This simple form of meditation is one we recommend for everyone, regardless of their situation. It’s designed to build empathy towards yourself and others. In doing so, will help release you from the grip of negative emotions. This meditation practice is especially useful for those who are struggling to overcome trauma or deal with social injuries and anger issues.
The benefits of kindness & compassion meditation
Compassionate meditation delivers a number of benefits. A 2008 study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison scanned the brains of both novice and expert mediators as they performed loving-kindness meditation. Participants were then presented with the sounds of someone in distress. All the people from the meditation group displayed heightened brain activity in the insula, a brain area involved in self-awareness and emotional experience. In other words, they registered more empathy in their brains, feeling more compassion towards the person suffering. The expert meditators showed the strongest reaction to distressing sounds, suggesting that compassion and empathy levels had been raised in these individuals through the practice of meditation. (Grewal, 2012)
A different study by psychologists at Stanford University in 2008 turned up similar benefits. It was found that those who practiced loving-kindness meditation reported feeling closer and more socially connected to strangers they viewed in pictures. (ibid) Other research has found that regular use of this practice strengthens vagal tone, a measure of the vagus nerve, which relays sensory information between the brain and other areas. (Fredrickson, 2013) So in addition to its usefulness in helping to calm emotions from a difficult or traumatic event, regular practice of loving-kindness meditation can make you a more compassionate person overall.
Tips for compassionate meditation
Here are some tips that will help put you in the right frame of mind for this type of meditation:
1. The goal of loving-kindness meditation is not to laboriously force yourself to feel something you don’t or pretend to care about someone when you couldn’t care less. Rather, it’s more about the process of stepping outside your own shoes to imagine the triumphs and struggles of others as being indistinguishable and inseparable from our own. It’s an exercise in recognizing our common humanity and connection to one another, while letting go of the categories, labels and assumptions we cling to when relating to others. It’s about seeing the good within ourselves and others rather than fixating on what we don’t like, and noticing the things we normally ignore when we view the world through the lens of our own ego. As we come to view the world from a less egotistical and less judgmental standpoint, the compassion will come in response. If you try to force yourself to feel compassion first, you’re going about it backwards and are more likely to struggle.
2. You may find it difficult at first to wish happy thoughts upon those who have injured you. If you encounter this problem, switch the focus of your thoughts to imagining this person as an infant or small child: helpless, insecure, yet bursting with love and eager to share it with the world while desperately seeking love and approval from those around them. Deep down inside, this is the true inner core of our nature that exists within us all. Once you focus on this hidden aspect of their being (an aspect that’s the true core of our existence yet is usually hidden behind layers of guilt complexes and defense mechanisms) you’ll find it easier to extend compassion towards them in the here and now.
Variation #l: Well wishes meditation
This technique involves silently repeating wishes for the health and happiness of both yourself and others. Start by repeating in your mind thoughts of self-compassion: May I be happy. May I be healthy and strong. May my mind be filled with ease. After several moments of this, switch your thoughts to someone else you know, and repeat the process: May he/she be happy, may she be healthy, may she be safe and peaceful.
Finally, end the session by focusing your thoughts towards the welfare of everyone in the world: “May all people everywhere be at peace and experience happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment in life.” As you say these things to yourself, don’t just repeat the words, but actually visualize in your mind what this would look like. Imagine yourself and others in a state of peace and contentment; laughing, enjoying each other, and generally being happy.
Variation #2: Gratitude meditation
As a mantra, begin thinking about all the way people have helped you or those you love: Your parents, your friends, your coworkers, your child’s teachers, and so on. Then extend it to all the strangers who help you: the people who
work on the roads you drive on and those who pick up your garbage or who would respond to help in an emergency.
You might recall whatever individual acts of kindness that have been shown to you or your kids over the years, whether large or small. Focusing on these things gives rise to feelings of warmth, gratitude and compassion. Once you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, start thinking about all the ways you’ve helped others, and how you might show kindness and compassion in the future, including towards those who have hurt you in some way.