In view of everything that has been going on in the world lately, it is important to remember this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. It would be so easy to focus on all the hate, the anger, and the violence that is going on all around us, but much harder to focus on all the good and wonderful that still exists. Yet it is important to focus on the good. It is important to have hope. It is important to respond with love and kindness, rather than with hate and violence. It is important to be strong by showing empathy and compassion, rather than retaliation. And it all starts with each and every one of us.
I have previously written about the four qualities of love (the brahmavihāras), with loving-kindness (mettā) creating the foundation for true love. Mettā can be practiced through loving-kindness meditation. Today I tried loving-kindness meditation for the first time, and I encourage you to do the same!
Loving-kindness is characterised by good will, amity, compassion, friendliness, and benevolence. It is different from romantic love, because it is unconditional, pure, and encompasses all types of love between living beings. Loving-kindness is a gentle practice, which teaches us to heal the heart and mind from pain and confusion, by showing love and kindness towards ourselves and towards others. True love always starts with ourselves, as well as the realisation that we are all interconnected. Change always starts with ourselves and radiates outwards in a warming, healing light that can surely heal the pain of the world.
As most meditation practices, this meditation is best done in the morning to begin your day with love and kindness in your heart and mind. But it can also be done at any point throughout the day, and may be extra beneficial if it is done when you feel some malice or ill will towards yourself or another being. Usually, loving-kindness meditation takes around 15 minutes, but you can start with 5 minutes and build your way up to 30 minutes if you wish.
This guided meditation practice teaches us to develop loving-kindness towards:
- A respected person (e.g., a spiritual teacher)
- A beloved person (e.g., a family member or a friend)
- A neutral person (e.g., an acquaintance or a colleague)
- A hostile person (e.g., someone you are having problems with)
- The whole world
Practicing in this order allows us not only to understand and experience feelings of loving-kindness early on in our practice, but it also breaks down the barriers between ourselves and others, until we realise that only one interconnected being remains. In this sense, loving-kindness meditation is composed not only of meditation practice, but also of (inner) chanting and visualisation.
To start the loving-kindness meditation, sit comfortably on a meditation cushion with your legs crossed or on a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your spine straight. Close your eyes and bring your awareness within. Take a moment to centre and ground yourself in the present. Relax your body and keep your eyes closed throughout the entire practice. When you are ready, take a deep breath in to your heart’s centre and breathe out, and gently follow the instructions below. If you are trying loving-kindness meditation for the first time, it is a good idea to use a recording or a YouTube video to guide you through your practice.
Breathing in and out from the heart centre, begin by generating a feeling of love and kindness towards yourself. As in all meditation practices, notice any sensations or areas of blockage, judgment, reactivity, or resistance. Notice if you feel irritated or angry, and remember to practice with patience and kindness. Repeat the following phrases or a variation of them that you find creates feelings of love and kindness within yourself:
- May I be free from harm and danger.
- May I be safe and protected.
- May I be happy, healthy, and strong.
- May I be free from physical pain and suffering.
- May I be at peace.
Move on to the next person on your list. This is a person who is easy to love unconditionally. Repeat the phrases for this person:
- May she be free from harm and danger.
- May she be safe and protected.
- May she be happy, healthy, and strong.
- May she be free from physical pain and suffering.
- May she be at peace.
Move down the list of people, aiming to create the same feeling of unconditional love and kindness towards acquaintances or people you have been having problems with, as you created towards your loved ones. As you move through the phrases, truly embrace the words and the sensations that they bring. Feel the love of which you speak. Radiate it outwards.
If you at any point encounter negative feelings towards someone (or yourself), return to visualising your loved ones until you build up a feeling of loving-kindness again, and repeat the phrases once more. Notice resistance and the separation you have created between the people you find easy to love and the people you find difficult to love. Slowly watch the separation break down. Allow yourself to feel love towards the whole world until it reaches every single living thing on the planet:
- May all beings be free from harm and danger.
- May all beings be safe and protected.
- May all beings be happy, healthy, and strong.
- May all beings be free from physical pain and suffering.
- May all beings be at peace.
Loving-kindness has many benefits, which are often immediate and long-lasting. Research has shown a positive impact of loving-kindness practices on a wide range of mental and physical health conditions, such as migraines, chronic pain, stress, empathy, compassion, depression, and self-love.
Above all, loving-kindness can change the world. Some would say it is impossible and some would say that the solution cannot be that simple. But if every single person on earth truly practiced loving-kindness, could we really harm each other? If we stopped seeing the separation between ourselves and other living beings, could we really hurt someone else, knowing that we would also be hurt?
On a smaller scale, even if one person practices loving-kindness, the world is already that much kinder. That person will experience feelings of good will towards others. That person will experience self-love. That person will have kind and gentle thoughts towards the whole world.
And while “thoughts and prayers” are unlikely to change the world for the better, showing compassion, love, and kindness to every human being is definitely a huge step in the right direction.
Click the image below to try a loving-kindness meditation by Emma Seppälä.