Love? Yes please. Kindness? Sure, ok. Lovingkindness? Uh…
Things start to sound a little off-putting when we put two sappy-sounding virtues together and call it a meditation – like a Hallmark card or, as Dan Harris puts it, “something we’d get lectured about in kindergarten.” As quoted from this week’s Mindful.org article, many of us respond to hearing about loving-kindness practice with something to the effect of: “but… ew, what is that?” Or, we simply tune out and move on to something more productive. But Dan Harris and Sharon Salzberg want us to know that loving-kindness is anything but – and yes, this is the technical term – “ooey gooey.”
Dan Harris, a driven and highly achievement-oriented ABC news anchor, and Sharon Salzberg, a renowned meditation teacher known for her warm and gentle presence, may seem like an unlikely pair. But after an on-air panic attack, Dan Harris turned to meditation – a practice about which he was highly skeptical, and that today he credits with helping him to regain agency in his life. (Check out an excerpt from his book 10% happier.) Through this journey, he met Sharon Salzberg, who became both a teacher and a friend. In the video below, they discuss the common hesitance and resistance to loving-kindness practice, its empirically supported benefits, and the nuts and bolts of starting your own practice.
Not So Ooey-Gooey. As Sharon Salzberg explains, loving-kindness is often scoffed at because our society tends to value achievement, strength, and success over virtues of kindness, caring, and compassion. Love and kindness are also other-focused experiences that don’t necessarily align with cultural emphases on individualism and self-reliance. Perhaps subconsciously, they may be interpreted as a threat to the message that we should be focused on building a strong, unshakeable sense of self that can’t be derailed by others. When turned towards ourselves, kindness and warmth are still cultural no-nos. Interestingly, the idea of self-kindness often elicits fears that don’t seem to fit together – of being weak and soft, or selfish and egotistical. In so many ways, loving-kindness does not seem – on the surface – to be of value in our modern world.
It makes sense, then, to learn that loving-kindness practice predates our modern world. Loving-kindness meditation, also called the Karaniya Metta Sutta or metta in Pali, has its historical roots in Buddhism. It is said that the Buddha developed the practice in response to a group of monks who were petrified to meditate in the woods because of the scary sounds and spirits they encountered. The Buddha taught them to practice loving-kindness for the things that scared them. Far from being a practice to make them weaker or more vulnerable, the practice of loving-kindness enabled the monks to change their relationships to the things that terrified them and to finish their missions with open, courageous hearts – that is, to approach the things that scared them with warmth and openness, in the service of living in accordance with the life of meaning they had chosen.
If the practice of loving-kindness was developed today, it’s highly unlikely that it would have received the same name. Perhaps it would have been termed “heart strengthening” or “resilience training” or “inner-resource building” – something that is both empirically accurate and sidesteps our cultural aversion to anything that might suggest vulnerability. Because the fact of the matter is that loving-kindness practice – for ourselves, for our loved ones, and even for those we don’t know or don’t like – actually strengthens our capacity to navigate the difficulties that come with living a full human life. This taps into the larger topic of compassion which, simply put, is when loving-kindness is applied in the context of some kind of pain or suffering. More specifically, compassion is the willingness to connect with one’s own or others’ difficult experiences and the motivation to do something to help.
The Science. Loving-kindness and compassion practices help build personal resources, including social support and physical health. They’re associated with more social connectedness, which is increasingly important in a world in which distrust, isolation, and alienation are not only common but are linked to a range of mental and physical health concerns. They have been studied with positive outcomes for people with schizophrenia, chronic pain, PTSD and depression. Loving-kindness has physiological effects, and has been linked with biomarkers associated with longevity and brain regions that are important for regulating our emotions.
As Sharon Salzberg eludes to, there is also growing interest in using loving-kindness training to help caregivers and those in helping professions to stay connected to others who are suffering without experiencing the sort of personal distress that can lead to burnout and sub-optimal patient care. Perhaps most surprisingly for some, compassion practices are also linked to increased personal motivation and more bounce-back after failure. As Dan Harris says in the video above, “If you’re interested in being a high-achiever in anyway, this stuff, as ooey-gooey as it may seem on the surface, is actually super important.”
Forget What You’ve Read. But at the end of the day, the research can’t tell us how these kinds of practices will impact us. Only we can determine that, by trying them out. There are lots of resources available for this – books, audiobooks, podcasts, CDs, free online recordings, free short teachings, YouTube videos, research snippets, and local classes (and check out these videos for “street loving-kindness” – bringing these practices to daily life, like when you’re stuck in traffic). In the video above, Sharon Salzberg also provides some simple starting points – silently wishing that people we interact with experience health, well-being, safety, peace, and really feeling what it’s like to cultivate those wishes.
Yes, it sounds simple, and yes, a bit odd. But good scientists test things out before saying yay or nay, and use evidence – not beliefs – to draw conclusions. Perhaps this is an opportunity to be our own scientists, and use our own experiences as our guide.