The Heart Practice of Loving Kindness
Session Details - June 20th, 2016 - The Heart Practices, exploring the science behind them and ways to keep your phrases alive and authentic.
‘The bud stands for all things, even for those things that don’t flower, for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing; though sometimes it is necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing’. - Galway Kinnel
Why is it often so difficult to direct our loving attention towards ourself? I know I had great resistance to offering myself loving phrases early on in my meditation practice - curiously, it made me angry...
I now smile inwardly when participants of the MSC share their forms of similar struggles - our old friend resistance, so much to learn here at this point where things are not going according to plans. So lets start by shining a light on what the Heart Practices are not:
Loving Kindness practice is not:
Selfish: The first step to loving others is to love ourselves. Just as on the airlines we are instructed to place our oxygen mask on first – before we assist another. Bringing self-love to our inner world then brings it to our face and body – radiating out to others. Loving-kindness meditation (LKM) teaches us to be kind to ourselves no matter what happens – unconditional friendliness. The changes to our inner world then more naturally move into our outer world and life.
Complacent: Loving-kindness and compassion is a force of will – good will – that can override the instinctive tendencies of fear and anger. It can assist to free us from old habits. It allows us to learn from pain and respond skillfully. Turning our stumbling blocks into stepping stones.
Positive affirmation: Affirmations are an effort to encourage ourselves by saying things we may not believe, life ‘I’m getting stronger every day!’ LKM isn’t fooling ourselves that our situation is better than it is. The phrases must be intellectually credible to work smoothly.
Just a mantra: Although the loving-kindness phrases are repeated like a mantra, there’s more to it than that. In addition to using the power of attention, LKM works with connection, intention, and emotion. We’re doing whatever it takes to cultivate a loving attitude from the inside out.
Sugarcoating: We are not trying to make the reality of our lives any less harsh or different, rather, we want to open to the depths of human experience, including the tragedy of it, more fully. This is possible by cultivating a loving heart and compassionate response to pain.
Self-pity: Opening to pain is not self-indulgent. We are not wallowing in discomfort, complaining, or whining excessively. On the contrary, opening to pain through compassion allows us to unhook from the familiar story lines of our lives.
Good feelings: LKM is primarily cultivated from good will rather good feelings. Feelings come and go, but the ground of our being is the universal wish to be happy and free from suffering. That’s where we put our trust.
Exhausting: Exhaustion is the result of expectation – wanting things to be one way and not the other. Loving-kindness and compassion stay away from the business of controlling reality, so it’s more of a relief than a struggle.
Demanding: LKM is always on the wishing side of the equation rather than the outcome side. Good feelings come as a byproduct of LKM, but we are primarily learning to cultivate a kind attitude no matter what happens to us or to others. Sticking with the wish and remaining unattached to the outcome is unconditional love.
Finding your phrases:
We all have wounded minds; despite this we all know how to smile. Can we surrender enough to fall into our own tender hearts to smile and cultivate the qualities that are important to us?
What qualities are important to you? Maybe start there - with your own words, your own familiar way of wishing your loved ones had these qualities in their lives. Then as Chris Germer suggests, tucking yourself in - no more or no less than you would a loved one.
Science based reasons to practice Loving-Kindness meditation
(This research can all be found on the Greater Good Science Centre's website)
Research shows that loving-kindness meditation has a tremendous amount of benefits ranging from benefitting well-being to giving relief from illness and improving emotional intelligence:
Increases Positive Emotions & Decreases Negative Emotions
Increases vagal tone, which increases positive emotions & feelings of social connection
Decreases chronic pain
Decreases schizophrenia-spectrum disorders
Activates empathy & emotional processing in the brain
Increases grey matter volume
Increases respiratory Sinus Arrythmia (RSA) an index of parasympathetic cardiac control (i.e., your ability to enter a relaxing and restorative state), and slowed (i.e., more relaxed) respiration rate.
Increases telomere length—a biological marker of aging
We know that stress decreases telomere length (telomeres are tiny bits of your genetic materials—chromosomes—that are a biological marker of aging).
Makes you a more helpful person: increased helping behaviour.
Decreases your bias towards others
Increases social connection
Is effective even in small doses
Has long-term impacts