions. The control group filled in the same surveys but didn’t do the meditations.

After 3 weeks of this regular practice, the meditation group started to show significant increases in feelings of love and social connection as expected. But they also showed significant increases in other positive emotions including joy, serenity, gratitude and hope among others. And the positive emotions continued to rise steadily throughout the study. This is the biggest controlled study showing how valuable a loving-kindness meditation practice can be.

My experience
This is one of my favorite meditation practices. When I focus on it, it opens me to a greater sense of connection and community. I find it wonderful to informally practice when I’m out in the world — sending positive wishes out to others while I’m waiting in a line or walking somewhere or even sitting in traffic. When I’m in this space, I find that more people smile at me and things come more easily; that sense of connection brightens my day even more than the meditation itself does.

How to do it
Like with mindfulness meditation, find a comfortable place to sit with your back straight. Focus for a minute or two on the sensations of your breath — you can even imagine your breath coming in and out of your heart.

Then picture someone you love – a loving grandparent, a favorite niece or nephew, a mentor, special teacher or even a pet can work. The key is to start with the simplest love possible, a love that is not complicated with day-to-day stress.

Picture the recipient of your good wishes in your mind and repeat these simple phrases:

May you be loved and feel love for others
May you be healthy and strong
May you be safe and protected from danger
May you be happy, truly happy and free

It’s important to try to open up to those feelings of love, let the words be felt rather than just repeated. After a round or two of going through the phrases, you can move on to other people you love in your life, even those with some complications (i.e. your partner, your kids, parents or good friends.)

You can stay with these people for the whole session if you want or you can expand the practice further by moving on to more neutral people you’ve met — neighbors, workmates, the guy who works the register at the grocery store. And finally you can expand to all people or all beings everywhere.

Give it a try
Give loving-kindness meditation a try and see how it feels. It can be good to start with a guided version of a loving-kindness meditation, click here to access a 9-minute version that was recorded at UCLA. Try it a couple times this week. Next week I’ll be providing a few additional ideas that can help use this practice to be less self-critical and more forgiving.

Some people take to loving-kindness immediately; for others it takes some time to get the hang of it. The key is simply to create opportunities to expand the amount of love you feel.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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