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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

The Importance of Loving Kindness and Compassion

In the words of the Dalai Lama, on how we can educate the heart, “Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Even tiny insects survive by mutual cooperation based on innate recognition of their interconnectedness. It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.”

Loving-kindness is a mindfulness practice that offers a wealth of benefits, from increasing positive emotions, reducing stress, to improving chronic pain. Remarkably, some of these benefits are received not only by those who practice loving-kindness mindfulness, but also by others who are (directly or indirectly) connected with the person practicing it.

Loving-kindness practices typically begin with cultivating feelings of self-compassion, then compassion for others, and conclude with returning to compassion for oneself. This is based on the principle that our capacity to offer compassion to others is generated by being compassionate towards ourselves. In one study, it was shown that teachers with high levels of self-compassion are better able to emotionally support their most challenging students.

Research has shown that acting compassionately can make us happier, as the same parts of the brain are activated when we help others as when our personal desires are gratified. Further research has shown that compassion improves not only our mental health but our physical health, speeding up recovery from disease.

Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, has found that when people perform behaviors associated with compassion, such as warm smiles and friendly hand gestures, their bodies produce more oxytocin. Keltner says that ‘this suggests compassion could be self-perpetuating: Being compassionate causes a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate.

However, there are some things that get in the way of our innate loving nature, such as fear, ego, and the illusion that we are separate or different from others. When these things lead to us living uncompassionately, it not only negatively impacts the people around us, but it also hurts our own mental and physical wellbeing. And in today’s polarized world, it seems to be more important than ever for us to foster compassion. So how can we go about doing that?

Loving Kindness Meditation involves directing warmth and positivity to ourselves and to others. This might feel unusual or uncomfortable at first, but it can have a truly perspective changing effect on our lives. This type of meditation cultivates a more compassionate and empathetic mindset, which has been shown to increase happiness, reduce stress and improve overall well being. You can find a guided loving kindness meditation on our YouTube channel at Work2Live.

Bring your attention to the situation. This means becoming more aware of what other people are experiencing. Imagine yourself in their shoes. Being able to see things from another person’s perspective can help you gain a sense of compassion for their situation. Practice putting yourself in someone else’s place and imagine how you might feel. Focus on feeling how they might be feeling.

Commonalities practice. Instead of recognizing the differences between yourself and others, try to recognize what you have in common. At the root of it all, we are all human beings. We need food, shelter, and love. We crave attention, recognition, affection, and above all, happiness. Then reflect on these commonalities.

Let go of judgment. Accepting people as they are and avoiding judgment is important. Focus on accepting people for who they are without criticizing or victim blaming.

Relief of suffering practice. Once you can empathize with another person, the next step is to want that person to be free from suffering. This is the heart of compassion — actually the definition of it. Try this exercise: Imagine the suffering of a human being you’ve met recently. Now imagine that you are the one going through that suffering. Reflect on how much you would like that suffering to end. Reflect on how happy you would be if another human being desired your suffering to end, and acted upon it. Open your heart to that human being and if you feel even a little that you’d want their suffering to end, reflect on that feeling. That’s the feeling that you want to develop. With constant practice, that feeling can be grown and nurtured.

Act of kindness practice. Practice doing something small each day to help end the suffering of others, even in a tiny way. Even a smile, or a kind word, or doing an errand or chore, or just talking about a problem with another person. Practice doing something kind to help ease the suffering of others. When you are good at this, find a way to make it a daily practice, and eventually a throughout-the-day practice.

Loving-kindness, whether as a formal meditation or simply as an on-the-go practice you use to bring yourself some peace and ground yourself, is a powerful practice that offers several useful benefits for navigating the challenges of daily life. Make it a point today to extend compassion to those you love, those with whom you have conflict, and people you don’t know. You can learn more about loving kindness and compassion on the latest podcast episode of A Mindful Moment with Teresa McKee. Click here to listen in.


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