Loving Kindness Practice: the research that supports it
Session Details - May 29th. Discussing the research that supports the numerous benefits to our well being via practicing loving kindness meditation.
We started with a mindfulness of sounds - the body - the breath and then moved to an open awareness practice. Our heart practice was a loving kindness for a loved one, then tucking ourselves in, the practice then focussed on moving to compassion for someone we know is struggling - then easefully into a giving and receiving of compassion.
‘Attention is like a spotlight – whatever it shines on becomes brighter in the mind. This knowledge can help us build compassion’. - Paul Gilbert
Paul Gilbert's quote speaks to much of the research findings regarding the impact loving kindness meditation can have on our physical, emotional and spiritual health. As the prayer flags remind us, people have been sending well-wishes, prayers off into the winds of the world for a long time.
In today's world loving kindness practice can play an important role in bringing balance to the mind's negativity bias, and also meeting our innate need to feel into the love and good that we are - the basic goodness that resides within the hearts of us all.
I feel the following words from Ram Dass elude to this notion that we are love and yes we need it, but not like the 'hungry ghosts', not primarily from others in a way that never truly lands or resides. If we can practice in a way where we feel into it within ourselves - perhaps we can find our way to the unimaginable capacity of love! Loving kindness may well be the vehicle for this.
"We come through life a little bit like hungry ghosts. We are beings that have huge needs for love, but seemingly it’s like we have some kind of amoeba that doesn’t allow us to digest our food. So, though we get love, it goes through us and then we need love all over again. This conception is so deep within all of us that we’ve built an entire reality around it, and we think that’s the way it is; that everybody needs love and that if you don’t get it you are deprived, and that the more of it the better, and you need it every day from everything…” – Ram Dass
Loving Kindness practice is not:
Selfish: Just as on the airlines we are instructed to place our oxygen mask on first – before we assist another. Bringing love to our inner world then shows love 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 judgment. It can assist to loosen the grip of old habits. Turning our stumbling blocks into stepping-stones.
Positive affirmation: Affirmations are an effort to encourage ourselves by saying things we may not believe, like ‘I’m getting stronger every day!’ LKM is not intended to be a ‘fake it till you make it’, type of practice, or praying that a situation be better than it is. The phrases are inclinations / aspirations of the heart – extending the reach of our heart.
Just a mantra: Although the LK 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 the strength of love. Cultivating 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.
Good feelings: LKM is primarily cultivated from good will rather good feelings. Feelings come and go, our intention remains rooted in the understanding that all beings share the universal wish for peace, ease, love and safety. This is where we put our faith.
Exhausting: Exhaustion is the result of expectation – wanting things to be one way and not the other. LK and compassion are not based on a set outcome or a sense of deserving, good feelings may 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 well-wish and remaining unattached to the outcome is feeling into the unconditional love – an antidote to exhaustion and despair
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?
Science based reasons to practice Loving-Kindness meditation
1. Increases positive emotions and decreases negative emotions
2. Increases vagal tone via sustained focus on these positive mind states
3. Decreases migraines
4. Decreases chronic pain
5. Decreases PTSD
6. Decreased problems associated with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders
7. Activates empathy and emotional processing areas in the brain
8. Increases grey matter volume in the brain
9. Increases respiratory Sinus Arrythmia (RSA) an index of parasympathetic cardiac control (i.e., your ability to enter a relaxing and restorative state), and slowed respiration rate
10. Increases telomere length, stress has been shown to decrease telomere length (telomeres are tiny bits of your genetic materials – chromosomes, that are a biological marker of aging).
11. Increases helping behaviour
12. Increases empathy and compassionate behaviour
13. Decreases your bias towards others and increases social connection
14. Curbs self-criticism
15. Is effective even in small doses and has long-term impact
16. Increased experiences of; gratitude, awe and wonder
(All research cited on The Greater Good Science Centre: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu)