Loving-Kindness: The Cure for Tribalism
Controlled research has demonstrated how Metta (Sanskrit) or loving-kindness can be the cure for Tribalism and implicit bias. In the Buddhist tradition, there are specific meditation exercises that can be easily learned which when practiced can increase feelings of loving-kindness towards others, even those for whom we ordinarily harbor ill feelings towards. And that’s not all. Metta meditation has been shown to increase brain activity in those areas associated with emotional regulation, increase overall empathy and joy, decrease chronic pain, decrease symptoms associated with PTSD etc. Moreover, such effects were found to be durable over time. Even more surprisingly, some effects of Metta meditation were empirically documented even following a brief practice of only a solitary 10-minute exercise!
One study is specifically relevant to the topic of this post. Kang, Gray, and Davidio published a study in the Journal of General Experimental Psychology. They tested the effects of loving-kindness meditation in terms of implicit attitudes towards two separate stigmatized social groups: Blacks, and white homeless people. Results clearly demonstrated decreased implicit bias towards both social groups after six weeks of Metta practice. Control groups showed no such changes.
Our spiritual/religious traditions teach us to love our enemy as ourselves, love thy neighbor, offer the other cheek and so on. But no specific instructions are offered to help us to achieve such a capability. Intent and will are generally insufficient to help one to realize t6hese ideals in our day to day interactions. Metta practices thus far appear to offer clear and pragmatic practices to help increase empathy and loving-kindness, even towards those who have caused us pain. The following is a simple six-step meditation/visualization practice that is commonly provided to help produce loving-kindness.
Loving-kindness (metta) meditation
The exercise starts by asking the practitioner to imagine a living person with whom one already feels a deep sense of like, appreciation, respect, and gratitude. It can be a friend, mentor, or family member – someone who has been genuinely kind to you. However, it is ill advised that this person be a romantic partner or lover or anyone else that may represent complex or very ambivalent feelings. It should be relatively easy to generate feelings of loving-kindness when imagining this person. While picturing this person, wish for them to have everything good that you can think of such as good health, success, and well-being, emphasizing the wish that they be happy. You may inwardly recite the following prayer as suggested by the Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, “May he or she be peaceful, happy and light in body and spirit. May he or she be free from injury. May he or she be free from anger, disturbance, fear, worry, and anxiety.”
In the next stage, picture a friend or acquaintance, someone who you genuinely like, but not to the same extent as the person pictured in the first stage. As in the previous step, deeply wish that this person be happy and experience good fortune. In the third stage, extend this practice to a neutral acquaintance, someone that you have no strong feelings about one way or another.
In the fourth stage, imagine someone who has caused problems or pain for you. It should be someone who has caused some level of pain or difficulty for you. Attempt to generate the wish that this person, too, be joyful and enjoy health, success and be free of pain and hardship.
In the fifth stage, imagine this sense of loving-kindness extending outwards, first to those in your most immediate proximity, then throughout your community, town, the country, the entire earth and then even to other galaxies and the entire universe. One might envision radiant fibers of light extending from yourself, outwardly reaching towards all corners of the universe.
In the sixth and final stage, imagine those feeling of loving-kindness radiating back towards yourself. Imagine yourself as a child of the universe glowing in this energy of undifferentiated loving kindness.
The idea behind this exercise is that by generating feelings of Metta towards those whom you already feel a sense of gratitude and loving kindness, provides momentum to help generate this feeling towards those harder to experience loving-kindness. Buddhagosa, a fifth-century Buddhist scholar, uses the metaphor of lighting a fire. First, we start with very small twigs of kindling. Then we introduce larger and larger sticks and logs. If we start off with a damp log, the fire will never ignite.
To be sure, this is not always an easy exercise; difficulties and resistances will no doubt occur at various stages of the exercise. That is perfectly normal and to be expected. And perhaps for the more shame-based practitioners, the greatest resistance will be encountered at the sixth stage, when imagining loving-kindness radiating inwards. Do not fight to feel or experience anything. As with any other meditation practice, let whatever happens, happen. Just endeavor to be mindful and accepting of whatever resistances arise within you. Over time, with practice, some of these resistances may soften. It cannot be accomplished through an act of will or force. Just stay open to whatever arises. This is the only way.
Even outside of formal meditation practice, try to imagine all living beings as Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Prophet Mohammed, or Moses. Or as in the Hindu religion, imagine that any given person in a previous incarnation may have been your mother. Be mindful of all the negative judgments that your brain wants to form about people and practice extending Metta towards all those you encounter and observe.
Resist with love in your heart…
“Never ever hate, for hate is too heavy a burden to bear!” –Martin Luther King Jr