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Human beings are hard-wired to connect with one another and losing these connections hurts us. Nichola Marsonet shares the Buddhist technique of lovingkindness meditation.

Our world may be highly connected technologically, but research suggests we are in danger of disconnecting on a human level. Many of us now live far from other family members and surveys consistently show that each generation since the 1950s is less trusting of others than the one before. Add the fact that over half of us say we're exhausted from working too hard and it’s no surprise our social circles are decreasing at a rate that is alarming psychologists. UK researcher Varela-Silva writes about how a lack of attention and affection in orphanages stunts a child’s growth, even if there is sufficient food. Other studies show loneliness sends our brains and bodies into survival mode, which is detrimental to mental and physical health, and a University of California study showed loneliness increases risk of stroke or heart disease by 30%.

Psychological research is now focused on finding ways to reverse our declining social connectedness. Emma Seppala from the Stanford Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research (www.emmaseppala.com) is investigating our declining connections, seeking new ways to help us build social connections. She has found that compassion, defined as a deep feeling of empathy for the plight of others combined with a strong desire to help, is a crucial factor in rebuilding our social lives. Compassion builds strong links between people and it also promotes health and happiness. Studies show compassionate people who help others are far less affected by difficult life events than those who are less empathic.

The art of lovingkindness

While many skills can be taught through an educative process, compassion is a tuning into others that requires a deeper, more intensive practice to master. One of the most promising paths to compassion is a type of meditation – a Buddhist tradition that underpins a specialist practice known as lovingkindness meditation. This meditation is gaining ground as a proven method to reduce burnout and mistrust. Quite simply, it has the power to end loneliness and to reverse its negative effects on our health.

There are variations of lovingkindness meditation but they all encompass similar elements. As with any meditation, it’s important to find a place that is calm and nurturing and a time when there are no interruptions. Seppala’s lovingkindness mediation is based on the idea of first focusing on discovering unconditional love for yourself. Only then can you focus on loving relationships with others that you have had in your life. Once those loving relationships are clearly in mind, you practise transferring those warm connections to others you are not especially close to. Finally, the meditation focuses on using the compassion drawn from healthy connections to work on the repair of ruptured bonds. As with any meditative practice, using the lovingkindness meditation regularly reaps the greatest benefits for your own health – and for the wellbeing of those around you.

Ancient wisdom, modern medicine

Lovingkindness meditation may have centuries-old origins but it has a thoroughly modern body of research to back up its claims. Studies show it can:
* increase positive emotions
* decrease negative feelings
* reduce chronic pain and migraines
* ease post-traumatic stress disorder
* improve symptoms of mental ill-health
* counter self-criticism
* build stronger bonds with others

To learn more: Lovingkindness meditation (https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/loving_kindness_meditation), Stanford Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research (http://ccare.stanford.edu)