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How to Practice Radical Love

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

Mother and daughter make a heart shape with fingers

What’s so radical about love? Actually, everything. The emotions of love, compassion, kindness, and empathy are basic human emotions of huge importance to all of us. As the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh said: “Only your compassion and your loving kindness are invincible, and without limit.” Research on the benefits of developing the qualities of these emotions and their impact on the mind and body has been going on for some years. Under the guidance of such well-known spiritual leaders as the Dalai Lama, researchers have discovered that one meditation practice, in particular, stands out as having a very powerful influence on the mind/body complex. That practice is called metta. Metta means loving-kindness or friendliness. The practice of loving-kindness meditation (LKM) offers benefits that are subtly different from other forms of meditation. Subtly different but immensely powerful.

The main goal of the practice is to develop a deep and profound sense of kindness and compassion towards all living beings, including yourself, your family and friends, neighbours, colleagues, and acquaintances. It also includes those that we don’t get on so well with. Those who might have upset us or annoyed us. It’s a practice that can be challenging for some but has profound rewards for those who are willing to stick with it and overcome their personal obstacles to the practice.

There is already substantial evidence to show that one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation is its powerful impact on levels of stress. The same is true of the LKM. Not surprising really, but LKM has also been shown to help alleviate physical pain as well as the allied psychological distress, with significantly lower levels of associated anger. It has also been shown to decrease the negative symptoms of schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, increase positive emotions and psychological recovery.

What’s really interesting is the growing evidence that shows the impact that LKM has on the inflammatory and neuroendocrine systems. A consistent practice of LKM can have a startling impact on the body’s physiology, in this case by reducing inflammation. In a further study by Tonelli et al, it was shown that even brief periods of LKM practice can alleviate migraine pain and the emotional tension associated with chronic migraine.

LKM then is a powerful method of improving wellbeing on many levels with significant research evidence to back it up. Strikingly, LKM has also been shown to impact directly on the structure of the brain. Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin conducted an extensive piece of research, looking at the effects of meditation, including LKM, on the physical structure of the brain.

The results were clear. Both the insula and the temporal-parietal juncture lit up as a consequence of LKM meditation. The insula is responsible for our ability to empathise with others. Higher levels of compassionate response to others were also recorded. Given these sorts of results, it’s not surprising that LKM has been shown to have a huge impact on increasing social connectedness.

Kindness is a superpower written on a brick wall

Although commitment to practice over an extended period is often necessary for the LKM to bring about the sort of startling changes and effects described above, even a short period of a few minutes can bring about very noticeable changes. In my years of teaching LKM, it is obvious that even first-time meditators can experience a dramatic shift due to an LKM practice. Sometimes there are tears whilst others notice deep-seated resistance to feeling loving-kindness for themselves. Whilst others often find there is a sense of connectedness amongst the group at a level that wasn’t present before the practice.

Feeling more connected to others is actually a very common response due to the LKM’s ability to enhance interpersonal attitudes and emotions. This is especially noticeable in developing the quality of empathy and compassion towards others when they are in distress.

Any practice that can increase our sense of connectedness to others has to be a good thing in these days of increasing social isolation and loneliness, exacerbated by the current Covid-19 pandemic, and the concomitant rise in stress, anxiety, and depression. Practicing LKM, as Jon-Kabat Zinn has noted, is a radical act of being. More and more people are moving into a state of meditative awareness as the world around us accelerates. Maintenance of our individual and collective sanity is more of a priority now than it ever was. “It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself,” as Kabat-Zinn noted.

If you are not used to meditation and specifically the LKM, the practice, for some people, can be challenging. There can be strong resistance to giving and receiving love. Love is a powerful and loaded emotion that can bring up feelings of guilt, pity, shame, anger, jealousy, and sadness, amongst others. Especially when it comes to feeling love for oneself, there can be significant resistance. When teaching LKM in my classes it’s not uncommon for some to feel deeply uncomfortable at the notion of feeling love for themselves, bringing up feelings of self-centeredness or selfishness. Others describe feelings of unworthiness or the arising of self-criticism.

The way that we treat ourselves is often a significant problem and one that needs addressing urgently on an individual level. I often ask students to imagine a person treating another person in the way that they routinely treat themselves. Some students describe feelings of disgust that anyone could treat someone else that way, yet so many of us do in fact treat ourselves in an incredibly abusive and unforgiving manner.

LKM according to one study is effective in reducing self-criticism and improving self-compassion with the results being sustained three months later in a post-study follow-up.

Japanese writing for the metta meditation

The good thing about LKM is that its effective in both long-term and immediate circumstances. Even a short ten-minute meditation can increase positive feelings towards oneself and others.

The benefits of LKM are evident. It’s a practice that can profoundly change our relationship to ourselves and others in a positive and sustained way and this is a good thing on a societal level as well as individually.

So, how exactly do we practice the LKM? The point of the practice is to try to generate feelings of kindness, appreciation, and love for certain individuals or groups of people, but always starting with an attempt to generate these feelings for ourselves.

You can try it out for yourself:

1/ Find a quiet place where you can be alone for a few minutes. Make yourself comfortable, relax and close your eyes.

2/ Now take a few slightly deeper breaths than normal and try to create a sense of peace and inner stillness. Don’t worry about your mind wandering. Try to notice it when it does and bring it back to the sense of inner peace and calm that you are establishing.

3/ Try to cultivate a feeling of appreciation for yourself. Thank yourself for all the efforts you make daily to provide for yourself and others and all the good things you do to look after yourself. Try to generate a feeling that you are perfectly fine just as you are. As you breathe in and out, see if you can get a sense of breathing out tension and breathing in a sense of wellbeing.

4/ You might want to try repeating some positive phrases to yourself such as:

May I be happy.

May I be healthy.

May I be free from suffering.

5/ See if you can feel wrapped in the warmth of these feelings for a few moments.

6/ You can either stay with this focus on yourself for the time you have put aside, or you can move on to thinking about someone that you care about and surrounding them with the same feelings of warmth and compassion, and love. You could also extend this practice out to others such as a neighbour or someone that you see every day in the street that maybe you don’t know too well. You could also include groups of people, perhaps all your neighbours, or all the people you know at work. You could think of groups of people in other parts of the world, especially those who are suffering in some way.

You can repeat the phrases that you used for yourself for the other person or group too.

7/ In your practice, try to focus on feelings of connection and compassion. You might want to try feeling connected to and empathising with those with who you might not get on so well. See if you can generate a feeling of genuine forgiveness for whatever they might have done to upset you.

8/ Once you're done, simply take a couple of breaths and extend your awareness out into the room that you’re in, gently open your eyes and be still for a few moments before going back to your normal routine.

Continuing with your practice of the LKM will have many benefits in your life, so it would be a good idea to make this a regular part of your daily routine. It takes just a few minutes. If you really get into the practice, you can increase the amount of time you commit to it as time goes by.

Picture of the Buddha with text for the Metta Prayer

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