Loving-Kindness Meditation

How the fundamental human motive of social connectedness helps to stay healthy

Many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as a wish of happiness for others and of compassion as the wish to relieve the suffering of others. In many traditions these qualities are cultivated through specific meditation practices, designed to prime behaviors compatible with these wishes in response to actual interpersonal- encounters.

It is becoming more and more clear that feeling socially connected with others confers to mental and physical health benefits. However in many cultures and specifically in South Africa, societal changes are leading to growing social distrust and alienation.

The following questions are becoming more and more important to ask in order to keep social and psychological health sustained with individuals:

  1. Can feelings of social connection and positivity toward others be increased?
  2. Is it possible to self-generate these feelings?
Human beings have a deep-seated need to feel connected, to be trusted, loved and to trust and love in return. The feeling of being connected to others increases psychological and physical wellbeing while decreasing the risk of depression and physical ailments. A sense of connectedness also increases empathetic responses as well as acts of trust and cooperation.

Unfortunately many societies are becoming increasingly isolated and distrustful. Social changes, technological and economic changes have led to an erosion of basic confidence in the trustworthiness of others.

Some observations that clarify this dilemma:

An increase in social isolation and mistrust of those outside one`s already established social networks, tend to prevent the signals of co-operation, liking and tolerance of each other, which are necessary to evoke social connectedness and trusting behavior. This in turn leads to a downward spiral in connectedness and support, which makes it difficult to counteract. This dilemma is linked with the difficulty of changing these patterns of effective responses. Research has shown how difficult it is to change habits of responses toward others.

The question now is; how can we increase feelings of connection at an automatic level? Also and most crucially, that connection directed toward those individuals who are not within our circle of trust?

To build up a pro-social orientation has always been the idea of Eastern philosophies. In particular, Buddhist traditions have emphasized the importance of cultivating connection and love toward others through techniques such as loving-kindness meditation (LKM).

The practice in which one directs compassion and wishes of wellbeing towards real or imagined individuals, is designed to create changes in emotion, motivation and behavior in- order to create positive feelings and kindness towards the “self” and others.

Can a simple meditative practice really create positive feelings, even toward strangers? If this is possible, how far-reaching are these effects?

A study examined the effect of a short, guided, loving-kindness visualisation to increase positivity and social connectedness toward others. Several effects of LKM were predicted, including changes in mood. The Study included explicit and critically implicit evaluations of the “self” and others, further observing the extent to which changes in mood were related to changes in evaluation of the “self” and others.

The study observed 93 participants which showed an average meditative practice of these participants, amounting to less than 1.7 hours per month.

The study demonstrated significant effects of loving-kindness meditation with a focus of positivity toward neutral strangers. Even a brief 7 minute exercise in cultivating positive regard was sufficient enough to induce changes of small to moderate effects.

These results were observed in comparison to a tightly matched neutral imagery that controlled the effects of exposure to relaxation and cognitive activity. LKM had both general and specific effects showing an increase in positivity with significant effects towards its target and strangers. On an implicit level however, the effects of meditation were more pronounced for its target, with little or no impact on responses toward non targeted neutral strangers. Some changes in implicit positivity were also observed toward the “self” with the purpose of becoming more accepting of the “self”.

Source: Cendri A. Hutcherson, et al. In American Psychologist Association

Dr. Jutta Lenz is a Doctor of Philosophy, has a Masters Degree in Psychology and she also specialises in Sports Science, Educational Science, Business and health coaching and teaching yoga. She is a management consultant, facilitator, business and health coach in companies national and international in the US, Norway, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. She also spends time working with the governments of Germany and Austria. Jutta is a change management facilitator for individuals and organizations while they are going through a time of transformation to deal with life crises and conflicts. She offers participative coaching and counselling as well as health coaching that includes stress management, burnout, lifestyle and nutrition.

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