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Your complete guide to loving-kindness meditation

Julia Park

Compassionate hands

With the world as polarized as it is, we could all use some extra loving-kindness and compassion in our lives. Many people recognize meditation as a powerful tool for cultivating calm, living in the present moment, and strengthening focus. But certain types of meditation have been found to generate increased positive feelings and greater compassion; specifically, loving-kindness meditation (LKM).

At its heart, LKM is all about sharing and receiving love. Research found that loving-kindness meditation can positively impact our mental health and support stress management

If you're on the lookout for more positivity and resilience against anger and stress, starting your own LKM journey might be just what you need. 

And if you're already familiar with LKM but want to take it up a notch, keep reading to discover how Muse, the brain-sensing headband, can add an extra layer of mindfulness to your practice. 

What is loving-kindness meditation (LKM)?

Loving-kindness meditation (LKM) is a unique type of Buddhist meditation designed to cultivate an unconditional kind attitude towards ourselves and others. Buddhist practices claim LKM is designed to help cultivate four attitudes: loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity.

Those who practice loving-kindness meditation often find it helps cultivate and strengthen their capacity for:

LKM is a bit different from other types of meditations. Unlike mindfulness meditation or zen meditation, LKM is all about cultivating loving feelings towards ourselves and others.

How to start with loving-kindness meditation

This sort of meditation can be difficult to practice at first, as giving love, letting go, and forgiving others can lead to resistance. 

Giving love can be scary because it comes with vulnerability and the possibility of loss. Anger can be hard to let go of because it often carries with it hurt. 

But in forgiving and giving love to ourselves and others, we can strengthen ourselves with greater understanding, patience, and love that makes us more resilient throughout our lives.

A woman meditating

Researched benefits of loving-kindness meditation

Studies exploring the effects of loving-kindness meditation have found the practice leads to numerous benefits for our short and long-term mental, emotional, and physical health.

Loving-Kindness meditation and the brain

  1. One study exploring brain scans of LKM practitioners found that those who practiced LKM for at least five years had more gray matter than novices.

    Specifically, they found the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri had larger volumes of gray matter. These regions are associated with empathic responses and mood and have not been linked with other types of meditation.

  2. In an effort to explore the effects of loving-kindness meditation on our compassion response, this study used fMRI to examine the brains of long-term and novice meditators.

    They found that compared to novices, long-term LKM practitioners experienced more activity in the insula (important for emotional cognition) when presented with distressing sounds versus positive or neutral sounds.

Loving-kindness meditation and positive emotions

  1. This landmark study led by Barbara Frederickson and her colleagues found that loving-kindness meditation increases daily positive emotions. Specifically, they found that after seven weeks of the LKM-based intervention, practitioners experienced increased gratitude, compassion, joy, contentment, excitement, and more. 

    Frederickson and colleagues found that this daily increase in positive emotions led to an expansion of personal resources, including mindfulness, sense of purpose, social support, and reduced symptoms of illness.

    Additionally, these expanded mental resources led to greater overall life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.

  2. A study published in Psychological Science sought to explore the connection between positive emotions and physical health as mediated by our self-perceptions of our social connections.

    Participants were divided into a LKM intervention group and a waitlist group. Researchers found that LKM practitioners experienced an increase in daily positive emotions.

    This increase in positive emotions aligned with increases in vagal tone, which can be considered an indicator for healthy functioning in the body.

  3.  A small study sought to explore the impact of loving-kindness meditation for people who scored high on the self-critical perfectionism scale.

    Researchers found that practicing LKM led to reduced self-criticism and depressive symptoms, and increased self-compassion and positive emotions compared to the control group. These results remained significant three months later.

Loving-kindness meditation and health

  1. A small study of 27 participants who all suffered from two to seven migraines each month found that after one 20-minute loving-kindness meditation session, participants reported a 33% decrease in pain and a 43% decrease in emotional tension.

  2. Another small, 8-week study involving 43 participants with chronic lower back pain found that people who received the LKM intervention experienced reduced pain the same day, and reduced emotional distress relating to their pain the next day compared to the control group.

  3. A pilot study sought to explore the impact of loving-kindness meditation on veterans with PTSD. Researchers found that self-compassion levels increased significantly, with mindfulness levels increasing at lower levels after the 12-week LKM program.

    Three months later, there remained a large effect size for reduced PTSD symptoms and a medium effect size for reduced depressive symptoms. This suggests an LKM practice could support the relief of PTSD and depressive symptoms.

Loving-kindness meditation and social connection

  1. A 2015 study found that short-term compassion training involving loving-kindness meditation led to significant increases in prosocial helping behavior.

    As mentioned earlier, a study published in Psychological Science found that participants experienced increased positive emotions and vagal tone as a result of loving-kindness meditation alongside increases in perceived positive social connections.

  2. A pivotal study published in 2013 sought to explore the effect of loving-kindness meditation on bias training, specifically in regard to homeless and black individuals.

    Researchers randomly assigned 101 non-black, non-homeless adults to three different conditions: six weeks of loving-kindness training, six weeks of loving-kindness discussion, and a waitlist group. 

    They found that the only group to experience decreased bias towards homeless and black individuals was the group that received loving-kindness meditation training.

    This suggests that loving-kindness training can help reduce stigma and shift implicit attitudes towards marginalized groups.
A woman lying down to meditate

How to practice loving-kindness meditation

As with most meditation practices, there are different ways you can practice LKM. However, the core practices and goal of increasing positive energy and kind intentions for yourself and others remain the same across different styles.

  1. To begin, find a comfortable position. Many people choose to sit cross-legged on the floor, but you can also sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. You can also lie down.

  2. Take a few deep, intentional breaths to bring your focus forward. Relax your muscles as you inhale and exhale. You may choose to close your eyes as you breathe.

  3. Now you’ll begin cultivating joy, love, and acceptance. One way you can do this is by bringing to mind someone who you feel has your best interests at heart and who has treated you with love and support.

    Picture them sitting in front of you sending you love. Breathe in all their positive feelings towards you. Or, you can imagine yourself feeling complete inner peace. Consider that you are perfect, exactly as you are.

    Breathe in all your self-worth and beauty, and exhale with confidence and surety.

  4. After you’ve cultivated feelings of warmth, radiant love, and self-compassion, sit with them for a moment. If your attention strays, lovingly guide your focus back to those feelings of loving joy.

    You can reinforce these feelings by speaking messages of love and goodwill, like “May I be happy” or “May I receive and give goodwill and joy.”

  5. Now, call to mind someone you feel could use some support. This could be a loved one, a colleague, a friend, or a family.

    Focus on that feeling of overwhelming love and positivity that’s enveloping you, and extend it to the person in your mind as though they were sitting in front of you.

    Focus on sending your feelings of love, joy, and earnest desire for them to feel good. You can reaffirm your wishes by speaking your affirmations.

  6. Now you may choose to bring other people to mind who are important to you. Repeat the same practice of enveloping them with the positive feelings you’ve cultivated and speaking affirmations of good wishes to them.

  7. Next, you may repeat the same practice and extend your goodwill towards people you may have conflict with. This can be difficult, but it can help you in learning to let go of resentment, and embracing forgiveness that can lift a weight off your shoulders.

  8. Finally, you may choose to repeat this practice with the world, sending your goodwill to all people in the world. 

If you're an auditory learner, here's a quick video tutorial on LKM below!

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    In our collection of over 500 guided and unguided meditations on the Muse app, simply open up the HEART collection under our biofeedback meditations row and select any of the unguided programs to begin.

    Once you’ve completed the meditation, you’ll be provided with real-time biofeedback on your heart rate, all while embracing feelings of loving-kindness and relaxation simultaneously.

    Take your meditation practice to the next level with Muse and become part of the 71% of Muse users who attest to improving emotional regulation.

    If you enjoyed the LKM, check out our guide to box breathing meditation here>>

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