Friday, August 30, 2013

Lovingkindness is good for you

Loving-kindness meditation, or metta, is a way of re-orienting our minds, of turning toward what is good, positive, and affirming, and away from defensiveness, pessimism, and criticism.

2,500 years ago, the Buddha laid out 11 benefits of lovingkindness meditation (including: you'll sleep better, you'll wake better, children and animals will love you ...) Scientific research has confirmed a number of benefits from loving-kindness meditation, nicely summed up in this post from the Kripalu blog. In even fewer words, research has found that loving kindness:
-- reduces the stress response, including inflammation;
-- rewires the brain to increase empathy and compassion ... and a feeling of social connectedness.
-- helps build personal resources for a more fulfilled life.

In traditional lovingkindess, or metta, meditation, the meditator offers to several different people the wish that they be happy, healthy, safe, and live with ease. The people include one's self, a mentor, a loved one, a neutral -- or unnoticed -- person, a difficult person, a group, and all beings.

It's easy to extend good wishes to mentors and loved ones. Science proves this too: Researchers at University of Virginia have found that humans are hardwired to empathize with those close to them at a neural level, Psychology Today reports.

According to researchers, the human brain puts strangers in one bin and the people we know in another compartment. People in your social network literally become entwined with your sense of self at a neural level. "With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves," said James Coan, a psychology professor in University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences who used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain (fMRI) scans to find that people closely correlate people to whom they are attached to themselves.

The researchers found that regions of the brain responsible for threat response are activated by the threat of shock to the self and the threat to a friend, Psychology Today explains. However, when the threat of shock was to a stranger, these brain areas showed minimal activity. When the threat of shock was to a friend, the brain activity of the participant was basically identical to the activity displayed under threat to the self.

The study gives a clue as to what happens when relationships with loved ones aren't loving and kind. "One of the most fascinating aspects of this study is the insight that someone being non-empathetic to a loved one is a reflection of lacking self-love. The realization that self-hate is neurobiologically at the root of a loved one being cruel makes it easy to feel sorry for them and empathize, instead of perpetuating a cycle of anger and disconnection," writer Chrisopher Bergland says.

He suggests responding to such behavior by bolstering self-love and "remaining empathetic towards loved ones who are hateful by recognizing that mean-spirtedness is a manifestation of self-hate."

Lovingkindness meditation is the tool we can use for both of those. It's a way to build a loving and kind relationship with ourselves, which enables us to have loving and kind relationships to others. It's also a way to see that the person is separate from the behavior -- the annoying person is, in essence, a person whose behavior bothers you.

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