Send Yourself Some Love: Embracing Loving-Kindness MeditationSep 13, 2023
“I was my own worst critic. But through loving-kindness meditation, I learned to talk to myself the way I would talk to someone I love—with compassion and care.”
Many of us go through life being far kinder to others than ourselves. We readily offer encouragement or a listening ear when friends are struggling, yet internally keep up a constant stream of self-judgment and criticism. This disconnect can take a major toll on mental health over time.
Loving-kindness meditation is a practice that can help build self-compassion and heal this divide. It involves silently repeating heartfelt phrases wishing happiness, health, and peace for oneself and others. This deceptively simple practice carries profound benefits, from reducing anxiety and depression to strengthening empathy and community.
By cultivating genuine positivity through mantras, loving-kindness meditation offers a path to greater emotional balance and connection. The practice of sending loving intentions is known as metta in Buddhist traditions and has roots across spiritual lineages. Regularly setting aside a few minutes for metta can transform how we relate to ourselves and others in positive ways.
What is Loving-Kindness Meditation?
In essence, loving-kindness meditation guides practitioners to extend feelings of benevolence, care, and compassion through repetition of silent mantras or phrases. This is done by wishing happiness, freedom from suffering, safety, health, and peace for oneself, loved ones, acquaintances, and even challenging people. For example:
- For myself, may I be happy.
- For my friend, may you be peaceful and at ease.
- For someone I am struggling with, may you have joy.
The foundational practice is to start by offering loving-kindness to yourself before expanding outward. This allows self-compassion to flow more freely to others. Setting the intention to positively wish well on others—even if you don’t emotionally feel it in the moment—is known as metta. While similar to mantra meditations, loving-kindness meditation keeps the focus on actively cultivating and sending benevolent feelings rather than passive awareness or emptying of thoughts.
The gentle repetitions help open our hearts and move past inner resistance when truly wishing happiness for all. Traditional teachings often use the term “boundless” to describe properly practiced metta that reaches out to all beings without exception. Regular metta practice can help dismantle mental barriers between “us” and “them”.
According to Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a simple way to practice is to silently recite: “May I be happy, may you be happy, may we be happy together.” This illustrates the interconnectedness at the heart of metta.
The Benefits of Beginning With Yourself
Many people find it easier to direct loving-kindness outward than inward. We may readily wish peace for a dear friend going through grief but struggle to offer ourselves similar support in tough times. This critical self-to-other discrepancy highlights why consciously practicing self-compassion through metta is so essential.
Studies have found loving-kindness meditation focused on the self can reduce negative self-talk, boost self-esteem, and increase life satisfaction. Research shows it decreases depression, anxiety, and self-criticism when done regularly. Brain imaging reveals that self-directed metta activates regions involved in emotional processing and empathy.
Cultivating this self-care helps heal tendencies of excessive negative self-judgment. It allows us to approach perceived failures or shortcomings with more kindness, disarming the toxic inner critic. Rather than feeding shame and self-blame, we can send care to the suffering self—treating ourselves as we would a good friend in need.
Through this practice, we transform our relationship with ourselves, which ultimately shapes how we relate to others. Some describe metta as a way to “befriend oneself.” When we wish ourselves peace, it comes through more genuinely for others. Self-compassion is not selfish—it is an ethical imperative. As the saying goes, “You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” Loving-kindness meditation helps fill our own cup first so that compassion may overflow.
Photo credit: Samuel Austin @Unsplash
Expanding Loving-Kindness Outward
After connecting to self-directed metta, practitioners gradually expand the meditation outward to include others. This often begins with offering loving wishes to benefactors like teachers, then toward loved ones, then acquaintances, and finally “difficult” people.
With each expansion, the practice builds empathy. It allows us to recognize how others also wish to be happy and free from suffering just like us. Research shows loving-kindness meditation increases positive emotions and feelings of social connection when extended to wider groups.
This widens our sphere of compassion beyond the ego. It supports sitting with awareness of common humanity―that all people experience joy and suffering at times. Even figures we may dislike or strongly disagree with have an inner world and challenges invisible to us.
It is normal for the mind to wander or resist when extending metta to challenging people. But as renowned teacher Sharon Salzberg encourages: “The words are simply meant to direct the heart again and again toward love.” This return to love transforms hardship into healing. With practice, we can learn to touch difficult emotions while holding ourselves and others with compassion.
The Science of Loving-Kindness
Modern science is now demonstrating what ancient wisdom understood―that regularly cultivating prosocial intentions through meditation can rewire our brains and bodies in positive ways.
Brain imaging studies reveal that long-term metta practice strengthens activation in regions linked to empathy and emotional regulation like the insula and anterior cingulate cortex. It also decreases activity in the amygdala, the seat of our anxious fight-or-flight response. These changes set a foundation for more altruistic behaviors.
On a chemical level, research shows loving-kindness meditation increases oxytocin, the “love hormone” involved in social bonding, while lowering inflammation markers like C-reactive protein often elevated by stress. Reductions in blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol have also been measured.
In essence, loving-kindness meditation can reverse the impacts of negative thinking, loneliness, and trauma by activating systems in the mind and body associated with care, connection, and inner peace. These findings speak to our deep human need for community and the neurobiological rewards of living with compassion.
Embracing a Practice of Heartfulness
The hurried, stressful pace of modern life often pulls us from connecting to what really matters. We become depleted just moving through each day on autopilot—even as our inner self longs for meaning and wisdom.
Practices like metta help drop us from the churning thoughts of the mind into the openness of the heart. They remind us that what we share in common is far greater than outer differences. While the ego separates, love unites.
By taking a few minutes each day for the simple practice of sending loving wishes, we plant seeds of compassion that blossom into greater inner freedom. This starts with radical self-acceptance—embracing our full humanity, flaws and all, with gentle understanding.
As Mahatma Gandhi wisely stated, “We must become the change we wish to see in the world.” The change toward a more just and peaceful world begins inside each of us. From this place of loving presence, we can tend to the suffering of others while maintaining boundaries and clarity.
We can speak our truth with courage, and listen to others’ experiences with openness. We can move through the world with sincere benevolence—a wish that all may be happy. There is transformational power in recognizing that we are all in this together.
Conclusion: Choosing Compassion
Suffering is an inevitable part of life, but compassion opens the door to liberation. Practices like metta meditation strengthen our ability to meet that suffering with wisdom and care—for ourselves and others. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely stated: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
The simple practice of repeating heartfelt wishes for well-being builds our capacity to meet negativity with positivity—one meditation session at a time. Rather than perpetuating harm, we can pause, turn inward, and tap into the unlimited loving-kindness within ourselves. May we each bring more light into the world through compassion.
Photo credit: Chris Ensey @Unsplash
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