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Meditation for compassion (aka loving kindness)

Kindness is the quality of being generous and caring. Loving describes someone who shows love to other people. Put those words together and we get 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.

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Does loving-kindness meditation work?

Key takeaways:

  • Kindness towards others starts with kindness towards ourselves

  • Research shows meditation increases compassion

  • Try 10 meditations for self-compassion and training the mind to be kinder

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Rediscover our kindness

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.


Kindness towards others starts with kindness towards ourselves

People mistakenly assume that a meditation rooted in compassion begins with a deliberate focus on other people. Not so: compassion for others begins with self-compassion. And 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.

“If a really close friend was having a tough time, there’s no way we’d speak to them the way we speak to ourselves in our mind,” says Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicomb. “If we can start approaching our own thoughts and feelings with that same soft and gentle approach, then all of a sudden meditation starts to flow and feel so much easier. And so it becomes a part of our everyday life much more quickly.”

Research shows that meditation has a positive impact on our mental health and happiness, including an individual's sense of compassion for others. In a 2013 study that explored whether meditation affected people’s behavior in terms of lending a helping hand to a stranger, participants were assigned 3 weeks of meditation for 10 minutes a day using the Headspace app (although the company was not involved). 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 23% more frequently than non-meditators. The study 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 3 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.


Learn how to be nicer to yourself in this free mindfulness video

Watch Kindness: How to be nicer to yourself - 2 min

How do we do loving-kindness meditation?

When meditating, different visualization techniques tend to be used in order to cultivate loving-kindness.

  • The loving-kindness technique.

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.

  • The sunlight visualization.

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.

  • The skillful compassion visualization.

Finally, there is the “skillful 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.


Try 10 meditations for loving-kindness

Looking for more meditations for fostering compassion? The Headspace app offers subscribers several courses and single meditations on kindness and improving relationships with ourselves and others, including:

  • Kindness course. Foster feelings of compassion towards yourself and learn to judge others less harshly, too.

  • Happiness of Others guidance. Why focusing on other people’s happiness might be the easiest way to find your own.

  • Loving Kindness guidance. How visualizing other people’s happiness can help us to uncover a more compassionate mind.

  • Holding Anger with Kindness meditation. Take a deep breath and let go of whatever is causing you to feel angry or frustrated.

  • Loving Others meditation. Discover the different ways other people bring value to your life, and view them with the newfound sense of respect, gratitude, and harmony.

  • Loving Humanity meditation. As humans, we find reasons to spot our differences. But there are more reasons to acknowledge what we have in common.

  • Relationships course. Learn to focus on self-critical chatter to achieve greater harmony with others and within yourself.

  • Compassion and Awareness guidance. When we’re present, free from judgment, we uncover 2 different qualities that are also one and the same.

  • Transforming Difficulties meditation. Practice skillful compassion as a way to show up for yourself, your community, and anyone who may be facing difficulties.

  • Self love meditation. Learn to use self-love as a resource that can help you show up better in your daily life.

Headspace co-founder Andy says: “The starting point in meditation is traditionally learning how to be kind to oneself: how to let go of judgement and not be so critical. When we do that, it’s not that we’re creating kindness. But when we let go of those things, we find a softer, kinder, and more gentle mind. If we can walk around with a greater sense of ease about ourselves, then we’re gonna find it so much easier and so much more pleasurable to be kind to those around us.”

Be kind to your mind

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