Okay, I admit it - the title is a shameless (but adorable) plug for my Metta Date class, an evening devoted to compassionate and heart-based meditation where we discuss dating-related topics (Monday nights, but currently on pause until spring 2020). The title "Metta-Date" is a play on the word "Meditate" and the word "Mettā (Pali), aka maitrī in Sanskrit, which means "benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others." I can't emphasize enough the benefits of Mettā meditation,
or the mindful practice of actively cultivating kindness or benevolence. In Metta Date, we also incorporate practices that cultivate compassion (karuna), empathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha), but for the purposes of this post, I will focus on the quality of compassion, or kindness in the presence of suffering, because after all, we could all use some of that during the holidays.
You might already be a believer in the value of a mindfulness and compassion practice. Or you might be skeptical. You might even ask, come on, how can sitting around practicing kindness and compassion help me with my dating life? Well, my friend, not only can it help you with your dating life, it can improve your overall health, well-being, and happiness. Feeling compassion has been linked to a release in oxytocin, the "bonding homone," and to a decrease in heart rate, and increase in activity in regions of the brain linked to caregiving, empathy, and pleasure. Here are six specific ways Metta can change your brain and your life:
1. Compassion practice helps you feel more pleasure.
Dating during the holidays can become more of a slog than a nourishing and pleasurable experience, but taking breaks to cultivate compassion can help us find moments of connection, joy, and pleasure amidst all the chaos.
A brain imaging study led by the National Institute of Health has shown that when we cultivate or practice compassion for another person, the act of giving (even if it's only our positive energy or "good vibes"), the pleasure centers in our brains are activated. Yep, those same pleasure centers that register money, dessert, sex, and chocolate, get turned on when we get our give on. Studies have shown that giving can actually be more beneficial to the giver than to the receiver, which is why sometimes people may give and give in a relationship that's not giving back to them. In one study at the University of British Columbia, children as young as two felt more happiness giving treats than receiving treats themselves. Now if you've been over-giving in your relationship, and it feels more like codependence than a fulfilling act of kindness, it's worth reevaluating how you give. Put your giving to better use and start practicing metta instead ;)
2. Compassion practice helps you stay healthy.
The holidays are inherently a time of stress as we are called to wrap up or pause our projects at work, spend more time with family, navigate intensified social atmospheres, and spend money on gifts and travel. Whether dating or simply relating to people in your life, the practice of cultivating compassion can have some scientifically proven health benefits in your life.
Research has shown that mindfulness, and mindful self-compassion in particular, decreases stress, increases feelings of well-being, lowers inflammation, speeds up recovery from disease, and may even lengthen our lifespan. Some new studies from UCLA and the University of North Carolina showed that feelings of pleasure derived from a sense of meaning and purpose, which are feelings that often arise from compassion and Metta meditations, led to lower levels of cellular inflammation than feelings of pleasure derived from doing fun things (researchers call this second type of happiness "hedonic happiness"). People who lived lives of hedonic happiness” actually had high inflammation levels, while those living lives of purpose or meaning (known as “eudaimonic happiness”) had low inflammation levels.
In fact, even witnessing compassionate acts and the act of connecting with others in a meaningful way leads to health benefits. Experiments at Harvard 30 years ago demonstrated that when people watched a film on the charitable work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, their heart rate and blood pressure shifted in a positive direction.
3. Compassion practice increases self-love and decreases criticism of self and others leading to more connection and less stress.
Practicing compassion for ourself and others helps us to see our own common humanity - the ways in which we are no different from anyone else. Criticism and shame lead us to feel separate and isolated, while compassion helps us feel more connected to others and aware that our mistakes are not as bad or shameful as we may privately believe. When we can learn to meet our inner critic with compassion, whether he/she is targeting us or judging the person we are dating or a family member, we open ourselves to deeper connection and feelings of love.
Lower levels of criticism towards yourself and others has the added benefit of decreasing our stress levels. Harsh self-criticism elevates our sympathetic nervous system and fight or flight response), whereas self-compassion activates our nurturing and soothing system which leads to, again, greater pleasure and less stress.
4. Compassion practice helps with self-soothing.
The practice of cultivating compassion,will calm you down when you're nervous or feeling activated by your relationship AND help you bounce back after bad dates, difficult relationship experiences, or breakups. As I mentioned above, compassion for self and others helps us nurture ourselves the way a good friend would, and during stressful times, we need to be a good friend to ourselves!
When we're nervous or feeling disregulated and stressed out, we're more likely to fall victim to dating snafus like oversharing, undersharing, using substances, reactive behavior, sweaty palms, and well, you get the idea. If we're judgmental or hard on ourself about this, it just makes everything worse, but if we can introduce mindfulness and compassion, we can break the cycle of nervous behavior and get back on track.
5. Compassion practice helps you stay motivated to keep going when times are tough.
We all know it's hard to stay consistent and motivated when dating. In fact, after a slew of short-lived dating relationships, it can feel like you've just been put in the washing machine on high speed. So how do you stay motivated when holiday dating has got you down and you find yourself single or badly matched during this fraught and sentimental time of year?
Most of us are taught to believe that motivation comes from beating ourselves up or treating ourselves like that first grade teacher from the movies who slaps kids' hands with a ruler. This mentality has been woven into the American dream - when you're down, just push yourself harder or pull yourself up by the bootstraps. That's why Kristin Neff initiated studies to prove that actually, the opposite is true. Studies in Mindful Self-compassion have shown that self-compassion actually increases our motivation more than beating ourselves up does, AND it doesn't have any negative side effects. Beating ourselves up does actually increase our motivation, but it has negative side effects, including feelings of shame and depression when we don't get things exactly right.
6. Compassion practice helps you feel more care, connection and empathy with others.
In the new book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, And Body, Daniel Goleman explains how lovingkindness meditation increases your capacity to care for others. He notes that through lovingkindness practice "you’re actually able to notice when they need help, and help them, [which] makes you a great partner, friend, and team member.”
In other words, practicing lovingkindness meditation primes us to feel empathy, and helps to make us more compassionate, so that we can understand what another person is going through, and take action to help. Being able to step outside of our narrow vision and recognizing when help is needed and how to deliver it are crucial skills in dating and relationships.
In addition to these benefits, there are countless ways that practicing good will and compassion can lead to more fulfillment in your dating and relationship life...which I can go into another time. In the meantime, the takeaway for today is that the active practice of cultivating compassion actually strengthens our ability to give and receive compassion, opens our heart and soul to other warm fuzzy feelings, gives our nervous system a rest, and boosts our immune system. When we are feeling good and less threatened, we are more open-minded, open-hearted, and more likely to show up as the best version of ourselves. This leads to, as Kristin Neff puts it, "greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.” Whether single, dating, or married, couldn't we all use more of the above?
Feel free to comment below or come Metta Date + Mingle with us one Monday in San Francisco.
Lauren Korshak is a San Francisco-based Marriage and Family Therapist, Meditation Teacher, Dating & Relationship Coach, and former matchmaker. She has a BA in Psychology from University of Southern California (USC) and an MA in Somatic Psychology from California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS.) In her free time, Lauren can be found dancing, meditating, adventuring outdoors, making music, and spending QT with loved ones.