An Introduction to Lovingkindness Meditation

Most of us have heard that meditation is a good practice to start, with many different benefits to both physical and mental health. Nowadays, there are so many different kinds of meditation out there that it can seem overwhelming to consider which one to choose. In this article, we’ll break down one of the most popular types of meditation: lovingkindness.

What is lovingkindness meditation?

Merriam-Webster defines “lovingkindness” as “tender and benevolent affection,” and the practice of lovingkindness meditation involves extending feelings of tenderness, kindness, and love toward oneself and others. This can sometimes be difficult, as many people don’t find it easy to feel kindness toward themselves or others. But with practice, your ability to both feel lovingkindness toward others and genuinely receive your own self-compassion can increase, helping soften the tumult of your mind and gradually cultivating a more open heart. 

How does lovingkindness meditation work? How do you do a lovingkindness meditation?

Most lovingkindness meditations are done as sitting meditations, though they can be done in any position. The meditator starts by focusing on the present moment, then brings their attention to themselves, either beginning directly to send lovingkindness to themselves, or if that is too difficult, imagining someone they know who loves them sending feelings of love and compassion toward them. This could be a person they know personally (either living or passed on), a prominent benevolent figure such as the Dalai Lama, or even a beloved pet—whatever works best for the individual is fine.

In some meditations, the meditator just continues focusing on sending lovingkindness to themselves, whether directly or through their loved one, until the end of the meditation. In others, the meditator begins sending lovingkindness back toward their visualized loved one, or to another person they love. Eventually, they may choose to shift their focus to another subject, which could include a person they have neutral feelings toward, or to all living beings in the world—or in an advanced practice, toward an individual or group for whom the meditator has decidedly negative feelings. 

Experienced practitioners suggest that you start with sending lovingkindness to yourself or to close loved ones first, then work up to sending it to more difficult subjects. You can also choose to practice lovingkindness in everyday moments, like when you’re waiting in line or stuck in traffic.

What is metta? How do I send metta?

Metta is the Pali word for “benevolence” or “good will,” and metta bhavana is the name for a particular form of lovingkindness meditation. In order to send metta to others (or to yourself!), a mantra is usually repeated while holding the person or group of people in your mind:

May I/they be happy.

May I/they be safe.

May I/they be at peace.

May I/they be free from suffering.

Other similar phrases can be used in the mantra, such as “May I/they be healthy,” “May I/they be at ease,” etc. Using a mantra is a good option for people who have a difficult time with the visualization method mentioned above, or it can be used in conjunction with the visualization method for added structure.

What are the benefits of a lovingkindness meditation?

There are a wide variety of scientifically proven benefits to a lovingkindness practice. A 2011 scientific review concluded that lovingkindness meditation can be a useful addition to other therapies in the treatment of depression, social anxiety, anger issues, and caregiver burnout. It also noted that the practice stimulates the centers of the brain involved with emotional processing and empathy. Other studies have shown that lovingkindness meditation increases positive emotions while decreasing negative ones, that it can increase empathy and social connection, and that it can reduce the symptoms of chronic pain, migraine, PTSD, and schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. Directing lovingkindness toward yourself and improving your self-compassion can even decrease feelings of boredom!

Are compassion meditation and lovingkindness meditation the same thing?

While the concepts of compassion and lovingkindness are almost interchangeable in modern parlance, there is a slight but significant difference between the two terms according to Buddhists. 

As previously stated, “lovingkindness,” or “metta,” means “good will” in Pali. Compassion, or karuna in Sanskrit, takes a more active stance; as American monk Bhikkhu Bodhi states, “Whereas lovingkindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings.”

Because these two terms are so often conflated, some compassion meditation scripts amount to about the same thing as those for lovingkindness meditations. However, a common compassion practice called Tonglen meditation (which is Tibetan for “giving and taking”), is slightly different. In Tonglen, the meditator breathes in while visualizing taking on all the suffering of an individual or a group, then breathes out while visualizing that they are sending out relief for that suffering. As with metta practice, it is advised that you start practicing Tonglen either for yourself and your own suffering or that of a close loved one, then work your “compassion muscles” up to the more difficult practice of taking on the suffering of people you don’t like—or the suffering of the world as a whole. 

Both of these practices can be equally beneficial to meditators when it comes to reducing stress and anxiety, as well as a host of other conditions, including chronic pain, PTSD, or even just handling everyday stressors on the spot

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