Loving-Kindness
Mindfulness Meditation:


Benefits and How to Practice
Step-By-Step


By Steve B. Reed, LPC, LMSW, LMFT

Loving-Kindness Meditation Mindfulness

The Loving-Kindness meditation (LKM) is a specific type of mindfulness meditation that focuses on the cultivation of compassion.  It involves focusing on a series of positive well-wishes for the well-being of others.  It is also referred to as the Loving Kindness prayer (LKP) because its structure is like an intercessory prayer.  This mindfulness practice provides a way of moving toward warmth, compassion and caring for oneself and others as opposed to negativity and criticism. 

The process can begin with focusing positive well-wishes toward oneself, then loved ones, friends, acquaintances, people you do not know and eventually focusing the same well-wishes on those you may dislike or even enemies.   

There have been many scientific studies that show the benefits of practicing the Loving-Kindness meditation.  This specific type of mindfulness meditation has been shown to produce some amazing benefits in the heart, mind and brain of the one practicing this process.  The evidence suggests  that this form of meditation can be really good for us and those who practice it receive measurable benefits.

Research on the Loving-Kindness Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness Practice: Benefits of Loving-Kindness Meditation

Emma Seppala, Ph.D., a researcher and associate director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research & Education, has cited the following research-based benefits in her article that describes 18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness.

She categorized the benefits of Loving-Kindness meditation as being divided into the following areas: enhanced well-being, improved physical and mental health, reduced physiological stress, improved emotional intelligence, increased self-love and greater social connection.  Here is what the research is telling us.

Enhanced Well-Being

Well-being improvements were documented as increases in positive emotion, decreases in negative emotion (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008) and increases in feelings of social connection (Kok et al., 2013).

Physical and Mental Health

Physical health benefits include reduced pain from migraines and the alleviation of emotional tension from migraines (Tonelli et al., 2014).  Decreased chronic lower back pain and decreases in anger and psychological stress were found in another study (Carson et al., 2005).

Mental health studies have found a significant decrease in depression and PTSD symptoms among military veterans suffering from PTSD (Kearney et al., 2013).  A study by (Johnson et al., 2011) found that people with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders had decreased negative symptoms, more positive emotions and improved psychological recovery.

Reducing Physiological Stress

A physical measure of heart-rate variability (HRV) revealed an immediate relaxation response at a cardiac level within just 10 minutes of Loving-Kindness meditation (Law, 2011).  This is a desirable state which is the opposite of what happens during the fight-or-flight reflex.

A study by (Hoge et al., 2013) found genetic evidence of slower aging in a group of women who were experienced in working with the Loving Kindness meditation.

Emotional Intelligence

Loving-Kindness meditation has been shown through neuroimaging studies to activate regions of the brain that are associated with empathy and the processing of emotions. This could be helpful for people with marital conflicts, those involved in long-term caregiving who are vulnerable to compassion fatigue and people suffering from anger, anxiety or depression (Hoffmann, Grossman & Hinton, 2011).

Evidence of growth has been discovered in the amount of gray matter in regions of the brain associated with empathetic responses and regulating anxiety and depression (Leung et al., 2013); (Lutz et al., 2008); (Lee et al., 2012).  Experience in LKM may influence brain structures involving the regulation of emotion. 

Social Connection

Loving-Kindness Meditation:

- Improves our willingness to engage in helping behavior (Leiberg, Klimecki and Singer, 2011),
- Increases feelings of compassion more effectively than other practices (Boellinghaus, Jones & Hutton, 2012)
- Increases empathy toward others' distress (Klimecki, Leiberg, Lamm and Singer, 2013)
- Decreases bias towards minorities (Kang, Gray & Dovido, 2014)
- Increases perception of social connection (Kok et al., 2013) 
- Increased positivity toward strangers was produced from a single 10-minute LKM experience (Hutcherson, Seppala and Gross, 2008)

Self-Love

Loving-Kindness meditation reduces destructive self-criticism (Shahar et al., 2014).

Care for Others

Compassion training (such as LKM) increases caring behavior for oneself and others (Jazaieri et al., 2015).

One of the underlying benefits of Loving-Kindness mindfulness meditation is developing a stronger connection with other people and a deeper sense of common humanity and kinship.  We all experience pain as a bi-product of living.  This is common to all of humanity.  However, sometimes we think about that pain in ways that create an additional layer of unnecessary suffering.  That suffering is reduced through increased compassion toward ourselves and others. 

We can cultivate greater empathy, kindness and grow our capacity to love humanity through this compassionate practice.  The study by (Leung et al., 2013) literally showed growth in regions of the brain associated with increased empathy and better regulation of anxiety and mood.

LKM may be able to contribute to our ability to stay in the present moment, reduce the negative effects of a wandering mind and increase feelings of love and compassion (Jazaieri et al., 2015).  As you can see, LKM provides a cornucopia of benefits to us individually.  However, those benefits extend far beyond ourselves by virtue of our increased ability to be more present with others in an increasingly empathetic and loving way.

Now that we know the science behind how beneficial this special mindfulness practice can be, let's learn how to do it.

Mindfulness Meditation - Loving-Kindness

How to Practice the Loving-Kindness Mindfulness Meditation -- Step-By-Step

There are many variations on the theme of how to do this meditation.  There is no right or wrong set of phrases to include.  However, most practitioners begin with suggestions for getting comfortable and calming the mind.  Then they proceed into a set of well-wishes towards self and then others.  Although you could utilize a long list of positive phrases, it is easier to start with three or four phrases. The length of time required to go through this mindfulness process will expand depending on how many phrases are used and how many people are the focal point of your compassion. 

Here are some steps and directions that you can follow.

  1. Get in a comfortable position that will support mindful attention on the series of compassionate phrases.

    For example:

    Let yourself find a comfortable place to sit. If seated in a chair, have both feet on the ground.  Have your back comfortably straight.   If needed, you can support your back in a chair or against a cushion.  You can either close your eyes or, to prevent drowsiness, close your eyes by two-thirds and visually focus on a spot two feet in front of you.

  2. Create a state of mindful focus.

Let yourself now focus on some external sound such as the ticking of a clock.  Listen intently so that the only thing you notice is the quality of the sound.  Hear it as though you were hearing it for the very first time. Rest in this experience for a few moments.  Now shift your focus to the sensation of the air coming into your lungs and then going out of your lungs.  Just breathe normally.  Be fully open to that sensation.  As we do this, we are losing the wandering mind and coming fully to our senses.  Let yourself sit in this experience of calm wakefulness for a few moments.

  1. Be prepared in advance with a set of phrases that express compassionate well-wishes.

I often begin with a simple and short set of three phrases.  They are:

May you be free from suffering

May peace be with you

May you feel deeply loved

You will repeat these phrases for each person that you focus on during the meditation.

These phrases are a good starting place and they are easy to remember.  However, you may select your own.  If you have a strong memory, you could use a longer list or you could utilize different short lists on different occasions or for different people as needed.  Here are some other phrases that I have also enjoyed working with:

May you walk in the way of love

May your love increase for each other and everyone else

May you be clothed with compassion and kindness

May you be happy and joyful

May all of your needs be met

May you be safe and free from fear

May you enjoy excellent health

Loving-Kindness is a repetition of these simple phrases which are directed toward different people.  Now that you have a starting place for choosing phrases to work with, let's review the list of recipients to focus on with well-wishes of care and compassion.

  1. We can begin the meditation by focusing these wishes toward yourself. Then expand outward from people with whom you are close, to people that you are less connected with and finally to those with whom you are in disagreement or that you dislike.

    Here are the categories.

Mindfulness practice to build compassion for self and others

Who To Focus Loving-Kindness Toward:


- Self

If you find it difficult to focus compassion toward yourself, then start by wishing love and compassion toward someone else that you have felt loved by.  It could be a loved one or even a favorite pet if no one else feels right.  This can help establish the feeling of warmth and care.

Then, imagine that person returns the loving well-wishes to you.  See if it is easier to let that in and to accept compassion coming from them.  If so, then next try to imagine saying the phrases of compassion to yourself again.  It can sometimes make this step easier.  Then proceed to the next category. 

Example:

Imagine someone who loves you saying to you with great care,

  • May you be free from suffering
  • May peace be with you
  • May you feel deeply loved

Imagine saying to yourself with the same care, compassion and love,

  • May you be free from suffering
  • May peace be with you
  • May you feel deeply loved


- Loved ones

Next focus on a spouse, close family member or someone who is like the family you always wanted.

Visualize a loved one and say,

  • May you be free from suffering
  • May peace be with you
  • May you feel deeply loved


- Friends

Now move to close friends--past and present.  Then progress to newer friends or those that are not yet what you would call a close friend.

Focus on a friend and say,

  • May you be free from suffering
  • May peace be with you
  • May you feel deeply loved


- Acquaintances

Acquaintances could include people you know from a group that you are involved in or people  from work or school.  They might be people that you would invite to a large party.  Although you may not do things with them one-on-one, you still enjoy seeing them.

Think of an acquaintance and say,

  • May you be free from suffering
  • May peace be with you
  • May you feel deeply loved


- People you do not know

This might include a wait-person at the restaurant that you regularly frequent.  It could be a neighborhood person that you see walking their dog.  You may feel neutral or slightly pleasant when you see them.

Let a person that you don't know yet come into your awareness and say,

  • May you be free from suffering
  • May peace be with you
  • May you feel deeply loved


- People you are in conflict with

This could be a fellow motorist that almost hit you while changing lanes this morning.  It could be someone at work you have difficulty with.  This could be someone that you don't see eye-to-eye with.  This is where things can get a little more challenging.  It is easy to send well-wishes to those you love but now we are in different territory.  The challenge will become greater yet in the next category. But for now, think of someone you are in conflict with.

As you focus on someone you are in conflict with, let yourself say,

  • May you be free from suffering
  • May peace be with you
  • May you feel deeply loved


- People you dislike

Here we focus love, well-being and compassion toward people we dislike or perhaps even hate.  These are the people you feel hurt by, rejected by and those that stand for things that are anathema to you.  They can be people that have shown dislike, disdain or bias toward you.  These might be people who focus all manner of ill will toward you.  Yet, here we choose to show them compassion and truly wish them well.  It is OK if you need to work your way up to this.  The more you practice the Loving-Kindness meditation the easier it may become.  We can use the same set of compassionate phrases for this category as the ones before.  However, here is a set of alternate phrases that I often use for this group. 

Turn your attention to someone you dislike and say,

  • May you be clothed with compassion and kindness  
  • May peace be with you
  • May you love others as yourself
  • May you walk in the way of love


- All people universally

Here we extend compassion to everyone, everywhere.  Think of the population of the entire planet.

As you contemplate all of humanity say,

  • May you be free from suffering
  • May peace be with you
  • May you feel deeply loved

This is the process.  You might begin with just one person from each category or, if time allows, include several people per category.  As you gain practice, you may choose to expand the length of time that you engage in this practice.

But what if my mind wanders during this mindfulness meditation?

The Wandering Mind

Mind wandering can be a challenge in all forms of contemplation, prayer or meditation.  A study by (Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010) revealed that the human mind wanders nearly 47% of the time.  And it wanders regardless of the activity we are engaged in.  Since the LKM helps focus the mind on a specific set of recurring positive phrases, the tendency to have a wandering mind is less.  However, I have still experienced mind wandering myself while engaging in this mindfulness meditation.

I counter the wandering mind by first noticing that I have drifted to superfluous thought.  Next I shift my focus back to an external sound, then onto the sensation of my breath.  This mindfulness exercise grounds me back in my senses.  From that more focused perspective, it is then easy to return to the phrases of love and compassion. 

Now that we have greater clarity on the categories of individuals we will focus on during this mindfulness practice, and how to refocus when the mind wanders, we can begin the practice.

By-the-way, I use the word practice here very intentionally.  Although one study (Hutcherson, Seppala & Gross, 2008) showed that you can benefit from a single seven-minute LKM by feeling more positive and connected to a loved one and to total strangers, the benefits grow with practice.  You might consider the benefits dose-dependent.  That means the larger the dose of Loving-Kindness meditation, the greater the benefits.  Practice daily and you are engaging in a powerful form of brain training that can literally change your brain structure for the better and warm your heart.

I recommend that you pick a time of day and a place that you can practice mindfulness undisturbed.  If you pair this practice with something that you do every day, it makes forming a new habit easier.  I like to do this mindfulness practice every morning when I first wake up.  This has become a special time of the day for me.  I find that it helps me start the day in a beneficial way for both myself and the psychotherapy clients that I hope to help later.

Below is a sample Loving-Kindness meditation from the University of New Hampshire health services.  This offers an additional version of the LKM that you can follow as a guided meditation.

To schedule an appointment with Steve to begin a mindful approach to therapy, call 972-997-9955 today. 

Steve Reed is available for an office appointment for your counseling and psychotherapy needs in the Dallas, Fort Worth, DFW metroplex, including Addison, Allen, Arlington, Bedford, Carrollton, Colleyville, Denton, Euless, Flower Mound, Frisco, Garland, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Highland Park, Hurst, Irving, Keller, Lake Highlands, Lewisville, McKinney, Mesquite, Murphy, Plano, Richardson, Rockwall, Rowlett, and University Park. He provides therapy at his office in Richardson, TX.  He also offers phone appointments from anywhere in the world.

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