Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Loving-kindness meditation and emotion
What is loving-kindness meditation and what are its emotional affects?
This chapter explores what loving-kindness meditation is and what, if any, effect this practice has on emotion. Does meditation, particularly loving-kindness meditation, change how we feel? Are we as humans more relaxed and calmer as a result of a meditation practice, in this case specifically loving-kindness meditation? These are some of the questions the chapter explores. Hopefully the following chapter will help to demystify and clarify some of the misconceptions surrounding this very ancient practice of meditation.
The chapter defines meditation in general and then more specifically loving-kindness meditation. Emotion is defined and current psychological theories used to understand emotion and its function in humans are considered. This includes how emotion is viewed through the biological, cognitive and social/cultural perspectives. Current research will be examined to explore what scientific evidence exists to support the use of loving-kindness meditation as a tool for mental health and well-being.
Definition of loving-kindness
To understand the meaning of loving-kindness meditation (LKM) it is first important to take a step back and understand its origins. Whilst loving-kindness as a philosophy is a central Buddhist teaching, it does not exclusively belong to Buddhism (Salzberg, 1995). Loving kindness is a universal concept embraced by many religions from both East and West with a long history. The Greeks used the word agape which referred to the highest form of love or the selfless love. In Judaism chesed is a Hebrew word that translates in English to loving kindness. It is used repeatedly in the book of Psalms to describe acts of kindness motivated by love. In Judaism it is predominately used to describe God rather than people. Loving-kindness is regularly referred to in Christianity in the New Testament (Salzberg, 1995).
“Metta” which is a Pali word that is translated as “love” or “lovingkindness” (Salzberg, 1995) . It is important to distinguish the type of love that metta refers to as often, particularly in the West, love suggests a type of passion or sentimentality. However the essence of metta is described as an unconditional love, not bound by desire (Salzberg, 1995). For the purpose of this book chapter the Buddhist definition and philosophy will be the main reference for understanding loving-kindness meditation and its impact on emotion.It is often referred to as
Definition of meditation
Buddhist teachings describe two basic aspects to meditation, mindfulness, the exercise of learning to rest and settle the mind. The second is known as insight or awareness and refers to the recognition of our true nature or basic goodness (Scheffel, 2003). Traditionally according to Buddhist teachings loving-kindness or metta is the first of four meditations known as the Brahmavihara or the Divine or Heavenly Abodes. The others – compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity – evolve from metta which supports and extends these states of being (Salzberg, 1995).the first is
What is loving-kindness meditation and how does it work?
When the terms loving-kindness and meditation are combined this refers to the practice of loving-kindness meditation (LKM), sometimes referred to as Metta meditation. This form of meditation practice is aimed at promoting feelings of warmth and kindness to all beings including the individual engaged in the practice (Salzberg, 1995). Similar to most other meditation practices when beginning LKM the individual engages in quiet contemplation whilst seated preferably with the eyes closed and focuses their attention on the breath (Salzberg, 1995). As seen in Figure 2 LKM is a technique that can be used by anyone at any age, to promote mental health and well-being.
The individual is instructed to as much as possible let go of any expectations and analytic thoughts. An experience or memory where the participant felt they were kind, generous or caring is brought to mind and reflected upon for approximately five minutes (Salzberg, 1995). Feelings of happiness associated with this memory are encouraged if they arise. If no experience or memory is coming to mind simply reflecting on the innate desire for happiness present within oneself is adequate (Salzberg, 1995). When other thoughts or feelings arise such as impatience or annoyance the individual is instructed to simply return their attention to the contemplation, without judgement or guilt (Salzberg, 1995). This process of returning the attention to the practice and letting go of other intrusive thoughts or feelings is, in essence the process of meditation (Salzberg, 1995). LKM practice then involves the gentle repetition of deeply felt and meaningful phrases, firstly for oneself, then for others (Salzberg, 1995). The phrases are often referred to as mantras with the four classic phrases used:
- “May I be free from danger.”
- “May I have physical happiness.”
- “May I have mental happiness.”
- “May I have ease of well-being.”
The next stage in LKM practice is to call to mind someone for whom gratitude or respect is felt,in Buddhist texts this individual is referred to as the benefactor (Salzberg, 1995). Reflecting on the goodness within the benefactor and the ways they have helped others. The above metta phrases (mantras) are then repeated but directed towards the benefactor. The meditator then calls to mind a neutral person; that is someone for whom there are neither negative or positive feelings towards. Often someone who is seen only occasionally and is not known well by the meditator is most appropriate, for example the person who delivers the mail or the sells you your coffee. While reflecting on the neutral person’s innate desire for happiness, the above metta phrases are directed towards them (Salzberg, 1995). Next the meditator calls to mind someone with whom they have difficulty with whom they find challenging. In LKM this person is often called the difficult person or even the enemy. The idea is to think of them in a positive way and repeat the metta phrases to them.
In the final stage of LKM the meditator directs mantras to all four people; the self, the benefactor, the neutral person and the difficult person. The mantras are then extended outwards to everyone around the meditator, to everyone in the meditators’ neighbourhood, town, country, and so on throughout the world to all beings everywhere; this concludes the LKM practice (Salzberg, 1995).
Definition of emotion
While most people would have an intuitive understanding of what an emotion is and what it means, defining emotion specifically can be difficult. Affect can be used to describe the pattern of observable behaviours that communicates a person’s emotions (Fox, 2008). This may vary and fluctuate according to the person’s emotional state. Mood is different again and can be described as a more general and longer lasting emotional state (Fox, 2008). Mood may be internalised and may not be observable whereas affect involves visible behaviour and action (Fox, 2008). Emotion may be better defined as an evaluative response that may be positive or negative and may include physiological arousal, emotional expression or behaviour and subjective experience (Reeve, 2009). Emotions are often thought to define what it means to be not only alive, but to be human (Fox, 2008).
Theories of emotion
Before beginning to explore some various theories of emotion it is important to mention that there are different frameworks that can be used to examine and understand emotion. Through the scientific study of emotion different research fields have chosen to focus on specific aspects of emotion (Fox, 2008). Keeping in mind that while a field of research may choose to focus on one component of emotion it is important to remember that generally speaking most of the components that make up an emotion are almost always present (Fox, 2008). The biological perspective for understanding emotion suggests that they have developed as a consequence of biological evolution. This approach asserts that emotion occurs naturally to lead us to do what our ancestors did to ensure they could pass on their genes (Fox, 2008). Furthermore, this perspective alters the focus of emotion being about feelings, to the range of behaviours and responses shared with other animal species (Fox, 2003). The biological approach sees emotion as inherently tied to physiological processes involving many brain areas, neurotransmitter systems, as well as the autonomic nervous system, and the endocrine system (Fox, 2003).
The cognitive perspective is another framework for understanding emotion. This perspective is based on the premise that our evaluation or appraisal of significant events shapes the emotion that we experience (Fox, 2008). The cognitive perspective differs to the biological in that it attempts to explain why the same event may elicit a very different response in different individuals. According to the cognitive perspective, individuals emotions can reflect internal appraisals of situations and stimuli they encounter and their personal judgements (Cacioppo & Gardner, 1999). The evolutionary basis of the biological approach identifies emotions as a function from our ancestral history whereas the cognitive perspective is more focused on assessment of immediate coping capabilities and current processes of the evaluation of meaning (Fox, 2008).
The third and final framework for understanding emotion is the social/cultural perspective. This approach asserts that emotions may only be acquired when people are exposed to them within a particular culture and therefore they are essentially learned behaviours (Fox, 2008). Interestingly, LKM was used in a study to examine whether social connection could be created between strangers in a controlled laboratory setting. On both explicit and implicit facets feelings of social connectedness and positivity towards unfamiliar individuals was increased after just a few minutes of LKM (Hutcherson, Seppala & Gross, 2008). This study reveals that even minimal LKM practice may reduce social isolation and increase positive social emotionality (Hutcherson, et al., 2008). Related to this, another study also revealed decreases in implicit bias against two stigmatised social outgroups; black people and homeless people through participation in a 6-week LKM practice. These results suggest that LKM may improve automatically activated implicit attitudes towards social groups that are stigmatised or marginalised (Kang, Gray & Dovidio, 2013).
The biological perspective of emotion
The basic premise of the biological perspective is that emotions have evolved to assist humans to operate and function in their environment (Fox, 2008). Emotions function to enable prompt coordination of bodily processes necessary for survival (Fox, 2008). These bodily processes include all physiological reactions, cognitive processes, motor function and energy (Fox, 2008). It is worth noting particularly when considering this approach in relation to others that the focus is less on human feelings and more on the ways humans and other species respond and act. Maybe partly because of this, a large amount of research in this perspective is conducted with animals, often demonstrating that a given stimuli will evoke an emotion automatically (Fox, 2008). Whilst different theorist’within this tradition may differ, they all seem to agree that emotions are essentially genetically coded systems of response and they are triggered by an object or event that is either biologically or evolutionarily relevant.
In the biological perspective the focus is also on a finite number of basic emotions. There appears to be a set of emotions that appear universally across cultures and even sometimes across species (Fox, 2008). This supports the view that some emotions have a biological basis and exist independent of our perceptions (Fox, 2008). When describing these emotions as basic it is important to note that basic refers to their hypothesised role in evolution and also as being the basis for coping strategies and adaptation (Abe & Izzard, 1999). Depending on the theorist this number will vary but is generally somewhere between 2 and 10 basic emotions. The six most commonly agreed upon basic emotions by a majority of the biological theorist’ are fear, anger disgust, sadness, joy and interest (Reeve, 2009). These basic emotions are also called primary emotions and can refer to a group of related affective states or emotion families rather than one specific emotion (Ekman, 1992).
The cognitive perspective of emotion
This perspective argues that emotion is a result of our cognitions and if they are not present emotion is absent (Reeve, 2009). Whilst there is no denial that emotions can be a result of biological processes these are not seen to be the primary aspect of emotion (Fox, 2008). The basis for the cognitive perspective is that appraisal of meaning is the root cause of emotion. Only when the event is perceived to have personal significance to the individual will they experience emotion (Fox, 2008). Is the event relevant? Does the event affect their safety or wellbeing? Is it important to them? Will they benefit from the event? These are all questions that lead an individual to make appraisals regarding an experience. As a result of these appraisals meaning is attributed and the individual experiences an emotion according to this process (Ekman, 1992). The cognitive approach to emotion involves two references; firstly to the event or object being evaluated and secondly to the individual experiencing the event (Fox, 2008). To further understand this approach to emotion we will explore a cognitive theory in greater depth.
Arnold's theory of appraisal
Magda Arnold (1960) was one of the earliest cognitive theorist’ whose research was based on the premise that emotions are produced through an evaluative process of the meaning or significance of a given event. The environment is assessed for any change that may be relevant to that individual. Specific actions occur as a result of these appraisals and outcomes are experienced as emotion (Arnold, 1960). Arnolds’ theory relied on the idea that individuals classify objects and events as either being positive or negative (Frijda, 1986). Neurological pathways in the brain were the foundation of Arnolds’ theory, with the limbic system as seen in Figure 4 being at the centre of the appraisal process (Fox, 2008). Since Arnolds seminal work more recent research has gone on to confirm Arnolds findings and further support the idea that the limbic system, is the area of the brain most involved in processing the emotional aspect of any event or experience (Fox, 2008).
In Arnolds model illustrated below in Figure 3, the process of appraisal occurs prior to the event and provokes the experience of emotion. Arnold created a system where appraisals varied on three dimensions, with events being viewed as 1) either harmful or beneficial, 2) to relate to the absence or presence of a particular object, 3) to approach or avoid (Frijda, 1986). Once appraisal has occurred on one of the above dimensions the individual will automatically engage in a process of liking or disliking, Arnold viewed this as the experience of emotion (Frijda, 1986). The response of liking or disliking will produce either an avoidance or approach action from the individual (Frijda, 1986). This action is referred to as a motivational tendency and in fact Arnold defines emotion in terms of motivation (Frijda, 1986). When the individual is in the appraisal stage they are recounting memories and imagining possible courses of action to deal with the event or object (Fox, 2008). The hippocampus stimulates another part of the brain, the motor cortex this process leads to bodily behaviour.
Recent research indicates thisarea of the brain is also activated in the practice of LKM. This suggests that the experience of emotion and the practice of LKM are activating the same regions in the brain. More recent research has shown that activation in the limbic system also affects other bodily functions that are involved in the expression of emotion (Fox, 2008). A model of Arnold theory is shown in figure 1.1. (figure)
Loving-kindness meditation and the brain
Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (Fmri) assessed brain activity of novice and expert meditation practitioners engaged in LKM (Lutz, Brefczynski-Lewis, Johnstone, T. & Davidson, 2008). This study revealed increased neural activation during meditation in the anterior insula, postcentral gyrus, inferior parietal lobule(IPL), in the amygdala, right temperal-parietal junction(TPJ) and right posterior and superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) in response to both emotional and neutral sounds by the expert practitioners (Lutz, et al., 2008). This suggests that the mental expertise involved in cultivating positive emotion (as in LKM) affects the activation of brain circuitries that have been previously linked to empathy and theory of mind in response to emotional stimuli (Lutz, et. al, 2008).
This research also suggests that experts in LKM may be better at integrating affective responses and sensory-perceptual processes (Lutz, 2008). Other studies on LKM have revealed through the use of fMRI that practice of LKM by expert meditators makes them more able to share positive emotions of others through experiencing the happiness of others as theirs and wishing happiness for others (Lee, et al., 2012). This research supported previous findings that LKM is associated with activity in emotion-processing areas of the brain (Lee, et al., 2012). This implies that LKM may affect emotion regulation and subsequent generation of positive emotion (Lee, et al., 2012). Finally, a study again using fMRI to examine brain changes related to LKM revealed increased gray matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri in expert meditators (Leung, et al., 2013). Prior to this study, structural differences in the angular gyrus have not been associated with meditation (Leung, et al., 2013). This suggests that LKM practice may be specifically associated with this part of the brain unlike other forms of meditation (Leung, et al., 2013). The above mentioned brain regions are all involved in affective regulation related to empathic response, anxiety and mood (Leung, et al., 2013). Lastly this study revealed increased gray matter in the left temporal lobe of LKM experts, a finding reported previously in other studies of MRI research on meditation (Leung, et al., 2013) .
Davidson and colleagues (2003) used a randomised control trial to assess the effect of mindfulness meditation on brain and immune function. The findings from this research suggested that meditation increases activation in the left-sided anterior of the brain. These findings are indicative of reduced anxiety and negative affect and that meditation can increase positive affect (Davidson, et al., 2003). Along with this they also found a significant reliable effect of meditation on immune function as measured by antibody levels post a vaccine. Increases in activation of the left-sided anterior of the brain were associated with increased immune response (Davidson, et al., 2003).
Research findings on LKM
There is a growing body of evidence to support the use of loving-kindness meditation as a technique for general health and well-being and for enhancing positive emotions. Fredrickson and colleagues (2008) used a randomised longitudinal field experiment, assigning 139 participants with minimal experience of meditation to a seven week LKM program of LKM or a waitlist control group. While both groups reported a similar frequency of negative emotions, participants assigned to the LKM group reported greater positive emotions and were less depressed than participants in the control group (see Figure 5) (Fredrickson, et al., 2008). After the LKM program finished positive emotions endured and an increase in positive emotions was reported on subsequent days even if LKM was not performed on those days (Fredrickson, et al., 2008). Another study investigating the use of LKM was a pilot study for chronic low back pain. Participants were recruited from a pain and palliative care clinic and were randomly assigned to either a treatment and control group. The control group was given standard care for chronic low back pain and the treatment group participated in an 8 week LKM program. Participants in the LKM treatment group reported lower pain ratings, less psychological distress and less anger (Carson, et al., 2005). As mentioned earlier, Hutcherson and colleagues (2008) study revealed that even a single brief session of LKM could lead to an increase in self-esteem and social-connectedness. Whereas a study examining the impact of three sessions of LKM found previously neutral stimuli were associated with positive affect after engaging in meditation (Hunsinger, Livingston, & Isbell, 2012). Finally, LKM was taught to individuals with schizophrenia in a case seriesand appeared to benefit persistent negative symptoms (Johnson et al., 2009).
Can loving-kindness meditation increase happiness?
A field study explored the psychological effects of LKM on participants attending a four day metta meditation retreat. Using questionnaires, the researchers measured participants before and after the retreat on a range of psychological measures (Alba, 2013). These included measures of happiness, kindness, compassion, social connectedness, love, gratitude and forgiveness (Alba, 2013) . Measures of depression, anxiety and stress were also recorded (Alba, 2013). The results of this study showed that participants’ anxiety and stress levels were significantly lower after participating in the retreat (Alba, 2013). Individuals were significantly happier for more of the time and experienced a decrease in the percentage of time they felt unhappy (Alba, 2013). The most significant results in this study related to participants decrease in stress and the increase in the percentage of time they felt happy (Alba, 2013). While this field study had some limitations including a relatively small sample size and some possibly unexamined confounding variables, the results do suggest that participation in metta meditation can have a positive effect psychological well being (Alba, 2013).
Examining various approaches to the study of emotion, it is clear biological, cognitive and social/cultural perspectives may all focus on different aspects of the emotional experience, highlighting psychologies theoretical diversity. The complex interactions between environmental, biological, social and cognitive determinants of behaviour ensure this field of study will continue to incite interest and provoke research. Hopefully leading to a deeper understanding of this essential aspect of what it is to be human. Further exploration of how techniques such as LKM affect emotion, may lead to more insight into the depth and breadth of emotions capacity to affect individuals experiences and quality of life.
There appears to be a burgeoning field of evidence to suggest that loving-kindness meditation can play a role in individuals positive and negative affect as well as their physical health and perceived well-being. A future area of interest may be the examination of the affects of LKM on emotion through the lens of the social and cultural perspective. Constructs such as social interaction, emotional socialization and managing emotions may also shed some light on not only how LKM affects emotion but whether affects of meditation practice vary cross-culturally. The differences between affects of LKM on members of individualistic societies and collectivist cultures may be of interest and worth exploring. Research into the affects of LKM on physiology and physical health would be another possible area of interest in this developing field.
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