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