The science of lovingkindness

Right at the very beginning of my meditation practice I was introduced to both mindfulness of breathing and the development of lovingkindness meditation. It was explained to me that both of these practices were equally important, that they were complementary, and that alternating these practices prevented imbalance in our approach. It was stressed, in fact, that sometimes lovingkindness practice is more important than mindfulness practice — especially for people who have a tendency toward being angry or over-critical.

I’ve never had cause to doubt any of that advice.

There are many meditators, however, who only practice mindfulness meditation, and often lovingkindness practice is seen as second-best. Generally in western Buddhist practice, there is a heavy emphasis on particular forms of mindfulness meditation. And no doubt because of this arguably narrow emphasis, that’s the form of Buddhist meditation that’s been most commonly studied in the burgeoning research on the effects of meditative practice.

But beside mindfulness there are traditionally many forms of meditation practice, with one common list — the kammaṭṭhānas (literally “places of work”) including no less than forty forms of meditation. And in the Buddhist scriptures generally, there is a heavy emphasis on lovingkindness (mettā) meditation, especially as part of the four brahmavihāras, or sublime abodes.

Lovingkindness, fortunately, is becoming better known, and researchers are now studying the effects of practicing that form of meditation, showing that they positively affect health and well-being.

Here are a few highlights:

  • A study done at Stanford University used a brief lovingkindness meditation exercise to examine whether social connection could be created toward strangers in a controlled laboratory context. Compared with a closely matched control task, even just a few minutes of lovingkindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers on both conscious and unconscious levels.
  • A Duke University Medical Center pilot study tested an eight-week lovingkindness program for chronic low back pain patients. Patients were randomly assigned to practice lovingkindness or were given standard care. Standardized measures assessed patients’ pain, anger, and psychological distress. There were significant improvements in pain and psychological distress in the lovingkindness group — even after the study had ended. There were no improvements in the usual care group. An analysis of patients’ diaries showed that more lovingkindness practice on a given day was related to lower pain that day and lower anger the next day.
  • Researcher Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took working adults and assigned them randomly to a lovingkindness meditation group or to a control group. Her study found that lovingkindness practice increased daily experiences of positive emotions, which in turn produced increases in a wide range of personal resources, including increased mindfulness, a sense of purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms. These increments in personal resources predict increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.
  • In a study by Richard Davidson, scans revealed significant activity in the insula – a region near the frontal portion of the brain that plays a key role in bodily representations of emotion – when long-term meditators were generating compassion and were exposed to emotional vocalizations. The insula is extremely important in detecting emotions in general and specifically in mapping bodily responses to emotion – such as heart rate and blood pressure – and making that information available to other parts of the brain.
  • The same study showed increased activity in the temporal parietal juncture, particularly in the right hemisphere. Studies have implicated this area as important in processing empathy, especially in perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.
  • Compassion meditation has been shown to reduce reactions to inflammation and distress. An Emory University study showed a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions in inflammation and emotional distress in response to stress. Those who practiced the most meditation showed reductions in inflammation and distress in response to stressors when compared to the low practice group and the control group. As one of the researchers noted, “If practicing compassion meditation does reduce inflammatory responses to stress it might offer real promise as a means of preventing many conditions associated with stress and with inflammation including major depression, heart disease and diabetes.”
  • A review by researchers in the US and Germany suggested that Lovingkindness and compassion meditation “may provide potentially useful strategies for targeting a variety of different psychological problems that involve interpersonal processes, such as depression, social anxiety, marital conflict, anger, and coping with the strains of long-term caregiving.”

In some of these studies, the benefits were revealed after only twelve hours of meditation. Hopefully future studies will reveal yet more about the power of lovingkindness and compassion meditation.

If you’re interested in exploring lovingkindness practice in more depth, we have an extensive, free, self-paced guide, which includes audio guided meditations.


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