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  • Writer's pictureSharon Bryce

Loving Kindness

Emma Seppala, Science director of Stanford University’s “Center for Compassion and Altruism” and Co-director of Yale University’s “Center for Emotional Intelligence” defines loving-kindness as feelings of goodwill, kindness and warmth towards others. Self-compassion is the ability to extend these feelings to ourselves. Research demonstrates that a regular loving kindness meditation practice increases positive emotions and decreases negative ones; increases vagal nerve tone (which is a marker of well-being), slows aging; has an immediate relaxant effect, decreases migraine, chronic pain, and the symptoms of P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). An increase in empathy and emotional processing in the brain has also been demonstrated. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another by being able to put yourself in their shoes. Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express your own emotions - and handle interpersonal relationships in a healthy way. Loving-kindness practice makes you less biased, less overly critical of yourself and others and this improves the symptoms of depression. You become more popular and better able to connect with others. It is effective even in small doses and the effects are both immediate and long lasting. A study by Cohn et al (2011) found 35% of participants in a loving-kindness meditation study experienced a boost in positive emotions for up to 15 months after the study ended.

So loving kindness and self-compassion make us happier, healthier and more resilient, with a heightened ability to hang in there in difficult situations for the long haul. Instead of making you weak and gullible, loving-kindness makes you more successful and more popular. What does this mean in terms of achieving your goals? It means that to be a high achiever this loving-kindness, self-compassion stuff is very helpful. The good news is loving-kindness is a skill that can be learnt, practiced and improved and working on it helps us conquer our inner critic by strengthening our capacity to cut ourselves some slack.

I have to admit the term “loving-kindness” is some kind of trigger for me. When I first heard about it I wasn’t thrilled and not because I am averse to being kind. It just sounded way too “Today’s Christian Women” or “Yoga Guru” to me. Or as Dan Harris, investigative journalist, and author of “Ten Percent Happier” puts it: “Like something you get lectured on in kindergarten and then ignore anyway.” I felt squeamish about the term self-compassion too - a good way to wallow in self-pity and become completely self-absorbed. I admit hearing a self-compassion meditation for the first time and thinking “oh for heaven’s sake, just suck it up and get on with life.” In defense of my cynicism, I think love and kindness have become underrated in our success-at-all-cost culture as the weaker path. We need to be brilliant and courageous go-getters. Being nice is often viewed as weak - a quick path to getting walked all over. Yet when I remember those who have been genuinely kind to me, particularly when I least deserve it, I remember being impressed. We don’t forget genuinely kind people or their gestures either. Could it be that these people have wrestled with their inner critic and won the battle? Kindness can be a strength. A demonstration of self-control. Unkind folks are hard on themselves. Perhaps the inner critic I wrote about in my last blog rules the roost in their head.

A quick online search showed me that all world faiths advocate loving-kindness even though their adherents throughout history have often spectacularly ignored this teaching choosing violent acts jarringly at odds with their own sacred scriptures (even Buddhists!). Here are some examples of sacred scriptures that talk about loving-kindness:

Hinduism : This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you - Mahabharata 5:1517

Buddhism: Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful - The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18

Christianity: In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets - Jesus, Matthew 7:12

Islam: Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself - The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith

Native American Code of Ethics

Respect means to feel or show honor or esteem for someone or something; to consider the well being of, or treat someone or something with deference or courtesy. Showing respect is the basic law of life. Respect the privacy of every person, never intrude on a person’s quiet moment or personal space. Show deep respect of the beliefs and religion of others. Treat the earth and all of her aspects as your mother. Show deep respect for the mineral, plant and animal world. Do nothing to pollute our mother, rise up with wisdom to defend her. Listen with courtesy to what other say, even if you feel that what they are saying is worthless. Listen with your heart.

Where faith traditions tell us what to do, modern science (admittedly drawn from Buddhism’s “Metta” meditation practice) is showing us how. It is an unimpressively simple exercise. In loving-kindness meditation we sit comfortably, eyes open or closed - however you feel most at ease. You systematically envision beings - animals or people. Classically you start with yourself and repeat 4 phrases to yourself: May I be happy, safe, healthy and live with ease or similar statements reflective of your hopes for yourself. I say: May I be happy, wise, calm, and safe. May I know love in all its fullness and learn to love well. May I pursue my purpose with passion and do my bit to move the planet forward. Then you move on to a benefactor (a mentor); a dear friend (eg. pet or child), partner, neutral person, enemy (someone you find difficult) and finally all beings everywhere. Of course the hard part is extending good wishes to the difficult people in your life. As Dan Harris puts it, when we deal with the difficult people in our lives it can feel like “valentine’s day with a machete to the throat.” We don’t want them to be happy. They’ve made life hard and we think they should rot in hell. It was a relief to learn that I don’t have to force a feeling. I just do the meditation exercise. Emotional reactions are just passing thoughts to be mindful of.

Well known contemporary yoga teacher, Shiva Rea, calls the people in our lives with whom we have conflict “precious jewels” because without them we wouldn’t practice so intently to keep our heart fire alive. Yeah, I know - very woo woo, but how true! She also extends the loving kindness practice to “intimate places” - your own happy natural places - a special beach, or forest, a stream or mountain that you love. Conversely it may be a place in crisis or war torn. Any place that moves your heart. Send your thoughts and feelings of goodwill there. To bring my own loving kindness meditation practice to a close I like to imagine all the others worldwide who are in prayer and meditation at the same moment and envision our good wishes as fine but strong tendrils of light weaving a web that envelops and protects our planet. Whatever floats your boat. Loving-kindness meditation can be personal and creative.

Lots of stuff comes up doing compassion practice. Its underlying premise is that we focus on what connects us rather than what divides. For example, every living being wants to be happy. Even those we consider enemies. Every living being makes mistakes and at some point hurts others. We share this as well. Loving-kindness meditation can be a treacly, annoying practice but it is a scientifically proven one. I’ve found the anger may still be there, particularly when a difficult person comes to mind, or when I encounter them and they push my buttons but each time I am a little less angry, a little less reactive, a little more in control of my emotions and response. And I shake it off faster. Loving-kindness is a tool, not a magic wand. Some new outrage will happen and off I go again. It’s no miracle cure but over time I feel happier and more cool, calm and collected - and who doesn’t want more of that?

Some days we only seem able to focus on the mistakes we’ve made and the things we do and say wrong. The sense of who we are and all we hope to be can collapse around a single stupid comment. Loving-kindness trains us to pay attention to the bigger picture. It’s not denying that we stuff up. Its acknowledging that this is not all we are. It trains our brains to engage with positive thoughts not just harp on and on about the negative.

When you start to notice what thoughts bounce around your skull you too may notice a strong streak of anger or sadness (the two can be connected). There is no point in getting upset at your mental wiring - much of it has been bequeathed to you by evolution, genetics and family/social environment. But you can learn to rewire your brain with meditation practices such as loving-kindness and dial that anger down.

There are many loving-kindness meditations on YouTube. I like those by Jon Kabat Zinn. Why not give one a go? Or hop along to your nearest yoga/meditation class and ask the teacher if he/she could share the practice with you.

What’s the kindest thing anyone has done for you? Do you remember someone being kind when you didn’t deserve it? What was that like? Feel free to comment below.

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