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Can Kind, Loving Thoughts Slow the Biological Aging Process?

By Nikki Harper

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

We all know that kindness and compassion are good things, and most of us probably try to be kind and compassionate whenever possible. But what if the focused intent behind kind and loving thoughts could actually benefit your physical health as well as your psychological wellbeing?

A recent study from the University of North Carolina suggests exactly this. The study, published this spring in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that regular practice of Loving Kindness Meditation appears to slow down the rate of attrition in telomeres, which are a vital part of the biological aging process. [1]

What are Telomeres?

Telomeres are biological caps at the end of each strand of our DNA. Formed by replicating sequences of base pairs, their function is to protect chromosomes from deterioration and to facilitate cell division. Each time a cell divides, between 30-200 base pairs are lost from the telomere until eventually the telomere is too short to allow cell division, and the cell dies. A white blood cell telomere may contain around 8000 base pairs in a newborn baby, dropping to approximately 3000 in an adult and 1500 in an older person. [3]

The Effects of Loving Kindness Meditation on Telomeres

During the twelve-week study, groups of middle-aged adults who had never meditated before were selected to be taught either Mindfulness Meditation or Loving Kindness Meditation. A third group, the control group, was wait-listed and did not receive any meditation tuition. The meditation tuition workshops took place weekly between weeks 3 and 9 and participants were encouraged to meditate daily. The telomere lengths of all participants were assessed two weeks before the study began and three weeks after it ended.

The results showed that telomere length in all three groups had shortened, but that in the Loving Kindness Meditation group, it had shortened by significantly less. This suggests that the focused intent behind sending out loving thoughts to the world can have a real, physiological effect on the aging process. By slowing the rate at which a telomere shortens, the life span of that cell is effectively prolonged.

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It is not yet fully understood whether telomeres actively contribute to the aging process or whether they are merely indicators of aging taking place, but anything which slows down telomere attrition is likely to have a positive effect on longevity. The study also demonstrates that the effects take place quite quickly, within weeks of beginning to meditate, so it’s not necessary to be a meditation guru in order to experience the benefits.

Of course, telomere length is not the only thing affecting the aging process. Another key component in why we age is oxidative stress – but studies have shown that meditation can help to reduce this too. [2]

What’s Special About Loving Kindness Meditation Compared to Mindfulness?

Mindfulness Meditation involves a shift of attention, either into focused attention or into open awareness. Loving Kindness Meditation, on the other hand, involves a shift of emotion. Mindfulness Meditation has been extensively studied and has shown numerous benefits of its own [5] but the attention shift probably activates different areas of the brain to those activated by the emotional shift of Loving Kindness Meditation. It may be the activation of socio-emotional brain processes in Loving Kindness Meditation which triggers the telomere effect.

Interestingly, shorter telomeres have also been linked to anxiety [6], whereas longer ones have been linked to optimism and emotional intelligence [7], suggesting that the complex links between positivity or happiness and longevity are starting to be uncovered.

Getting Started with Loving Kindness Meditation

Loving Kindness Meditation or metta bhavana comes from the Buddhist tradition and it involves radiating unconditional love to all living beings. [4]

To get started with Loving Kindness Meditation, you can follow these 5 easy steps:

  1. Sit comfortably, somewhere quiet, where you will be undisturbed for ten minutes or so. Quieten your mind and become aware of your heart chakra. In order to offer unconditional love to others, you must first offer it to yourself, so begin by spending a few moments bathing yourself in love and kindness. To do this, you could reflect on your own wonderful qualities, or you could visualise yourself being happy and joyful. Alternatively, you could repeat a simple phrase over and over to yourself, such as ‘May I be happy, may I be safe, may I be free’.
  1. Shift your emotional intent towards someone you feel favourably about – not a direct family member, but perhaps a good friend or someone you know personally and respect. Bathe them in love and kindness, again by reflecting on their qualities, or through visualisation or by asking ‘May they be happy, may they be safe, may they be free’.
  1. When you are comfortable with this, shift your emotional intent towards a neutral person. This should be someone you have met but about who you have no particular feelings – for example, a co-worker, a neighbour or someone who served you in a restaurant. Bathe them in love and kindness, following the same method as above.
  1. Next, shift your attention to someone you have negative feelings about; someone you dislike, for whatever reason. Bathe them in love and kindness, as above, to the best of your ability. Many people find this difficult initially. If you sense that you’re losing the radiating love, you can briefly return to step one and re-find that glow of self-love, so that you can then come back to this step and radiate it towards the person you dislike.
  1. Finally, when you have successfully completed the above, you can radiate your love outwards towards the wider world. If it’s too difficult to think of ‘all living things’ then you can take it step by step, for example ‘all men’, then ‘all women’, then ‘all living creatures’. Alternatively, work geographically, by sending love and kindness to everyone in your immediate vicinity, then your whole town, then your county, then your country and so on.

Most people find steps 1-3 to be quite easy, but 4 and 5 take practice and perseverance. Since this world is so desperately in need of love and kindness, however, this is a good thing to in in and of itself – and who knows, recent science suggests that it may just improve your own longevity too.

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About the author:

Nikki Harper is a spiritualist writer, astrologer, and current editor for Wake Up World.

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