We don’t always have to like someone for us to have love for them.
Sure – it may not be “friendship” love or “family” love or “romantic” love. However, we can have “compassionate” love for anyone, despite any differences or shortcomings that person may have.
Compassion is our ability to understand and sympathize with the suffering of others.
We all suffer in different ways, and we all just want to find happiness. Compassion is the acknowledgement that all humans, at a fundamental level, want the same thing.
- Bhikku Bodhi
You may not get along with someone. You may not want to associate with them. You may not want to be their friend. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have good intentions or wish them the best. While you may not interact with the person or directly help them in any way, you can still hope that they find their way and eventually achieve happiness.
This may sound inconsequential, but the implications are tremendous. Cultivating compassion toward others (even people we will never meet) is closely linked to mental health and well-being. It makes us feel more socially connected to everyone and it allows us to maintain a positive outlook on life as a whole.
Loving-kindness meditation is a popular tradition in many schools of Buddhism. The aim of the meditation is to cultivate kindness and good intentions toward oneself and all others (even “enemies”). It is a wish that all conscious beings overcome suffering and achieve happiness.
The first step is to cultivate good intentions toward yourself. As Buddha said, “It is impossible to travel the whole world in search of one who is more worthy of compassion than oneself. No such person can be found.” Once we achieve self-love and self-compassion, then we can extend our love to others.
During a loving-kindness meditation, there are different types of people that a practitioner may focus on. These include:
- Loved Ones
- People we’ve never met (other countries, etc.)
- Future people
- All known and unknown conscious beings.
How you structure your own loving-kindness meditation is up to you. Sometimes you may go into a loving-kindness meditation with specific people in mind, but other times you may just want to create good will toward everyone. When I have the time, I try to cultivate love toward as many specific people as I can.
For each individual (or group) that you focus on, try picturing them in your imagination during the meditation. Then recite powerful mantras or affirmations that cultivate warm, positive feelings.
Useful mantras you can use during your loving-kindness meditation:
- “I love _____.”
- “May _____ be free from suffering.”
- “May _____ find happiness.”
Mantras used in Buddhist literature:
- “May all beings be free from enmity, affliction and anxiety, and live happily.”
- - Patisambhidamagga Mettakatha
- “In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease.”
- - Karaniya Metta Sutta
These mantras can help create what some Buddhists describe as a “blissful and boundless warm-hearted feeling” toward all conscious being.
However, one thing about mantras or affirmations: it’s important that we mean what we say, and we aren’t just reciting words. If a mantra or affirmation doesn’t stir up feelings, then try writing a mantra or affirmation of your own that resonates with you more.
Empathy can also play an important role in your loving-kindness meditation. Empathy is one’s ability to understand and experience the world from another person’s point of view. To develop empathy it’s important that we can imagine ourselves experiencing the world through another person’s perspective – including experiencing one’s suffering as if it was happening to ourselves. When we see the world through another person’s eyes, it can often become much easier to sympathize with their struggles and show compassion toward them. See perspective-taking for more.
Neuroscience on loving-kindness
Research in neuroscience suggests that loving-kindness meditation can activate parts of the brain that are involved in how our body responds to emotions (insula), as well as a part of our brain that scientist believe is responsible for empathy (temporal parietal juncture). This effect was particularly strong in experts at meditation vs. novices.
Neuroscientists Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz say that through practice we can train our brains to be more compassionate and kind: “People are not just stuck at their respective set points. We can take advantage of our brain’s plasticity and train it to enhance these qualities.”
Lutz believes that loving-kindness meditation may also help curtail some forms of depression. And further research by positive psychologists Barbara Fredrickson found that loving-kindness meditation can increase our daily experiences of positive emotions like amusement, awe, contentment, gratitude, hope, joy, interest, love and pride.
If you are interested in learning more about how we can change the way our brains processes emotions, check out a recent article I wrote about some more of Richard Davidson’s research.
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