Make Your Heart a Lake
Since it’s almost Valentine’s Day I’m seeing a lot of hearts, so I decided it was the perfect time to talk about a powerful kind of meditation called Loving-Kindness. If you think this sounds too fluffy for you… stick with me!
When I took my first Loving-Kindness meditation class, I was more than a little skeptical. As our teacher was explaining how we would direct this message – “May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain.” – to ourselves and an expanding circle of people in our lives, I felt like I’d landed in a psychedelic 1960’s lovefest.
But then something shifted. By the end of the class, I felt more connected with the people in the room, and more compassionate towards people in general – including my kids.
What is Loving-Kindness?
Loving-Kindness meditation (“LKM”) focuses on cultivating feelings of goodwill, kindness and warmth towards others (Salzberg). Rooted in Buddhism, Loving-Kindness was developed to foster self-acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion.
It’s easy to feel alone when your parenting job is tough. Sure, there are many other parents out there who are raising kids with challenges, but when it comes down to it, you’re the only one responsible for raising yours. Loneliness and compassion burnout are risks we all face. But Loving-Kindness is as close to an antidote for these hazards as I have found.
Using LKM to Transform Daily Life
It didn’t occur to her to ask me about my kids, or to realize that my son, who was the same age as her daughter, wasn’t exactly on the same track. This kind of situation can stir up all kinds of grief feelings (more on that here). At that moment with her, I decided to apply some lessons from my class.
I took a deep breath and tried to zoom out – to look at the situation without getting carried away by the feelings it was tweaking. By being mindful I could see that my hurt feelings didn’t stem from this woman’s comments, they were within myself. Who knows why she felt compelled to share all the great things going on in her life? Maybe she was just looking for validation. Instead of letting her smugness eat away at me, I decided to direct a mini LKM her way. Silently I sent her this intention: “May you be at peace, happy and healthy.”
And this is the amazing thing that happened: taking the big-hearted high road actually helped me feel compassion for her and contentment with my own life, rather than resentment or hurt.
A Glass of Water vs. a Great Lake
Sharon Salzberg, a well-known and wise LKM practitioner, uses this simple metaphor to explain the power of Loving-Kindness: If you think of your heart as a glass of water, adding a teaspoon of salt – a hurtful comment for example – will have an impact. But if you can expand your heart – make it as big as a lake – a little extra salt won’t hurt.
The Real Science of LKM
Research shows that LKM improves wellbeing, illness and emotional intelligence. One seminal studyconducted by Barbara Frederickson and her colleagues at UNC Chapel Hill found that practicing seven weeks of LKM:
Increased positive emotions – including love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement, and awe.
Enhanced personal resources – These positive emotions compounded over time to build a range of important personal resources, including increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms;
Increased life satisfaction – These enhanced resources in turn, predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.
As Frederickson says, “The love you do or do not experience today may quite literally change key aspects of your cellular architecture next season and next year—cells that affect your physical health, your vitality, and your overall wellbeing.” Sounds like LKM is more effective than Prozac!
How to Do It
I recommend trying this guided meditation by Dr. Emma Seppala. If you want to try doing a Loving-Kindness meditation by yourself, these instructions give you the basics:
Sit comfortably. Try to relax your body and be at ease in your mind.
You will be systematically directing a sense of loving care, kindness, and connection towards yourself and others.
For each person, you will mentally repeat, slowly and steadily, the phrases: “May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease.” These are examples, but of course you can use any phrase you like.
Begin with yourself, and then expand to other people in this order:
a benefactor (someone respected and beloved—can be someone who took care of you, inspired you, was generous toward you);
a good friend or close family member;
a neutral person (can be someone you have met, but don’t really know; you don’t feel one way or another about them);
a difficult person who challenges or annoys you (don’t start the first time with someone who has been the most difficult or harmful—you can move to that level later);
all beings on earth, everywhere.
While you say the phrases, allow yourself to settle into the intentions they express. The idea is not to contrive some bursting sense of love, but to foster a loving acceptance in yourself and then expand that field to others.
The Quick Version
If your life seems too busy to practice LKM in a quiet place, remember Loving-Kindness is a heart meditation. It doesn’t have to be treated as a formal sitting practice. You can apply a LKM in your daily life, the same way I directed Loving-Kindness towards the mother of the super-star girl.
Let me know how it goes!