Share the Gift of Kindness

Practicing kindness changes you in ways you might not expect.

Posted Apr 27, 2015

When was the last time you remember giving a stranger, a neighbor, or even a friend, a smile, nod, or greeting? Why is it so surprising to give or receive unexpected gestures of kindness? For many of us living in a hectic city, we have come to expect that we are invisible to each other—tiny ants marching along our own paths with somewhere very important to go, rarely stopping to talk or acknowledge our own and each others' presence.

Cities exhibit varying levels of friendliness. In Conde Nast Traveler’s survey, Newark, New Jersey topped the list of the unfriendliest cities in the world. Charleston, South Carolina ranked first in friendliest city in the U.S. (fifth friendliest in the world). Fortunately, however, our city rankings don’t have to limit our ability to develop kindness. A simple daily meditation that takes only 10-15 minutes can help open your eyes to compassion and even change your brain.

A loving kindness (metta) meditation practice with Buddhist roots reminds us of a more compassionate way of living. The meditation has been shown to enhance your ability to empathize, increase the presence of positive emotions in your life (decrease the negative), and change brain activity.

Studies have shown that this meditation is associated with changes in neural responses to viewing emotions in others and alters brain activity in areas of emotional processing (Lee, et al. 2012). A recent study found that loving kindness meditation significantly improved the ability to empathize and read other people's emotions on a “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” (Mascaro, et al. 2013). A functional brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study found that compassionate training both increased altruistic behavior and altered brain activity in regions associated with social awareness and emotional regulation (Weng, et al, 2013). Metta meditation has also been shown to improve EEG readings (prefrontal alpha-asymmetry, which is associated with withdrawal) in depressed individuals (Barnhofer, et al. 2010).

Repeated practice can change brain connectivity. How you experience, receive, and send kindness can evolve over time. In a recent functional brain MRI study, researchers found significant differences between experienced and novice meditators. Both groups had increased functional connectivity during loving kindness meditation in different areas of the brain. Experienced meditators had less activity in areas related to the self and mind wandering, suggesting that repeated practice may have transformed the meditation experience over time into a focused, selfless kindness (Garrison, et al. 2014). 

Pixabay/Common
Source: Pixabay/Common

You can try the loving kindness meditation by listening to a guided audio meditation (links below) or practice silently on your own. Here is the practice briefly (10-15 minutes, wording of the repeated phrases are from a practice with yoga teacher Dennis Teston at Brooklyn Yoga Project):

1.  Find a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. Take 2-3 cycles of smooth deep inhalations and exhalations to become comfortable and relaxed.

2. First, extend kindness to yourself. Imagine that you are in a safe, comfortable space. Silently repeat to yourself 2-3 times:

May I have joy.
May I have happiness.
May I be free from suffering.

3. Send kindness to a Beloved person. Next, visualize someone you care about in front of you. Imagine seeing the person under warm sunlight and look into the person’s eyes. Send that person kindness:

May you have joy.
May you have happiness.
May you be free from suffering.

4. Send kindness to a Neutral Person. Visualize someone you feel neutral towards (like an acquaintance, neighbor) in the light and look into their eyes. Send that person kindness:

May you have joy.
May you have happiness.
May you be free from suffering.

5. Send kindness to a Challenging person. Finally, imagine someone that you find challenging—perhaps someone you have had tension with or with whom you associate difficult emotions. Imagine seeing them under the warm sunlight and look into their eyes. Send them the same message of kindness:

May you have joy.
May you have happiness.
May you be free from suffering.

6. Carry this kindness-- the openness of the heart-- with you the rest of the day. Take 4-5 gentle cycles of breaths (inhaling and exhaling smoothly) to end your practice.

Try this meditation at the beginning of each day or when you're wrapping up and winding down a stressful day. You might find yourself a little more kind and open to both yourself and the people around you at work, in the city, or at home.

Here are two free audio mp3 versions of the Loving Kindness Meditation available online:

Tara Brach versions

Sharon Salzberg version

Many thanks to the teachers (Ossi Raveh, Be Shakti, Dennis Teston) and students at Brooklyn Yoga Project for sharing this practice and their kindness everyday.

Follow me on Twitter @newyorkpsychFacebook Marlynn Wei, MD
My Urban Survival Blog on managing life in the city.
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Copyright Marlynn H. Wei, MD, PLLC © 2015

References

Barnhofer T, Chittka T, Nightingale H, Visser C, Crane C. State Effects of Two Forms of Meditation on Prefrontal EEG Asymmetry in Previously Depressed Individuals. Mindfulness (N Y). 2010 Mar;1(1):21-27. Epub 2010 Mar 18.

Garrison KA, Scheinost D, Constable RT, Brewer JA. BOLD signal and functional connectivity associated with loving kindness meditation. Brain Behav. 2014 May;4(3):337-47. doi: 10.1002/brb3.219. Epub 2014 Feb 12.

Hofmann SG, Grossman P, Hinton DE. Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: potential for psychological interventions. Clin Psychol Rev. 2011 Nov;31(7):1126-32. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.07.003. Epub 2011 Jul 26.

Lee TM, Leung MK, Hou WK, Tang JC, Yin J, So KF, Lee CF, Chan CC. Distinct neural activity associated with focused-attention meditation and loving-kindness meditation. PLoS One. 2012; 7(8):e40054.

Mascaro JS, Rilling JK, Tenzin Negi L, Raison CL. Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2013 Jan; 8(1):48-55.

Weng HY, Fox AS, Shackman AJ, Stodola DE, Caldwell JZ, Olson MC, Rogers GM, Davidson RJ. Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychol Sci. 2013 Jul 1; 24(7):1171-80.