Cultivating Kindness During the Holiday Season

Cultivating Kindness During the Holiday Season December 23, 2015

Secular Meditation

Though this is the season for good will, holiday shopping madness sometimes points people in another direction. Then there are the family gatherings that bring loved ones together to dredge up arguments about who said what in 1987. In such times, it’s good to have a tool that helps you cultivate good will.

One way to do this is through loving-kindness meditation, also knows as metta, from a word in the Pali language of ancient India that means friendliness or loving-kindness. This practice, derived from Buddhism, is something we do regularly at the Humanist Mindfulness Group, a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard.

We don’t see metta as a religious practice. It’s simply a way to trick your brain into caring about someone you didn’t care for before. Here in a nutshell is how it works. You generate feelings of love by thinking about someone who loves you. Then, while in the warm glow of love, you think about someone you dislike, and the love overflows, transforming your feelings about this person.

You first think about someone who has helped you in some way, visualizing them if you can. You then express your good will toward that person in words that stir your emotions. The traditional wording sounds a bit like a prayer, so in our remix, we use words such as:

I’d like her
to be safe,
to be healthy,
to be happy,
to be at ease in the world.

These words don’t have magical powers that reach across space, but they do have the power to change your brain. The first thing you notice when you think these words this is that it feels really good. Even though that person is not present, you begin to feel the warm glow of an emotional connection.

The next person you express warm wishes to is yourself. We can be self-conscious about this, but there’s nothing wrong with caring for yourself. You can say:

I’d like
to be safe,
to be healthy,
to be happy,
to be at ease in the world.

Now here’s the trick. You turn your attention toward someone whom you do not love. You typically start with someone you barely give a second thought to—say the person at Peet’s who served you coffee this morning. You think about that person and repeat the metta phrases. Because of the “emotional momentum” from the prior steps, you may feel a surprising amount of warmth toward this person.

Now here comes the challenging part. You think of a difficult person—perhaps a relative you’ll be seeing in a few weeks—and repeat the metta phrases. This will likely soften your feelings toward this person.

This trick works most likely because of lingering effects of hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin that are released in the brain when people feel love and connection. These brain chemicals can persist in the brain for minutes after being released, so when you shift your thoughts from a loved one to an unloved one, they can bias your feelings in a positive direction. According to the neuroscientist Paul Zak, who gave a talk about the science of love to the Humanist Community at Harvard, oxytocin also has long-term effects on the brain. Thus, if you practice shifting your feelings toward the difficult person right now, they might not “push your buttons” when you next see them in person—perhaps at your next holiday meal.

Here is a video with instructions on how to do metta meditation:


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