Might be that sitting with your legs crossed repeating stuff like "May all beings be free from suffering," is a little too far-out for you. I'm a scientist for crying out loud, so you can imagine how I might feel meditating while surrounded by prominent neuroscientists, which I once did on a 7-day silent meditation retreat. Except that I actually didn't feel silly.
Because research demonstrates the incredible power of loving-kindness meditation: No need to be self-conscious when this stuff might be more effective than Prozac. Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well-wishes towards other people.
Here's How to Do It
The general idea is to sit comfortably with your eyes closed, and imagine what you wish for your life. Formulate your desires into three or four phrases. Traditionally they would be something like this:May I be healthy and strong. May I be happy. May I be filled with ease. Loving-kindness meditation is a simple repetition of these phrases, but directing them at different people. I do this with my kids before bed. We visualize together who we are directing the metta towards, and at first I say something (May you be happy) and the kids repeat it after me. After a few repetitions, we start saying them in unison. The phrases we use are "May you be healthy and strong. May you be happy. May you be peaceful."
1. Start with by directing the phrases at yourself: May I be happy.
2. Next, direct the metta towards someone you feel thankful for or someone who has helped you.
3. Now visualize someone you feel neutral about—people you neither like nor dislike. This one can be harder than you’d think: Makes me realize how quick we can be to judge people as either positive or negative in our lives.
4. Ironically, the next one can be easier: visualizing the people you don't like or who you are having a hard time with. Kids who are being teased or bullied at school often feel quite empowered when they send love to the people making them miserable.
5. Finally, direct the metta towards everyone universally: "May all beings everywhere be happy."
In this 3-minute video, Sylvia Boorstein, author of Happiness is an Inside Job, teaches how to do this. Another good resource is Sharon Salzberg—she wrote Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Doing this with kids of all ages doesn't need to be complicated; most are good at using their imaginations to send love and well-wishes. You don't really need to read books about this: loving-kindness meditation is as simple it seems. People write books about it because it is so powerful.
Here's What You Get When You Send Love
Loving-kindness meditation does far more than produce momentary good feelings. Over a nine week period, research showed that this type of meditation increased people's experiences of positive emotions. (If you are working on improving your ratio of positive to negative emotions, start with metta!) The research shows compellingly that it actually puts people on "trajectories of growth," leaving them better able to ward off depression and "become ever more satisfied with life." This is probably because it increases a wide range of those resources that make for a meaningful and successful life, like having an increased sense of purpose, stronger social support, and less illness. Research even shows that loving-kindness meditation "changes the way people approach life" for the better.
I've blogged before about social connections and how important they are for health and happiness. Doing a simple loving-kindness meditation can make us feel less isolated and more connected to those around us: one study showed that a SINGLE SEVEN MINUTE loving-kindness meditation made people feel more connected to and positive about both loved ones and total strangers, and more accepting of themselves. Imagine what a regular practice could do!
© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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Great Article!! I’d link to link to this article from a discussion on my blog if it’s OK.
dmar9 | 6:09 am, March 9, 2009 | Link
You talk a lot about happiness habits. For me meditation is the core to developing these habits. Until I started meditating, I only had knowledge of happiness. Meditation is the process of internalizing it. Buddhists divide meditation into two phases: analytical and placement meditation. In the analytical phase, I conceptually consider the virtue I am focusing on from many angles and various analogies (as you describe above). At a certain point, you reach an aha! point that Buddhist call the realization. This is where the placement meditation begins, because you really want to absorb this feeling, thought, determination until it sinks into you heart. This is necessary to really internalize happiness and go beyond repeating talking points. What is interesting is that I am not able to detect, myself, the differences in my mind/heart from the person that I was before meditating seriously, but the people around me, especially my wife, have noticed the difference and are benefiting by it. That is the Kadampa Buddhist way – to effortlessly make other people happy.
JP | 6:22 pm, April 16, 2009 | Link
On the topic of kids, I would love to hear other parents success with getting their kids to meditate. The only success I have had is to lead by example. My daily practice is visible to my 4 yr old daughter. The prepatory rituals of offerings, prostrations, and prayers is tangible enough for her to observe and mimic. When I get to the actual meditation, where I am silent and still, she thinks I have stopped. From a nearby room, she barks out encouragement: “Go daddy. Go!” Needless to say, it makes for an amusing meditation narrative.
When she gets frustrated, I tell her to breathe and meditate. She discards this suggestion as easily as I can offer it. I have resigned myself with the hope that, later in her life, she will consider meditation as a happiness habit because the example was prominent in her childhood. So if anyone else can shed some insight on how to introduce a child to meditation, I am all ears.
JP | 6:36 pm, April 16, 2009 | Link
What the title of your article hints at questioning is, what is appropriate for children? The range of experience possible is different from a child to an adult. The variety of intense transpersonal states of mind that meditation can help catalyse are i propose, mostly adult experiences. That is not to say that the same experiences don’t exist, but the ability for the child to relate to them are reduced.
What i do think is more accessible for children is existential meditative practice that introduces their body as a meditative tool. Muscle relaxation techniques, breath awareness, posture etc..
Meditation has many traditions and techniques and in western cultural history it akin to the word ‘contemplation’. Your article emphasizes Buddhist almost Tonglen practice, this is challenging for an adult to preform. Your examples of ‘gratitude’ practice are, i think more appropriate than structuring these same ideas into a buddist style meditation session for children.
Thankyou for you article – it has prompted me to investigate if any world traditions encourage meditative practice with children and if so what..
firstname.lastname@example.org | 10:16 am, July 31, 2009 | Link
For more activities like this that are useful with children of all ages, try Sandy Eastoak’s book Dharma Family Treasures http://www.amazon.com/Dharma-Family-Treasures-Buddhism-Children/dp/1556432445/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1249657836&sr=8-1 – out of print from the look of things, I found it at my local library. My children are 5 and 2 and my Chinese in-laws live with us. Every night my mother-in-law prays in Cantonese (I do not understand the prayer, my Cantonese is only slightly more advanced than my 2yr old’s), then we all hold hands and take three deep breaths. The 2yr old has already started participating in this and the 5yr old considers not getting to participate (because he’s squirming instead of getting settled at the dinner table when called) a negative consequence that has shaped his start-of-dinnertime behavior for the better.
Ahmie | 9:15 am, August 7, 2009 | Link