Lovingkindness is a Buddhist practice that involves wishing well to our selves and to

others. It encompasses generosity, good will, friendliness, compassion, and

benevolence, and is often cultivated through meditation. When I teach mindfulness-

based stress reduction (MBSR), we do a lovingkindness meditation in the session

devoted to relationships and relationship conflict. The rationale is that practicing

lovingkindness helps cultivate patience, kindness, and acceptance–which can have only

positive consequences for our relationships.

The lovingkindness meditation involves sitting quietly and “sending” well wishes, starting

by sending them to our selves. When I guide the meditation, I say the following phrases

out loud, one by one, and participants repeat them silently.

May I be safe and protected

May I be happy and peaceful

May I be healthy and strong

May I live with ease and the joy of wellbeing

We then send lovingkindness, in turn, to someone we love, someone toward whom we

feel neutral, and someone with whom we’re experiencing conflict.

May he/she be safe and protected

May he/she happy and peaceful

May he/she healthy and strong

May he/she live with ease and the joy of wellbeing

I warn MBSR participants beforehand that they might not necessarily feel loving or kind

during the meditation–in fact, that they may feel resistant or unwilling–but it doesn’t

matter. Compassion is being cultivated even if we don’t feel it in the moment, and it’s

always interesting to observe what happens when we practice lovingkindness, even if

what happens is struggle.

What’s the impact of lovingkindness meditation?

Many people cry when they first send lovingkindness to themselves. Self-compassion

isn’t always easy and, for some, it’s the first time they’ve ever expressly wished

themselves peace, ease, and joy. MBSR participants variably describe the experience

as a warm sensation in the chest; a feeling of the heart opening up; a softening; and a

movement towards seeing themselves as fallible but worthy and okay.

What’s more, the lovingkindness mediation seems to provoke a similar softening toward

others, including people with whom we’re experiencing conflict. Following the

lovingkindness meditation, MBSR participants report that they feel more open and

compassionate. Even if they experienced resistance to sending lovingkindness to the

person causing them distress, they still feel less angry and confrontational, and more

prepared to interact with that person.

How does lovingkindness work?

One way that the lovingkindness meditation seems to work is by snapping us out of the

endless cycle of you jerk you idiot how could you I can’t stand you. When we’re angry or

otherwise upset with someone, it’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of rumination, telling

ourselves stories about how wronged we were, how hurt we are, and how awful that

person was to do what he or she did. Whether we’re upset with ourselves or with

someone else, sending lovingkindness forcibly snaps us out of the rumination cycle.

A second way that lovingkindness seems to work is by interrupting our tendency to

demonize others. When someone upsets us, our minds can turn him or her into a

monster who is purposely trying to hurt us or make our life difficult. My experience has

been that when I force myself to wish for safety and protection, happiness and health for

someone who’s hurt me, two things happen: First, my mind retorts I DON’T WISH THAT,

I HATE HER; second, I realize that I actually do wish those basic experiences

for all people–even someone who’s hurt me. This realization shrinks that person from a

monster back to a human who is hurt or struggling, dealing with her own issues, and

probably doing the best she can–not expressly trying to hurt me or ruin my life.

Developing compassion for our selves and for others via lovingkindness makes us more

accepting and forgiving, whether we’re dealing with a longstanding conflict or with

someone who cuts in line at the grocery store. Lovingkindness doesn’t have to involve

formal meditation, but can be practiced any time you’re self-flagellating or ruminating

about a conflict with someone else. Simply take a quiet minute or two to repeat the

phrases above to yourself, and see what happens.

NB: An extra trick that helps me develop compassion is to picture the person with whom

I’m in conflict in bed at night. Imagining him curled up under the covers in his pajamas

helps me remember that he–like me, like everyone!–crawls into bed at night wearing

comfortable clothes and seeks rest. He is as vulnerable and human as any other person

(and is not staying up all night plotting ways to make me miserable!).

Dr. Sarah Roberts