I have to admit that I didn’t like loving kindness meditation at first. I took to silent meditation pretty readily. I found it challenging at times, but generally calming and refreshing, and I treasured the simplicity and silence of it. Loving kindness just seemed so busy – way too many words. Warming up our hearts by bringing up a positive relationship made some sense, but finding phrases that truly feel authentic felt challenging. And kind of fake, too – “May I be happy?” Really? Probably there was also a part of me that was a bit attached to being a little grouchy and judgmental about loving kindness practices.
While I’ve gradually warmed to loving kindness, it does take a little extra effort for me to tip it from kind of rote to authentic and meaningful. And I have to admit that from time to time I just go along a bit half-baked when someone is offering loving kindness meditation. (Luckily I have learned over the years that there is benefit from showing up for meditation whether we are fully in it or not!)
In the end it was science that helped me shift my attitude. A few years ago an article I read about the demonstrated benefits of loving kindness meditation encouraged me to keep loving kindness in the mix. The author, a positive psychologist named Emma Seppälä, didn’t say much in her brief summary about why loving kindness would have all of these benefits. But studies are studies and I could pretty much take it on faith as a science fan.
And then a new study which does dig into reasons and mechanisms caught my attention and amazement. Now I’m really sold on loving kindness. And I also enjoyed being surprised by the unexpected (to me) aspects of the benefits they found. I’d like to share some of what I learned.
Researchers at the University of Bologna in Italy took a look at a unique way loving kindness can help with depression. Their research article is intricate, but quite fascinating and educational. I learned more about the mechanisms of depression as well as these new surprising benefits of loving kindness practice.
It turns out that an important factor that leads to depression has to do with how we remember our past: our autobiographical memory.
Depression is strongly connected with failing to remember positive experiences. When the mind is ruminating, our autobiographical memories tend to be vague and negative: a downward spiral where you start thinking nothing good ever happens and your memories confirm that fact. In fact, the researchers share, they even found that memories are objectively just plain wrong more often when people are depressed (a higher degree of “self-discrepancy”) and these negative memories lead to more depression. A vicious cycle!
One fascinating detail: When more depressed, we tend to remember the past as if we were observing ourselves from the outside – a kind disembodied observer perspective – as opposed to remembering what happened as if it directly happened to you. Depression leads to a disturbingly disconnected perspective on your own life.
I already knew about the negativity bias from mindfulness training (and life experience!). This is how the mind easily tilts toward the negative when we’re going about our lives. We too-easily assume someone else doesn’t approve of us, for example, misinterpreting facial expressions or written communications. And how that leads to upset, lost sleep, stress, and misunderstandings that lead to more stress. I love telling a story about how mindfulness once helped me avoid trouble when I was red-hot in an upset over a line of email that later turned out to be just a typo!
Reading this study about loving kindness, it was fascinating to consider that this negativity bias of the brain can also affect how we tell our own life story to ourselves. Especially when depressed, we tell the story of our lives in an overly negative way that in turn has a big impact on us! That vicious cycle again.
A key factor in righting this ship turns out to be feelings.When we remember the emotional aspects of past events – remembering how it felt, not just a story of what happened – our memories become more specific and accurate. This recalling how we felt somehow helps the brain reconnect with specifics and makes it easier to remember positive experiences.
So here’s the key point of this study from a mindfulness point of view: Loving kindness meditation was shown to help people tune into their feelings more, and this in turn helped them remember past events in a more balanced (and positive) way with those clearer emotional memories. And having more accurate and balanced autobiographical memories helped relieve depression!
The improved autobiographical memory they saw coming from loving kindness had a wondrous cascade of benefits. Risk of depression was reduced. Self-discrepancy (inaccurate memory) was reduced. Self-esteem and general well being was enhanced.
None of this is to say that bad things haven’t happened to us. It’s not just a matter of telling a more positive story about our past; it’s about this fascinating feedback mechanism between depression, negative and inaccurate memories, and more depression as a result.
What I love about learning about this intricate chain of effects that helped people with their depression is how it reminds me to stay curious. Who knows what all of the benefits are from positive choices like meditation practice, exercise, eating well and so on? The benefits I know about can help motivate me, but motivation can falter. It’s exciting to think that there may be many more benefits I don’t yet know about.
As for me: Am I kinder, more resilient, and less prone to depression thanks to the practice of loving kindness? It’s hard to know for sure but I do think so and learning this research has inspired me to add more loving kindness to my regular practice. Care to join me? We have a nice, and growing, set of recordings on the website to support us.
Yours in practice,