Self-care for Sensitive Souls
Reconnect with your inner resources
You know how it is.
Sometimes we just need some compelling ‘what’s in it for me’ reasons to get on with our meditation practice.
When we feel the benefits are a bit patchy or hard to pin down, it’s nice to have some encouragement from scientific research.
If you’ve been around meditation for any length of time, you’ll have come across loving-kindness meditation.
Loving-kindness is the practice of cultivating the feeling of universal love - in other words love for all beings, beyond personal or romantic love. Typically in meditation we do this by directing compassionate wishes towards ourselves and others.
You would probably expect the research to show that loving-kindness increases positive feelings of goodwill and empathy, and indeed it does.
But researchers have turned up some other, unexpected benefits ...
Healing from pain
You may not think of meditation as being able to help with physical ailments, but in fact this is well documented.
A recent study demonstrated the immediate effects of a brief loving-kindness meditation in reducing migraine pain and alleviating emotional tension associated with chronic migraines.
In another study, looking at patients with chronic low back pain, loving-kindness meditation was associated with greater decreases in pain, anger, and psychological distress than for the control group who received standard care.
Well OK not quite.
Scientists know that stress decreases telomere length (telomeres are a sort of protective cap on the end of our chromosomes, like the bits of plastic that stop shoelaces from fraying, and they're a biological marker of aging).
However, researchers found that women with experience in loving-kindness meditation had relatively longer telomere length compared to a control group of women of the same age.
So there you have it, loving-kindness slows aging.
Quieting your inner critic
We all have a more or less constant internal chatter that goes on in our minds. For many of us, this voice inside our head can be crushing and unhelpful.
A study just four years ago found that loving-kindness meditation was effective for self-critical people in reducing self-criticism and depressive symptoms, and improving self-compassion and positive emotions. These changes were maintained even three months after the end of the study.
The greatest benefit of loving-kindness
It’s likely that as you enjoy the blessings of relief from pain, feeling more youthful, and putting your inner critic back in its box, you’re also gradually discovering how much more there is to loving-kindness.
As we deepen our practice we uncover more profound layers and greater joys. Loving-kindness is a feeling we cultivate within ourselves, and the better we get at receiving and expressing it, the more we experience it.
This is why love forms a core part of spiritual practice. For many traditions, love is a fundamental characteristic of our consciousness as human beings, and love is the most direct way to experience truth or God or the infinite, or whatever name you have for that experience.
So anything that encourages us to get going with our meditation and see immediate improvement in our well-being is a welcome nudge towards this heavenly gateway.
A regular meditation class is a good way to support your practice. If you're interested in how compassionate meditation practice can help to relieve pain, take a look at the forthcoming Healing from Pain course.
Migraines: Tonelli et al (2014)
Chronic lower back pain: Carson et al., (2005)
Aging: Hoge et al (2013)
Inner critic: Shahar et al (2014)