In recent years, meditation has become increasingly popular in the US. There are many different variations, all of which share a fundamental goal — pausing to embrace stillness amidst a society that demands non-stop productivity. With a new year already begun, now is the perfect time to take a deep breath and embrace self-care — and a great way to start is with loving-kindness meditation. Here’s the scoop on this simple yet powerful form of mindfulness.
What is loving-kindness meditation?
Loving-kindness meditation, also known as Metta, is rooted in radical compassion. The practice has ancient Indian origins and may even predate the Buddha. Unlike meditations focused on stilling the mind and listening to one’s breath, or mentally scanning the feelings of the body, loving-kindness meditation is focused on sending thoughts of positivity and love — to both yourself and others.
How can I practice loving-kindness meditation?
Like most forms of meditation, you start by siting in a quiet place with your eyes closed and breathing steadily. Once you’re sitting, think about transmitting loving feelings to yourself and others. If that sounds a little abstract, try following this guide, adapted from longtime meditation teacher Jack Kornfield. “You can begin the practice of loving-kindness by meditating for 15 or 20 minutes in a quiet place,” he writes. “Let yourself sit in a comfortable fashion. Let your body rest and be relaxed. Let your heart be soft. Let go of any plans and preoccupations.” As you relax, recite these traditional Metta phrases to yourself:
- May I be filled with loving-kindness.
- May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
- May I be well in body and mind.
- May I be at ease and happy.
You don’t have to recite all of or exactly these phrases — but it helps to have a direction, especially if you are new to the practice. As Kornfield writes, practicing loving-kindness doesn’t always feel natural, and that’s okay: “Be aware that this meditation may at times feel mechanical or awkward,” he cautions. “It can also bring up feelings contrary to loving-kindness, feelings of irritation and anger. If this happens, it is especially important to be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be received in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection.” Avoid the impulse to criticize yourself, and focus on feelings of happiness, safety, health, and healing; if you experience any strain or awkwardness, recognize that it’s all part of the process.
After five to ten minutes of focusing loving feelings toward yourself, try sending them outward. Choose someone in your life you have a caring relationship with, and send feelings of loving-kindness to them, like so:
- May you be filled with loving-kindness.
- May you be safe from inner and outer dangers.
- May you be well in body and mind.
- May you be at ease and happy.
Eventually, you can expand your Metta meditation to include all people (yes, even those you don’t like!). Treat the phrases of loving-kindness meditation like mantras, repeating them in your head as you sit. If you are struggling because you find self-love too challenging initially, Kornfield suggests reversing the order of things, and instead directing your thoughts to someone else first. “The rule in loving-kindness practice is to follow the way that most easily opens your heart,” he writes. Once you’re doing it regularly, you’ll see what feels most comfortable to you.
If you prefer guidance in video form, check out this short clip from teacher Sharon Salzberg.
What are the benefits of loving-kindness meditation?
Loving-kindness meditation can have a variety of benefits. A report in the journal Clinical Psychology Review states, “Neuroimaging studies suggest that [loving-kindness meditation] may enhance activation of brain areas that are involved in emotional processing and empathy.” An article in Frontiers in Psychology agrees that, while more studies are needed, this form of meditation appears to be “effective in enhancing positive emotions.” An article in Psychology Today even outlines 18 science-backed ways loving-kindness meditation may help us: Some of the unexpected but welcome benefits of Metta meditation include slowing biological aging and decreasing migraines and chronic pain.
Ultimately, loving-kindness meditation can do more than just increase your self-esteem — it can grow your compassion for others, and potentially even benefit your health. The best part? It has an extremely low barrier to entry: You can begin loving-kindness meditation anywhere and at any time, and it costs nothing. All you must do is stay open to positive and loving thoughts, and you’ll be well on your way to feeling an enduring feeling of open-hearted peace.
For more mindfulness meditation practices from our sister magazine: