Meditation's positive effects on stress and anxiety have been well-researched, documented, and publicized. But its Zen-inducing abilities are only a fraction of the scientifically proven reasons to close your eyes and breathe (for 2, 3, 4). One type of practice, in particular, has short- and long-term effects that may surprise you—and your significant other.
According to Dan Goleman, co-author of the new book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, And Body, lovingkindness meditation increases your ability to care for other people. "You’re actually able to notice when they need help, and help them," he says. "This makes you a great partner, friend, and team member." In the book, Goleman describes how this meditation can change the brain: It boosts the connections between the circuits for joy and happiness and the prefrontal cortex, which helps guide behavior. The stronger that connection, the more altruistic a person becomes, he says.
Those who regularly practice lovingkindness meditation are primed to feel empathy for others.
In other words, those who regularly practice lovingkindness meditation are primed to feel empathy for others. Sometimes, empathy can be painful, and can cause people to shut out the source of their vicarious pain. However, lovingkindness also helps to make us more compassionate, so that we can not only understand what another person is going through, but also take action to help. In a relationship—particularly a long-term one—this ability is critical for identifying emotions your partner may not be willing or able to vocalize, taking on another's perspective, and, ultimately, seeing one another through tough times (without melting down in the process).
The ways meditation can improve relationships don't stop there. As the result of any type of meditation practice, Goleman says, "You handle stress better, you’re calmer, you’re less triggered, and you recover more quickly." If you practice (or, better yet, you both practice), odds are that your fights will become less eruptive, shorter in duration, and easier to shake off.
"Just as with speaking, the brain seems primed to learn love."
What's more, lovingkindness meditations also aid in self-love—and I'm sure you've heard the adage that you need to love yourself before you can love anyone else. According to the book, one study found that "teaching lovingkindness to people particularly prone to self-criticism both lessened those harsh thoughts and increased their self-compassion." If you think about this practically, within your own relationships, you'll likely realize that it's the times at which you feel the worst about yourself that you behave the most badly toward your S.O. (and vice versa).
The best news about the effects of lovingkindness meditation, however, is that they show themselves quickly. "Unlike other benefits of meditation, which emerge more gradually, enhancing compassion comes more readily," Goleman says. "Just as with speaking, the brain seems primed to learn love."
Start your lovingkindness practice using the suggested structure below.
Send lovingkindness to someone who makes you feel happy
Find a comfortable, seated position. Close your eyes. Then, picture someone for whom you have positive emotions. Sometimes, the easiest and least complicated subject to focus on here is a child in your life, or even a pet. Now, send them your version of the following thoughts: "May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease." Notice how it feels in your body when you send these thoughts.
Send lovingkindness to yourself
Next, try sending the same thoughts to yourself. Many find this far more difficult than the first exercise. If negative emotions pop up as you try to send yourself positive ones, simply notice them and say, "Whatever I'm feeling, I hold this in kindness, too." You can add thoughts specific to your desires, as well, such as, "May my work be meaningful," or "May I feel loved and protected or supported."
Send lovingkindness to a stranger
Now, look for a neutral subject—someone you don't know or barely know. Then, send them the same lovingkindness thoughts you sent to the person you love and to yourself.
Send lovingkindness to someone who has hurt you, or whom you dislike
Many find that sending lovingkindness to themselves is hardest, while others find this part to be more difficult. At this point in the meditation, you'll want to direct your thoughts towards someone who has hurt you, or whom you just don't like very much. Again, if negative thoughts arise as you attempt this portion of the meditation, notice them and say, "I hold this thought in kindness, too."
Send lovingkindness to humanity at large
Try directing your thoughts now at everyone, everywhere. "May all beings everywhere be happy, healthy, loved, and supported," for example.
Want to learn more about the different types of mediation? Here, how to find the style that's right for you. Plus, find out why meditation booths are the new phone booths, and how even a quick walk can be meditative.
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