The science of lovingkindness
Right at the very beginning of my meditation practice I was introduced to both mindfulness of breathing and the development of lovingkindness meditation. It was explained to me that both of these practices were equally important, that they were complementary, and that alternating these practices prevented imbalance in our approach. It was stressed, in fact, that sometimes lovingkindness practice is more important than mindfulness practice — especially for people who have a tendency toward being angry or over-critical.
I’ve never had cause to doubt any of that advice.
There are many meditators, however, who only practice mindfulness meditation, and often lovingkindness practice is seen as second-best. Generally in western Buddhist practice, there is a heavy emphasis on particular forms of mindfulness meditation. And no doubt because of this arguably narrow emphasis, that’s the form of Buddhist meditation that’s been most commonly studied in the burgeoning research on the effects of meditative practice.
But beside mindfulness there are traditionally many forms of meditation practice, with one common list — the kammaṭṭhānas (literally “places of work”) including no less than forty forms of meditation. And in the Buddhist scriptures generally, there is a heavy emphasis on lovingkindness (mettā) meditation, especially as part of the four brahmavihāras, or sublime abodes.
Lovingkindness, fortunately, is becoming better known, and researchers are now studying the effects of practicing that form of meditation, showing that they positively affect health and well-being.
Here are a few highlights:
- A study done at Stanford University used a brief lovingkindness meditation exercise to examine whether social connection could be created toward strangers in a controlled laboratory context. Compared with a closely matched control task, even just a few minutes of lovingkindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers on both conscious and unconscious levels.
- A Duke University Medical Center pilot study tested an eight-week lovingkindness program for chronic low back pain patients. Patients were randomly assigned to practice lovingkindness or were given standard care. Standardized measures assessed patients’ pain, anger, and psychological distress. There were significant improvements in pain and psychological distress in the lovingkindness group — even after the study had ended. There were no improvements in the usual care group. An analysis of patients’ diaries showed that more lovingkindness practice on a given day was related to lower pain that day and lower anger the next day.
- Researcher Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took working adults and assigned them randomly to a lovingkindness meditation group or to a control group. Her studyfound that lovingkindness practice increased daily experiences of positive emotions, which in turn produced increases in a wide range of personal resources, including increased mindfulness, a sense of purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms. These increments in personal resources predict increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.
- In a study by Richard Davidson, scans revealed significant activity in the insula – a region near the frontal portion of the brain that plays a key role in bodily representations of emotion – when long-term meditators were generating compassion and were exposed to emotional vocalizations. The insula is extremely important in detecting emotions in general and specifically in mapping bodily responses to emotion – such as heart rate and blood pressure – and making that information available to other parts of the brain.
- The same study showed increased activity in the temporal parietal juncture, particularly in the right hemisphere. Studies have implicated this area as important in processing empathy, especially in perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.
- Compassion meditation has been shown to reduce reactions to inflammation and distress. An Emory University study showed a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions in inflammation and emotional distress in response to stress. Those who practiced the most meditation showed reductions in inflammation and distress in response to stressors when compared to the low practice group and the control group. As one of the researchers noted, “If practicing compassion meditation does reduce inflammatory responses to stress it might offer real promise as a means of preventing many conditions associated with stress and with inflammation including major depression, heart disease and diabetes.”
- A review by researchers in the US and Germany suggested that Lovingkindness and compassion meditation “may provide potentially useful strategies for targeting a variety of different psychological problems that involve interpersonal processes, such as depression, social anxiety, marital conflict, anger, and coping with the strains of long-term caregiving.”
In some of these studies, the benefits were revealed after only twelve hours of meditation. Hopefully future studies will reveal yet more about the power of lovingkindness and compassion meditation.
If you’re interested in exploring lovingkindness practice in more depth, we have an extensive, free, self-paced guide, which includes audio guided meditations.
Being able to manage our emotion well is crucial to our health as well as our ability to foster healthy relationships with others, particularly our loved ones.
Recent studies have revealed that the state of our emotional well-being plays an important role in our physical health. For instance, people who are depressed are at a higher risk of a heart attack, and those who have experienced a traumatic event are more likely to report poor physical health, often complaining of tiredness, loss of energy, bodyache and other vague physical symptoms. Read more
May 16, 2009 by Tim
Filed under Abundance, Acceptance, Affirmations, Anger, Beliefs, Conflicts, Emotions, Fear, Forgiveness, Free Will, Gratitude, Healing, Humour, Intention, Judgment, Mind, Needs, Peace, Perception
Recently I had the good fortune to attend a self discovery workshop conducted by a monk, Bhante Kumara of the Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary in Taiping. The most impressive part of the workshop was the last portion of the workshop, which was based on the Work of Byron Katie.
Katie’s work is focused on eliminating sufferings by understanding and seeing the true cause of our sufferings. The work is revealing as it shows us the error of our thinking, beliefs and perceptions, which is the root cause of our sufferings.
Katie has come up with a structured tool that makes it very easy for us to recognize these errors within us using this Judge Your Neighbor worksheet [right-click to download]. You can also download this worksheet from http://thework.com
To see the Work in Action, go to http://thework.com where there are short video clips of Byron Katie in action.
Here’s a very good short video on the steps taken to transform negative emotions into joy.
If you need to know more, go here.
The Release Technique was introduced by Lester Levenson.
Lester was a physicist who was told by his doctor that he has only a few months to live due to a terminal heart disease. In his desperation, he searched everywhere for a cure and eventually discovered this simple technique which he named “The Release Technique”.
With this technique, which Lester used on himself, he was able to cure his own illness and lived on for another 40 years or more.
This technique is based on the premise that all our sufferings arose out of our desires for good things and aversions for bad things. These desires and aversions give rise to unfulfilled emotions which are often bottled up within us and not allowed full expression. Emotions that are not allowed full expression ended up damaging our health emotionally and physically.
The Release Technique is a very simple technique that can be used anywhere and anytime by anyone.
1. Tilt your head downward, with your eyes focusing at the area around your heart. This is a symbolic switching off of the logical left brain and activation of the emotional right brain. You can now focus entirely on your heart and emotion.
2. Think of an unresolved issue that is troubling you, and allow the emotions associated with it to surface. Notice how the emotions well up around the heart and lungs areas.
3. Acknowledge the emotion and allow it to be there.
4. Next, ask yourself 3 questions:
a. Could I let it go?
b. Would I let it go?
All emotions, no matter how painful or bad they may be, can be released. There is no exception. The only real issue is whether we would give ourselves the permission to let them go. So we need to make a conscious decision to let them go and decide to do so NOW!
5. Once we’ve decided to let the emotion go, picture or visualize the negative or unwanted emotion welling up like a geyser or lava from a volcano spewing out of its mouth. See in your mind’s eyes the negative energy associated with the emotion being released and dispersed.
6. Then, feel the liberation from the release of the negative emotion.
7. Repeat step 1 to 6 as many times as you wish.
Remember, the negative emotion within is not likely to be completely released just by doing it once or twice. It’s very much like pulling out a piece of tissue from a tissue box. As you pull out one, the next piece will come out to the surface. To empty the box, you’ll have to keep pulling one piece after another until the box is entirely out of tissue paper.
Likewise, you’ll have to repeat the release technique as often as it takes to completely release all the negative emotions within you.
The word emotion is made up of two latin words – “e” meaning “out” and “movere” meaning “move”. Thus hidden within the word “emotion” is the inherent nature of emotion, that is, it must be allowed to be expressed or flow freely.
Emotion, when bottled up inside, is like a river that is dammed up. Sooner or later, the river will overflow or the dam will burst, creating havoc and chaos in our well being. In fact, some scientists suspected that bottled up negative emotions are one of the causes of diseases like cancer.
We tend to bottle up emotions we don’t like to feel. These negative emotions are either too unpleasant or too painful for us to face up to. Two ways in which we relegate emotion into the abyss of our inner psyche are through suppression and repression.
Emotions that we are aware of but do not like are consciously suppressed; to be kept out of sight. However, at times, we automatically or instinctively repress negative emotions without even giving them a chance to surface into our conscious awareness. Repressed emotions therefore can be difficult to deal with because we tend to deny having them.
There are many ways to heal negative emotions but all require that we first recognize their existence within ourselves and acknowledge them. Denying our negative emotions effectively blocked any effort or attempt to heal them.
Here are some ways to heal your negative emotions:
1. The Release Technique of Lester Levenson
2. Violet Flame Meditation
Regardless of what types of negative emotions you may have – fear, anger, anxiety, worries, depression, or even mental conflicts – any one of these three methods can be of tremendous help to you. I’ve used them on my own and shared them with participants of workshops that I’ve conducted with great results.
I’ll write more about them later.
Without any exception, I’m sure everyone has gotten angry before and even have some angry outburst here and there.
The next time you get angry, pause and reflect on why you are angry? At the superficial level, we can always come up with a great excuse for our angry outburst, but if we dare to look deeper, then we’ll discover that at the root of our anger is a little thing called the “ego”.
Outwardly, it’s easy to point the finger at an external source for our anger, but looking within, we’ll discover the REAL reason why we’re angry.
You’re never angry for the reason you think. Contemplate deeper!