Newspapers, news stations, politicians, and even researchers voice concern about our society, in the U.S. and across the world. More social isolation, distrust, and depression occur, and our personal social networks grow smaller (McPherson, SmithLovin, & Brashears, 2006). Technical and scientific progress is prioritized over people and how they live, exist, suffer, and die. One physician, concerned about such changes, publicly decried the humiliation of medical students and junior physicians, along with more subtle unkindness shown to patients (Jeffrey, 2016).
Competition is encouraged during training, and in the workplace through use of Bell Curves for annual evaluations and the introduction of gaming competitions among employees (as if we did not experience enough competition in our daily lives). Then, managers wonder why ‘stove pipes’ develop, with employees promoting and protecting their own work, and cooperation among staff is nil. Our children ask their first date out via text and sit texting and looking at their phones during the date. Employers promote cultures with zero errors and speculate why employees don’t support one another, and a lack engagement with and commitment to the organization exists. Reaching out with kindness is greeted with suspicion of self-service or a form of weakness, even within the medical profession (Jeffrey, 2016). Mentors are appointed, not grown through commonalities, concern, or caring, yet questions arise of why the mentoring program did not work.
What can we do as individuals, workers, managers, or health care professionals in such a system? Shall we join the ranks of the detached in order to protect ourselves and our ideas? Can automatic reactions that distance us be altered? Clichés are said to be clichés for a reason, and the idea that no man is an island has been touted in sermons and poetry (Donne, 1624), songs (Schickele, 1968), and philosophy. Perhaps it is not the strongest who survive, but those who form mutually beneficial relationships (Brewer, 2004).
“No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main” (Donne, 1624)
Maybe, mindfulness meditation can assist. While that sounds too simplistic as an answer, research demonstrates even a few minutes (7 minutes) of loving-kindness meditation increases feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers, thus potentially decreasing social isolation (Hutcherson, Seppala, and Gross, 2008). Feelings of connection with others increases self-perceptions of well-being (Brown, Nesse, Vinokur, & Smith, 2003) and reduces symptoms of depression and physical ailments (Hawkley, Masi, Berry, & Cacioppo, 2006). In a study conducted within our research laboratory, we examined how listening to a recorded ten-minute loving-kindness meditation (compared with not listening to any meditation at all), might impact perceptions at work. On the days during which employees listened to the loving-kindness meditation recording, they reported decreased anxiety and stress, and increased feelings of happiness, generosity, competence, accomplishment, productivity, positive attitude, and satisfaction compared to the days they did not listen to the loving-kindness meditation recording (Rice, 2017, unpublished data).
Thankfully, there is a growing body of literature focused on decreasing antisocial or prejudicial behaviors that not only include efforts to raise awareness and decrease exposure (to antisocial and prejudicial behaviors), but to examine methods of countering the negative and promoting positive social emotions and behaviors (Salzberg, 1995; Hutcherson, Seppala, and Gross, 2008). A review of Loving-kindness and Compassion Meditation research found these practices to be associated with increases in positive affect and the immune response and decreases in negative affect and subjective stress noted (Hofmann, Grossman, & Hinton, 2011). Decreases in social anxiety, marital conflict, and anger also resulted following loving-kindness or compassion meditations. Furthermore, areas of the brain activated were those associated with emotional processing and empathy (Hofmann, Grossman, & Hinton, 2011).
Loving-kindness meditation is somewhat different than Mindfulness Meditation. Mindfulness Meditation is deliberately paying attention to the full range of perceptible moment-to-moment, present experiences of sensations, thoughts, images, and emotions, in an open, curious, patient, and non-judgmental manner. Initially, placing attention on one’s own breath as the focal point helps beginners learn to meditate mindfully. During Loving-kindness meditation, the attention is concentrated on statements and thoughts of loving-kindness and well-being towards oneself and others. The focus on others might include those closest to you, those you’ve met, all those who suffer, or even all sentient beings. Such meditations can have profound effects on those who are meditating (Hutcherson, Seppala, and Gross, 2008; Hofmann, Grossman, & Hinton, 2011; Rice, 2014, unpublished data), as well on those around them, who may benefit from the meditators’ ‘change of heart’.
The origin of mindfulness arises from Buddhist practice, known as metta in Pali. However, all forms of religion contain references to various forms of meditation. Mindfulness meditation can be beneficial to anyone, regardless of religious beliefs, as the practice itself does not necessarily involve religion per se (Kabat-Zinn, 2005). Loving-kindness meditation brings a mental state of unselfish kindness to the surface, encouraging meditators to examine their thoughts and ideologies about themselves and others. It also brings a sense of connection, as if the world were a single large web, and each time a person suffers, everyone can feel the pull of the web. Loving-kindness, compassion, joy in others’ happiness, a sense of calm and peace are cultivated from loving-kindness and compassion meditations. In fact, I believe this practice helps people ‘come back to themselves’ – to the origin of their being and to the characteristics that have always been there, since birth. I believe we were all kind, trusting, and wished well for others at one time, rejoicing in others’ good fortune and experiencing sadness with those who were in sorrow. Perhaps we liked ourselves as children and never thought otherwise until someone brought negative ideas of ourselves to us. Loving-kindness meditation can bring these core characteristics back to us, sometimes with relatively few repetitive statements.
Expressions of kindness can also bring fear, for in opening to others, we leave ourselves vulnerable. Jeffery (2016) noted that Desmond Tutu (1999) spoke of kindness with his description of Ubuntu:
“A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that they are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.”
Here are a few statements to help you begin your own practice of loving-kindness meditation:
May I be happy
May I be calm and at peace
May I move though my life with ease, moment by moment, step by step
May I be physically and emotionally healthy and well, as healthy and well as I can be
May I be safe and protected from all harm, illness, and injury
May I be filled with loving-kindness, May I be loving-kindness.
You can use these, find others, or make up your own statements. With eyes open or closed, repeat the sentiments silently to yourself. With time, change the “I” to other expressions, such as “my family and loved ones”, “my neighbors”, “the clerk at the grocery store”, “all those in this city”, “all people”, “all people who are suffering” or “all beings”. In this small way, may we bring loving-kindness to ourselves and to others we may (or may not) encounter. Perhaps these small efforts will help bring our society to one in which we care for and help one another; to a place where we want to live; to a society we are proud to call our own.
As our happiness increases and we experience greater peace, we can offer the same to others. As we offer happiness and peace to others, we acknowledge our kinship to one another. We see our similarities in suffering. We perceive our communal desire for peace and happiness. We relax a little. We smile more. Our happiness brings happiness to those we meet. Our fear for the world softens into a vivid vision of hope.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.
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