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RESEARCH




Loving-Kindness Meditation


In this article we are promoting a philosophy that is at the heart of the way that we work – giving without counting. There are so many ways to give and when we think of giving, most of us do think of giving something material. In this item, we’re asking you to give of your time and attention and so the costs to you are very little and are far outweighed by the benefits.

We want to introduce you to the concept of loving-kindness, which promotes the idea that wishing others well, without desire for reward, automatically enriches the ‘well-wisher’. See: Asking for Nothing and Receiving Everything.

There is growing research that is now supporting this idea that altruism and meditative practice can be vehicles for individual, community and social enhancement - a concept that Confucius was busy promoting in ancient China, several centuries before Christ.

In a world where there is increasing social isolation and people are feeling more disenfranchised, anything that can help with the sense of connection that we share, in our view, has to be a good thing, given the evidence that loneliness and isolation is one of the most significant contributors to mental ill health.

Below is an example of how the meditation called loving-kindness can repair hearts and minds. We hope you enjoy this feast and will be inspired to apply it to your own life and share it with others.
 

The role and importance of attachment

Developmental psychologists have emphasised that social connection is absolutely essential throughout a person’s life. In 1959, Fromm-Reichmann stated that “the longing for interpersonal intimacy stays with every human being from infancy throughout life; and there is no human being who is not threatened by its loss… the human being is born with the need for contact and tenderness”. This sentiment has not only been echoed in the sociological and psychological literature, this notion of ‘belonging’ and a need for affection and love has travelled down the centuries – it is a basic human need.

The first connection that occurs between the child and the caretaker has been termed attachment and much has been written on the subject - see the work of Bowlby, considered to be the father of attachment theory. What we have learnt from attachment research is that dependent on the relationships between infant and mother, the child develops certain ways of interacting with their mother that are either healthy (secure attachment), or dysfunctional (insecure or anxious attachment).

Secure attachment develops out of a loving, affectionate relationship with the caretaker figure and so it follows that insecure attachment develops due to a lack of love and affection. See: The 3 ‘A’s.

We have, as a result of our own research and clinical practice, found that it is the absence of attention, affection and affirmation that most damages the child, as it is the absence of these 3 ‘A’s that undermines the essential attachment bonds that are needed for emotional and psychological well-being.

It is these attachment patterns, developed at infancy, that become a working model for adult relationships, determining the psychological and emotional connectedness between human beings. However, there is hope because where dysfunctional attachment templates have been formed, they can be corrected through loving and affectionate relationships. And so attachment styles and the patterns that emerge from them are malleable, not fixed.

When reviewing psychological and sociological research there is a variety of terminology used to describe this need to ‘belong’ – to be a part of ‘something’ outside of oneself. However whatever terms are used to describe the quality and nature of our connection, what is clear is that when those connections are not based on love, attention and warmth, then the individual is both harmed and limited in their development. This then lays the foundation of fear, emotional distress, poor self-image and a lack of confidence and competence. Such individuals often go on to be non-productive members of society, never able to fulfil their potential. They are either alienated in the groups that they find themselves in, or they alienate themselves, either because they fear rejection, or they are just used to the isolation. So how can meditation help in such instances? Well, there is much that can be done to repair the internal mechanisms and encourage the individual to take responsibility for their lives and become empowered. Below is one such example.

 

Making healthy connections

Making and improving connections in every area of your life, is an important part of changing those early templates that drive your mood, responses and behaviour. To do this effectively though requires a multi-pronged approach because it is critical that you improve/repair all the various pathways that impact on your sense of self, in order that the ‘rewiring’ necessary within the brain can take place. These include: your social contacts and connections, as well as the relationship with yourself. Health and nutrition are critical to this equation too because the body cannot fix itself in the absence of the ‘right’ nutrients, sufficient sleep, exercise, self-care and hydration. So it’s important to adapt and redesign your life if you are to transcend the consequences of those insecure attachments.

A good place to start is by establishing the habit of sitting quietly and developing a form of meditation known as loving-kindness. This is a way of relating to others and oneself that can help repair the internal damage that has accrued in the absence of love and affection. This is a process that would not happen immediately and so of course some time and practice is required but it’s clear that those who do engage in this kind of practice, on a regular basis, their emotional and psychological position improves.

In 2008, at Stanford University’s Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, three social psychologists (Hutcherson, Seppala and Gross) embarked on a research project in which they wanted to measure the efficacy and emotional value of loving-kindness meditation (LKM). Loving-kindness meditation is quite specifically focused on achieving social harmony - cultivating positive regard for those we may know and care for, those who we do know and may not care for or trust, and who may not like us, as well as those that would often be described as neutral strangers.

In this piece of research LKM was being tested to see if it was possible to raise feelings of care and compassion towards strangers, feelings that might match those we have for those who are known to us and cared for.

As part of the design of the research, a series of photographs, a variety of mood and emotional measures and the use of two contrasting (but structurally similar) creative visualisation meditations where used, one of which was a loving-kindness meditation. Those participants who undertook the loving kindness meditation, for the first 4 minutes were instructed to imagine two loved ones standing either side of them, then for the final 3 minutes of the meditation they were asked to open their eyes and redirect these feelings of love and compassion towards the photograph of the neutral stranger, which appeared on the screen. In this meditation the participants also repeated a series of phrases designed to focus their attention on wishing that stranger health, happiness and wellbeing.

In contrast, in the other meditation, which also lasted 7 minutes, participants for the first 4 minutes were asked to imagine two acquaintances that they did not know very well and to whom they did not have strong feelings and to imagine them standing either side of them. Participants were instructed to focus on each of these acquaintances’ physical appearance. After 4 minutes participants were then asked to open their eyes and to look at a photograph of a neutral stranger but this time focus their attention on the visual details of the stranger’s face and in addition imagine other details of the stranger’s appearance, for example what clothes they were wearing etc.

Both groups were then asked to complete an explicit and implicit evaluation, which measured their moods. They also completed a set of demographic questionnaires as part of the assessment. A total of 93 participants, from a wide range of racial and cultural backgrounds were chosen, 57% of whom were female.

The researchers deliberately chose subjects who had little meditation experience, as they didn’t want the results to be influenced by those with substantial experience. This is because it is reasonably well proven that those who meditate regularly are able to more readily raise and improve their consciousness. What they wanted to test was whether relative novices with little instruction and limited practice could actually achieve a position where they were positively affected by practising loving-kindness. They also wanted to measure whether that practice would/could improve both the internal reality of the participants and then that reflect positively out into their world.

 

The results

The results were very interesting, as it was clear that even a brief 7 minute exercise in cultivating positive regard was sufficient to induce changes of small to moderate shifts in mood and feelings. The loving-kindness meditation when compared to the alternative meditative practice, clearly showed a significant difference in implicit and explicit feelings, for those participants.

What was discovered is that LKM produce increased positivity, which was significant not only towards its target but also towards other strangers. What was also noted was that there was an increased positivity towards the self too, which is consistent with loving-kindness meditation, where one of its primary tenets is greater acceptance of the self.

Although there is much more research needed, the evidence is clear that meditation that has a compassionate focus better connects us to others and the world - and also better connects us to ourselves. Research carried out at Duke University in 2009 has shown that LKM is also effective when working with schizophrenia and those challenged by more significant mental health issues. This is promising for the field of mental health, which needs to become much more creative and imaginative, if it is to develop an adequate response to the crisis that is occurring in the developed world.
So we have come full circle because we began by talking about attachment and saw how healthy and unhealthy attachments are formed, and we’ve been able to see with one example that we can significantly change those templates through the practice of being still and having a loving and compassionate focus.

 

Further Reflection

Make a promise to yourself that you will spend at least 5 minutes in every day wishing others that you don’t know the very best - wishing them peace, happiness and wellbeing.

Developing loving-kindness is a skill as well as a virtue. Don’t become so self-absorbed that you forget about others and you’ll be surprised at the enrichment this brings to your own life.

 


“Everyone should treat all beings as one would want to be treated. True religion is ethical action. To hurt another is to in fact hurt oneself.”

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
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Also see: The Science of Compassion




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