Are you curious about the ancient practice of loving kindness meditation?
Loving kindness meditation is an ancient Buddhist practice I first started practicing many years ago, when I lived as a Zen monk for 13 months. It was here where I attended my first Overeating Anonymous meeting! Years later, loving kindness meditation has helped me:
- Quiet my inner critic
- Become more compassionate
- Improve my body image
- Be nicer to myself
This blog article will cover:
- A Brief History Of Loving Kindness Meditation
- Benefits Of Loving Kindness And Compassion
- How To Practice Loving Kindness Meditation
- Loving Kindness Meditation For Body Image
Section 4 is the primary focus of this blog article, where I show how loving kindness can be tailored to help people with a negative body image.
In section 4, I will be highlighting the work of @meret_boxler whose images and musings on body image greatly reflect what I believe is a loving kindness practice geared towards helping those who struggle with a negative body image.
Before we see how loving kindness meditation can help us with current problems of body image, let’s briefly look at the origins of loving kindness meditation.
A Brief History Of Loving Kindness Meditation
Loving kindness first developed as an insight meditation practice taught by the Buddha. While the Buddha is primarily known for teaching mindfulness meditation, he also taught loving kindness as a way to develop altruism and love.
While living at San Francisco Zen Center in Tassajara for 13 months, I was taught loving-kindness meditation, including the following analogy:
Mindfulness and love are two sides of the same coin. They both lead to enlightenment. Mindfulness leads to love, and love leads to mindfulness.
The word for love in ancient Sanskrit, the language in which the Buddha spoke, is “metta”. Metta means ‘friendliness’ or ‘love’ but not in the romantic sense, hence the translation of ‘loving-kindness’. A metta meditation is therefore a loving-kindness meditation.
I always like sharing a bit about the history of these meditation practices when I have the chance. You can feel better and more confident in the practice knowing that loving kindness has been around for 1000’s of years. There must be something to it!
Read here if you’d like more information about the history of loving-kindness meditation, otherwise without further ado, let’s dive into the benefits of loving kindness meditation.
Benefits Of Loving Kindness Meditation
Here are some examples of the benefits of loving kindness meditation which have been studied scientifically. I will briefly discuss each of the benefits of loving kindness meditation below:
- Boosts Compassion
- Promotes Empathy InThe Brain
- Reduces Self Criticism
- Improves Social Connection
- Enhances Positive Emotions While Diminishing Negative Emotions
In 2012, researchers Boellinghaus and Hutton compiled information from studies on all the mindfulness-based interventions and found that Loving-Kindness Meditation may be the most effective practice for increasing compassion. Compassion is similar to loving-kindness, but slightly different in the sense that while practicing compassion you are more focused on tolerating painful sensations and experiences.
I’ll describe more about how to practice loving kindness meditation in the next section, but in the meantime, just know that extensive research has verified this ancient practice really does work!
This is especially important within the context of this conversation about body image, too. A negative body image is primarily caused by a critical inner dialogue towards yourself, when you are being mean and hateful towards yourself!. This is the opposite of compassion!
Good thing loving kindness meditation helps boost compassion.
Promotes Empathy In The Brain
Loving kindness meditation has been shown to enhance the empathy centers in your brain. Scientists Hutcherson and Gross in 2014 were able to demonstrate a potential biological link between the practice of loving kindness meditation and empathy.
When you are more empathetic, you can connect with other people better. You are able to sense the emotions of other people, as well as your own emotions.
The difference between empathy and compassion is that compassion includes a desire to help. For example, empathy means you can feel the emotions of other people. You may have a sensitive child who can attune to other people’s feelings. However, compassion includes the desire to help. Not only do you feel or sense the other person’s emotions, but you want to help alleviate the pain of the other person.
Please note that compassion does not involve always acting to help another person. Oftentimes caregivers burnout from helping others too much. While caregivers are often compassionate people, who feel other people’s emotions and have their careers involving helping others with their difficult feelings, caregivers also burn out.
You can be a compassionate person without actually helping another person. Sometimes you need to take a break for yourself. This does not make you un-compassionate, or dispassionate. Remember, compassion is feeling another person’s feelings and desiring to help, but the wisest course of action may be to take care of yourself and let the other person be themselves.
Reduces Self Criticism
This may be the most important study I highlight in this article, in terms of how loving kindness can help someone with body image. Shahar in 2014 found that loving kindness meditation was very helpful for critical individuals in reducing self-criticism and depression while enhancing compassion and other positive emotions.
While especially relevant for individuals who struggle with body image, many other people who struggle in other areas of life can also benefit from more compassion and positive emotions, and less self-criticism and depression.
This is one of the biggest benefits of loving kindness. The benefits spill over into many areas of life.
For me, a steady practice of loving kindness has definitely changed the way I relate to myself, and to my failures, weaknesses and insecurities. Instead of resisting, denying or blaming myself for having failures and weaknesses, I accept these parts of myself.
Because I can accept my weaknesses and failures without as much judgment, I can learn lessons, take responsibility and continue moving forward without falling into depression.
Improves Social Connection
Many people struggle with isolation and loneliness. While isolation and loneliness have always been struggles faced by humans in different cultures and eras, the current era of social media has made things worse. Plus, the current Covid-19 virus situation has people more isolated than ever. And even worse, since someone who struggles with body image is already prone to isolation, the Covid situation makes it an even more horrible time for social connection!
However, scientists Kok and colleagues in 2013 were able to show that people who practice loving kindness end up feeling better about themselves and think of themselves as more socially connected.
Enhances Positive Emotions While Diminishing Negative Emotions
Finally, we can conclude with our most powerful study yet which shows that loving kindness meditation enhances positive emotions while diminishing negative emotions. In 2008, Fredrickson and colleagues showed that practicing loving kindness meditation for seven weeks significantly enhanced positive emotions such as joy, gratitude and awe. Even better, these positive emotions then helped people connect to their purpose in life, increase social support, and get sick less frequently. And these changes in turn increased life satisfaction and reduced depression!
While there are other benefits to loving kindness, this last benefit hopefully gives you a sense about how wide ranging and beneficial this practice can be.
Now that you have a little bit more historical information and appreciation for the benefits of loving kindness meditation, let’s dive in and start practicing!
How to Practice Loving Kindness Meditation
While different cultures and groups have expressed loving kindness in different ways, the essential practice is the same. You practice cultivating kind wishes towards people, including yourself.
Here is an example of how you can practice loving kindness meditation:
(After this section we’ll explore how to specifically apply these phrases to be more compassionate towards our body).
- Get comfortable in a seat and set aside a few minutes to practice. Close your eyes and take a couple breaths to get settled.
- Take a moment to settle into a feeling of safety. It’s important that you feel safe and secure before generating kindness towards yourself and others. You could imagine that you are at perfect peace on a serene beach, or some other environment.
- As you settle into a feeling of calmness and safety, begin to focus on a feeling of inner peace. Imagine that as you exhale, you are releasing tension. Imagine that as you inhale, you are receiving loving energy.
- At some point once you are feeling grounded, safe and calm, you can begin to repeat some kind, encouraging phrases to yourself. (Most types of loving kindness meditation involve some use of standardized phrases. These phrases are where you channel your intention of kindness.) You can repeat these phrases as many times as you’d like.
- Three typical phrases are listed below. You can also change the wording and language of these phrases and pick words that resonate with you better. Oftentimes people will say these phrases 5x each, but feel free to experiment and discover what works for you.
- May I be happy and free of suffering
- Always, may I be safe, secure and strong.
- May I be free of illness and have well-being.
- It’s pretty natural for your mind to wander while practicing loving kindness meditation. When your mind wanders away, just gently bring your mind back and return to the peaceful feelings you started out with.
You can end your loving kindness meditation practice here, but you can also continue.
- Typically once you feel more safe and secure, you can start to think about your loved ones in your life. For example, you can bring to mind your significant other, your children, or perhaps a friend. Your dog or another pet could work too!
- You can then repeat the phrases you used earlier while keeping an image of your loved one in your mind:
- May you be happy and free of suffering
- Always, may you be safe, secure and strong
- May you be free of illness and have well-being.
- Again, just going this far is enough to count as a loving kindness meditation. Some other forms of loving kindness meditation will have you continue to extend loving kindness towards a person you are indifferent to, or perhaps even an enemy!
- After you finish, take a moment to just let these positive feelings sink into your body. Remember that you can use these phrases during the day. For example, sometimes when I am driving, I will repeat these phrases to people I drive by! It takes 10 seconds and the best part is, I feel better by doing it.
Loving Kindness Meditation For Body Image
As you can see, the heart of loving kindness meditation is using a different language to talk to yourself and others.
Keeping this idea in mind, we can begin to tailor our loving kindness phrases in the context of improving body image.
In learning loving kindness towards your body, you’ll need to identify how you criticize yourself. Once you can hear how you criticize yourself, then you began substituting loving kindness phrases instead.
However, self-criticism is often directed towards ourselves without us even knowing it. Often we subconsciously say terrible things to ourselves. While you don’t need to identify all of your subconscious thoughts, generally speaking, as you become aware of the ways in which your inner critic speaks to you, the more naturally compassionate you become.
The following 8 images from @meret_boxler contain both a body image lie and then an example of how to reframe the body lie with a statement more aligned with truth that promotes loving kindness. After each image I will provide a few of my thoughts.
Body Lie / Body Truth #1
This is one of the most important ways you can love yourself. 99% of people are extremely critical towards themselves when they fall off their diet. Subconsciously (or even consciously), they say things to themselves like:
- I am lazy. I’m a lazy fat piece of shit
- I never succeed at anything, I can’t even stick with a diet
Yet once you start learning about intuitive eating, you realize that you never should expect to stick with a diet. The whole diet movement is a big charade. It’s like how in the 1950’s everybody smoked cigarettes because they didn’t know any better. It’s the same thing as dieting. You didn’t know any better. Can you forgive yourself for that?
Loving Kindness Example: When you hear a negative voice in your head criticizing you for failing your diet, you can practice loving kindness by saying:
- It’s not my fault I didn’t stick with the diet. I wasn’t meant to stick with the diet.
Body Lie / Body Truth #2
Our culture promotes this idea that thin is good, big is bad. The most common way this idea is reinforced is through BMI. Yet there are soooooo many problems with BMI. While this article doesn’t focus on the numerous shortcomings of BMI, we can at least take the example of Italy to heart.
Italy recently passed BMI laws for models, making it illegal to photograph a model if the model is under a certain BMI.
In Italy models were getting too thin and dying. Now it’s illegal to photoshoot a model who is too thin. Can you see that being thin is not always good?
Likewise, let me use another recent cultural example to show how being big isn’t necessarily unhealthy or bad at all. I’ll turn from modeling to sports, and mention how Zion Williamson was the top NBA basketball player recruited in 2019. Zion thrilled crowds with his acrobatic dunks and versatility.
Unfortunately, Zion has to face a ton of critics who say he is too fat and unhealthy. Clearly, Zion is not too fat and unhealthy because he’s being considered to be ‘The Next Michael Jordan’. Just because Zion is a bigger size doesn’t mean he’s unhealthy or fat.
When you catch yourself thinking that you must be thin to lose weight, consider the following example of shifting your inner dialogue to be more in alignment with loving kindness meditation:
- I don’t have to be thin to be healthy. Even if I do currently live in a bigger body, I can still pursue healthy activities (like walking and meditating, for example) no matter what my size. Just because I am big doesn’t mean I am unhealthy.
(And yes, you may not have the healthiest behaviors. This phrase doesn’t cancel out unhealthy behaviors and habits. It’s just saying that size doesn’t determine health. Oftentimes people feel they are big, and they feel that because they are big, then they better just give up on their health. Yet the opposite is truer: size doesn’t determine health, and you can still pursue health even if your body is bigger.)
Body Lie / Body Truth #3
Imagine if you were walking down the street and a crazy person wearing a balloon costume running away from the cops ran past you. While running past you, this crazy person says “You’re ugly!”
What would you think? You’d probably be shocked about the whole situation. Surprise aside, would you take this person seriously? Would you take this ‘ugly’ comment to heart? Probably not. You’d probably dismiss it and say, “that person’s crazy, they have no idea what they are talking about.”
Well, the same thing is true about being called fat.. This is called discrimination.
Recently, our society has begun to recognize that bigger people are discriminated against. When people judge you, though, It isn’t necessarily about you as a person. While it still sucks that there is judgment, seeing that people have been conditioned and trained by society to have size discrimination, it can help you not take their remarks so seriously. The sting will still be there, but not as bad if you can practice loving kindness meditation.
Body Lie / Body Truth #4
This is a beautiful mentality that I really appreciate. For years I had the “No Pain, No Gain” mentality towards exercise.
I thought if it didn’t hurt, I wasn’t exercising. I remember when my Mom first started taking yoga classes and I scoffed at her. “Mom,” I said, “You aren’t sweating.”
I avoided yoga for years until, during a meditation retreat, I had access to yoga. Even then I was highly skeptical, but the yoga class I happened to take was very difficult. I loved it because I thought the difficulty was a good thing.
After I got more experience with yoga and loving kindness meditation, I started to realize that I was channeling my anxiety into exercise as a way to avoid feeling anxious.
While I still do appreciate a good sweaty workout today, I also realize the value of simply walking around lazily without a goal. In fact, these days I do most of my ‘exercise’ just by walking around the block.
I’m no longer basing my self-worth as much upon my body image, and don’t feel the need to manage my anxiety exclusively through exercise.
Body Lie / Body Truth 5
This is a big one for most people who struggle with body image and food.
Without exception, every person I’ve ever worked with had a resistance to resting or taking a nap. They felt incredible pressure to provide for their family and be emotionally supportive at all times.
In order for exercise to ‘count’, they had to push themselves physically. And most importantly, resting was considered:
- A sign of weakness
- A lack of productivity
- A sign they screwed up
The irony is that many people who struggle with food are very much concerned with weight loss – but research has made clear that weight gain and weight struggles are actually highly correlated with lack of sleep and rest. At Eating Enlightenment, we don’t focus on weight loss,
So rest up, and practice loving kindness meditation!
Body Lie / Body Truth #6
This is painful to face. There’s no way around it. Realizing that you’ve been lied to – both intentionally and unintentionally – is downright painful. It’s a deep wound.
You’ve been lied to for years. About pretty much everything related to your health.
- You’re a lazy person if you don’t lose weight
- Diets work
- It’s your fault
When you start to realize that you’ve been lied to and none of this is your fault, it’s painful at first. This pain is just … raw.
And facing this pain with compassion is what leads to your redemption and healing. You don’t have to stay stuck. You can be free. The price is acknowledging this pain and never again going back to the dieting lies.
(And if you do go back or slip up, have compassion for yourself, because this loving kindness meditation stuff takes a while to integrate and really absorb)
Body Lie / Body Truth # 7
I’ve pushed myself in work and trying to increase productivity and in fanatical fitness for years.
In hindsight, I would always have crashes and burnouts. Days where I could hardly move or do anything.
I always ignored these crashes and burnouts, but in hindsight, I now see that because I was pushing myself like a racehorse, I would crash hard eventually.
The truth is you’re better just letting yourself off the hook and practicing loving kindness meditation even if just for a few seconds.
If you worry that suddenly your productivity will drop, or that you’ll drop your responsibilities – don’t worry. I know that the idea of ‘letting yourself off the hook’ may sound like you’ll become a lazy bum, but don’t worry.
Your work habits are deeply ingrained, and you resting is actually helping you come back into balance. When you’re in balance, then you actually can be more efficient and more productive.
Body Lie / Body Truth #8
I have a little bit of a belly too. And I used to be highly insecure about it. Hell, I’m still a little insecure about it.
But a little insecure is ok. And a little insecure is better than a big insecure 🙂 Compassion allows us to be insecure. Compassion allows us to have a belly. It’s ok.
Back in elementary school I was deeply ashamed of a big birthmark on my left shin. I’d always try to wear pants to hide my blemish. If the weather was hot, I’d wear shorts but I’d always walk around with a sense of dread. What would people think about my birthmark?
Now I see that probably nobody even noticed my birthmark. I didn’t need to worry about it so much.
While weight is different – fat discrimination is real – there are still big people out there who don’t let their weight hold them back. Internally, they know there is nothing wrong with them.
They might suffer the discrimination of being a bigger person, but still go to the beach. Still take dance classes.
Overall, your belly is fine. Go live your life.