Loving kindness meditation practice is a big part of the curriculum of the Mindfulness Association’s courses. In our mindfulness courses we practice loving kindness for a dear friend and then loving kindness for a dear friend and ourselves. In our compassion courses we practice widening the circles of loving kindness, where we start with a dear friend, then our selves and then widen out our loving kindness practice to neutral people that we don’t know well, then people who we find challenging and then in widening circles to include all beings with which we share the planet. In our insight courses we practice loving kindness for people we feel anger towards as a way of skilfully navigating the emotion of anger.
In a loving kindness practice we bring to mind the object of our loving kindness, which might be our selves, the dear friend, neutral person, etc. Then we say in our mind loving kindness phrases for them as a wish or aspiration for their happiness and wellbeing. Typically these are phrases along the lines of “May you be happy, May you be well, May you be safe, May you live with ease”.
But what does the research say about this practice? In this blog we will look at a range of meta-analyses and systematic reviews. These are generally considered a good starting point for getting an overview of research evidence in a field. These reviews and meta-analyses systematically assess the results of previous research papers in order to arrive at conclusions based on a whole body of research about loving kindness practice. They critically evaluate and statistically combine the results of comparable research trials.
Zeng et al, 2015 is a meta-analysis of 24 research studies focussed on loving kindness meditation (compassion meditation was included in this) and using questionnaires measuring positive emotions. This found that loving kindness meditation increased daily positive emotions, such as happiness, and this was enhanced where teachings on loving kindness were offered in addition to the practice of loving kindness. The study included also concludes that interventions based on loving kindness were more effective than ones focussed on compassion.
Some studies in this meta-analysis had a wait list control, ie. the increase in positive emotion is compared between a group who have done the course in loving kindness meditation and a group who are on a waiting list to do the course. Other studies had an active control group, which means that the control group did a different course to a course on loving kindness, such as mindfulness meditation, theatre therapy, memory training or positive emotion regulation. In studies where these active control group were used there was not a significant difference in outcomes of positive emotions between the loving kindness group and the active control group. However, where the active control was concentration training, the loving kindness meditation group showed significantly higher positive emotion. So perhaps the some of the increase in positive emotion is more to do with taking part in a group activity rather than loving kindness meditation.
Galante et al, 2014 is a systematic review and meta-analysis exploring the effect of kindness based meditation on health and wellbeing. In this study kindness based meditation included loving kindness meditation, compassion meditation and Christian contemplation. It also looked at courses of training (eg. over 6 weeks) and single dose exposure to practice, in some cases of less than half an hour. It looked at 22 randomised control trials (RCTs) and found that kindness based meditations decreased self-reported depression, increased mindfulness, compassion and self-compassion when compared to passive (eg. wait list) controls. Again, comparison with active control groups were not so positive. Some benefits appeared to be restricted to those who practiced the most, known as a positive dose response. It also indicates that exposure to kindness based meditations can be challenging for some people. It was postulated that this might be responsible for the high drop out rates in some of the studies reviewed. It concluded that kindness based meditation showed evidence of benefits for health through its effects on well-being and social interaction. Overall, the results were mixed and complex.
Shonin et al (2015) is a systematic review of clinical (mental health) research into Buddhist derived loving kindness and/or compassion meditation based interventions over more than one session. Participants demonstrated significant improvements in positive and negative affect, psychological distress, positive thinking, interpersonal relations and empathetic accuracy. They found that these interventions may have applications in the prevention or treatment of a broad range of mental health issues, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders and stress. This paper suggests that there is emerging evidence that the practice of loving kindness can reduce anger and promote social connectedness and prosocial behaviour. This paper also points to a need to properly define loving kindness meditation versus compassion meditation.
Interestingly, Shonin et al (2015) refers to neuroscience research indicating that increased neural activity in brain areas including the mirror neurone system and the amygdala has been shown to enhance regulation of neural emotional circuitry in the brain. This appears to improve the ability to modulate descending brain-to-spinal cord noxious neural inputs. They postulate that this may explain why some participants undertaking loving kindness and compassion meditation experience reductions in pain intensity.
To conclude research into the benefits of loving kindness meditation is in its infancy. Much of the research had methodological limitations, such as small group sizes, and there is little evidence to show that courses in loving kindness meditation are more effective than other group based interventions in the short term. Also, the different review papers cover a range of different loving kindness and compassion based interventions, which are not equivalent. Loving kindness is concerned with the wish for all beings to be happy and compassion is concerned with a wish for all beings to be free from suffering, and so the practice of compassion requires a turning towards suffering which is not necessary in the practice of loving kindness. In meditation research it can be useful to have at least some researchers on the team who are experienced meditation practitioners and who understand from the inside the difference between different types of meditation training, such as kindness versus compassion (Goleman & Davidson, 2017).
We will look more into the underlying neurobiology of loving kindness practice in a future blog. So watch this space!
Galante et al, 2014 – https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-26574-001
Goleman & Davidson, 2017 – https://www.goodreads.com/de/book/show/36121358-the-science-of-meditation
Shonin et al, 2015 – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-014-0368-1
Zeng et al, 2015 – https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01693/full