The relentless upheaval of 2020 has resulted in a slew of new ways loved ones and strangers can irritate us. Close to home, we’ve had to cope with children screaming during Zoom calls, spouses hogging bandwidth, friends and relatives texting wild conspiracy theories. Outside, we’ve encountered maskless strangers, drivers speeding on emptier roads and even crazed political sign thieves.
Kindness has become difficult, and politeness is beginning to seem like a quaint relic of pre-pandemic life – along the lines of blowing out birthday candles or sharing appetizers at bars. But while the ability to live amicably with annoying housemates or reckless, covid-denying neighbors may seem more elusive than ever, it isn’t lost. If we start to think of kindness as a skill that we hone and nourish — weaving it into a daily, focused practice — it will come easier to us over time.
Luckily, we can look to ancient disciplines for guidance. Loving kindness meditation, which traces its roots to early Buddhism, helps us find compassion for one another even during trying times. The meditation prompts us to send thoughts of loving kindness first to loved ones, then to neutral persons and finally to challenging persons. Over time, our negative thoughts are replaced with more open, accepting ones, our anger eclipsed by love (or, at least, kindness).
How to do it
Donald Altman, a Portland, Ore., psychotherapist, former monk and author of “Simply Mindful: a 7-Week Course and Mental Handbook for Mindful Living,” learned the practice from a traditional Burmese Buddhist monk during his time in the monastery. He says loving kindness meditation (LKM) helps us recognize we are all fragile, we have all been hurt. “For that reason, we could all benefit from love’s warm and comforting blessing,” he says.
To begin, Altman suggests finding a quiet place to sit. He says to then imagine a favorite family member or friend sending you the words: “May you be well, happy, and at peace; May you be free from pain, hunger, and suffering.”
After a few minutes of receiving the mantra, direct it to yourself: “May I be well, happy, and at peace; May I be free from pain, hunger and suffering.”
Then, extend the blessing outward, toward other people, in order of decreasing affection. Replace the “I” with the name of a mentor or teacher, then a family member or friend, then a neutral person (a co-worker you like but don’t know well, for instance), and, then finally, a difficult or unfriendly person in your life. End the meditation by spreading the blessing to all living beings, without discrimination.
Altman says you can combine the mantra with breathwork, chanting a phrase of love for yourself as you breathe in (e.g., “May I be peaceful”), and a short phrase for others as you breathe out (e.g., “May all people be peaceful”). After chanting for one to five minutes, he says “you will feel safer, calmer, and more connected to others.”
LKM and covid
The practice’s healing effects are especially vital now, as we continue to contend with the uncertain, confined nature of our new lives. Robert Strock, a Los Angeles-area psychotherapist and author of “Awareness That Heals: Bringing Heart and Wisdom to Life’s Challenges,” recommends the meditation as a regular practice for couples. The challenges couples faced pre-covid, he explains, have probably multiplied since couples can no longer retreat into their usual diversions and hobbies. Many couples have also been shaken by sudden loss — of a loved one or employment — and must find their way through that grief. While it’s easy to be consumed by negative thinking, Babita Spinelli, a psychotherapist with offices in New York, New Jersey and Florida, says the practice has helped her clients “focus on and move toward love, compassion, and kindness.” LKM can also help us manage our darker concerns around covid-19, such as dying or exposing someone else. The practice helps develop “a kind feeling and thought toward yourself when you’re having the fear of death,” says Strock.
Marianne Williamson, a 2020 presidential candidate and author of “A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of ‘A Course in Miracles,’ ” explained that loving kindness meditation not only diminishes fear but increases our sense of overall well-being. “The human spirit is only comfortable in the space of love and connection,” she said in a telephone interview, “The soul can’t feel at peace in a state of chronic disconnection. It’s like a continuous compounding trauma.”
Therapists have seen powerful transformations in their clients following the loving practice. Brittany Johnson, a licensed mental health counselor and author of “Get Out of Your Own Way: 21 Days to Stop Self Sabotage,” says some of her clients reported a decrease in symptoms related to depression, anxiety, and overall stress after just a week of LKM; others felt better instantly. Strock says the meditation has helped his coupled clients talk more openly about what they are feeling and realize that “they deserve to be more kind toward themselves and each other.” After using LKM, Strock says, his clients are better able to identify with their feelings, apologize more easily and ask each other for forgiveness.
Cleopatra Abdou Kamperveen, executive director of the Fertility & Pregnancy Institute and a professor of social work at the University of Southern California, has found LKM has helped her clients grapple with the wrenching uncertainties and stresses around fertility. The practice, she explains, soothes the central nervous system, helping her clients free themselves from fight-or-flight mode. LKM also served a more holistic role, helping her clients prepare their body, their relationship and their entire lives for their baby.
If this all seems a little too New Agey for you, there is promising research. According to a small, six-week pilot study by the University of Utah in 2016, a six-week practice was found to increase perceived social support, and decrease social negativity in its participants. Likewise, in a larger nine-week study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and University of North Carolina in 2008, LKM was reported to enhance a range of positive feelings in its participants compared with a control group, which fanned out into other helpful effects: increased mindfulness and purpose in life, and decreased illness symptoms. The practice has even been linked to a reduction in chronic lower back pain and increased gray matter in the brain.
Take care with kindness
Despite its many benefits, LKM isn’t always appropriate, and it can even be detrimental. Seth J. Gillihan, a Philadelphia-area psychologist and co-author of “A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Every Day Life,” doesn’t think his clients should practice LKM toward anyone they aren’t ready to forgive. It shouldn’t be used, for instance, to help someone endure or accept an abusive relationship. “Part of loving kindness is loving ourselves,” he says, “which means guarding our own well-being.”
While Gillihan said he has seen emotions transform from hate to authentic, action-based love after only a few weeks of intensive therapy, he doesn’t recommend forcing this shift. “Love seems like something that we invite or coax, more than something we demand or force,” he said.
Indeed, we should find our own way toward loving kindness meditation – but only if we are prepared to access its healing benefits and extend them to anyone who may need them — even those who have thoroughly challenged our sanity this past year.
Rachel Ament is a writer living in Vienna, Va.