Kindness: the quality of being generous and caring.
Blend those words together, and you capture the essence of loving-kindness, the essence of a meditation rooted in compassion (also referred to as “metta meditation”).
Other mindfulness-based meditations will, by the very nature of the practice, cultivate a softer, more spacious, kinder mind, but this specific meditation places a deliberate emphasis on one purpose: to direct well-wishes and goodwill first to ourselves and then, as a ripple effect, to others.
Kindness is not something to be wished for, mimicked, or developed in some future time. It is readily accessible, always with us, and waiting to be tapped as an innate quality of the mind.
At first, it might not be immediately obvious how sitting in isolation and focusing on the breath can benefit other people, but when we’re training the mind to be kinder, less judgmental, and more understanding, it makes sense that meditation can have a positive effect on our relationships and the world around us.
This reserve of kindness often gets obscured by mental chatter: thoughts, hopes, fears, worries, frustrations, and possibly anger, judgment, or resentment spilling over from the past.
As a result, our kindness tends to get squeezed to make room, to the extent that we might forget we possess such a quality. We might even scoff that it’s a part of us at all.
The more we meditate with loving-kindness in mind, the more we foster compassion and let go of judgment and hostility. The more we familiarize ourselves with our own pain and suffering, the more we understand the quiet suffering in others.
The mind, when unobscured by self-centered thinking, is kindness.
If we don’t give nonjudgmental, unconditional kindness to ourselves first and foremost, it becomes harder to apply that to our relationships at home, socially, and in the workplace.
People mistakenly assume that a meditation rooted in compassion begins with a deliberate focus on other people. Not so. We must first cultivate a sense of loving-kindness toward ourselves with the intention of being kinder and more forgiving toward others.
For many people, it can feel strange and perhaps even indulgent to spend a meditation directing kindness inward. But the more we notice how it feels to take time out for ourselves and the more we enjoy how good that feels, the more easily we are able to share it outward. Compassion for others begins with self-compassion.
When meditating, different visualization techniques tend to be used in order to cultivate loving-kindness.
The most common visualization is, naturally, called “loving kindness” — bringing to mind the image of different people: people we know, people we don’t; people we like, people we don’t. The intention is to extend kind thoughts to them. In doing so, in unconditionally focusing on their happiness, we learn to let go of any unhappiness we’re feeling.
Another technique is the “sunlight visualization,” in which we imagine liquid sunlight streaming into the body. The benefit of this technique is that it makes us feel lighter and warmer and provides more spaciousness in the mind when meditating.
Finally, there is the “skilful compassion visualization,” in which we place the happiness of others before our own. We breathe in the difficulties of others, then we breathe out all the good stuff that we’ve experienced. In this exchange — in radiating kindness outward — we begin to foster a feeling of happiness in our own mind.
Lessons from a 2013 study involving hot sauce.
Meditation has been shown to have a positive impact on our mental health and happiness, and one of the most encouraging findings — from a 2013 study carried out by researchers from Northeastern University in Boston — is meditation’s influence on an individual’s sense of compassion for others.
The researchers behind the study were curious about whether meditation affected people’s behavior in terms of lending a helping hand to a stranger, so they organized an experiment in which participants were assigned three weeks of meditation for 10 minutes a day using the Headspace app. Afterward, participants were told their cognitive abilities were to be measured, unaware their “compassionate responding” was, in fact, being assessed in a mock waiting room.
Participants each walked into the room to sit down in the one remaining unoccupied seat. A woman on crutches then entered, in apparent discomfort, to find no seats available — a ploy to see who would surrender their seat. The result? Those who had meditated gave up their seat more frequently than non-meditators — 23% more frequently.
The study — which used the Headspace app, though the company wasn’t involved — concluded that meditation promotes prosocial behavior that benefits others.
If compassion is indeed infectious in this way, the potential benefits of meditation are obvious. If just three weeks of 10-minute meditations can lead to an increase in friendly, helpful behavior, it’s not difficult to imagine what mindfulness on a massive scale could mean for relationships and communities.
If more compassion is something you wish to foster, the Headspace app has a specific 10-day pack called Kindness that incorporates both the skillful compassion and loving kindness visualizations.
In addition, the basic meditation exercises in the Headspace app, together with increasing one’s overall level of mindfulness, will also help build compassion.
One of the basic tenets of mindfulness is encouraging more kindness and love in our mind so that we can give more of both to others.