“We can learn to turn down the volume on the internal, snide monologue of self-judgment and be kinder to ourselves. After all, if we aren’t going to be kind to ourselves, who will?” Christiane Wolf
Developing your kindness muscle helps you to get through your life’s ups and downs better. Our mood set points can be altered. People who practice kindness or compassion as a regular practice become happier over time. Kindness practice counteracts the loneliness and sense of separation that comes from not feeling connected to other people. We can change how we respond to difficult situations over time.
Kindness is a skill that we can all develop. It starts with how you pay attention. Kindness practice aims to increase feelings of caring and warmth for our self and for others. We increase feelings of caring by mentally sending goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards ourselves and others by silently repeating a series of phrases. Sometimes when we begin, we don’t feel those feelings, so we just express an intention, planting the seeds of loving wishes over and over in our heart. These loving wishes are not positive affirmations like:
- I refuse to give up.
- I am adventurous
- I don’t sweat the small stuff
They are not goals we set or filled with striving. Kindness phrases are wishes for something that is universally desirable for all beings such as:
- May I be filled with kindness
- May I feel connected and calm
- May I accept myself just as I am
- May I know the natural joy of being alive
Kindness meditation can help us to develop a selfless love. It does so by developing the quality of ‘loving-acceptance’. Kindness meditation acts like self-psychotherapy, a way of releasing our troubled mind from its pain and confusion. It has the immediate benefit of sweetening and changing old habituated negative patterns of mind. But that only happens if we do kindness meditation for ourselves.
By doing kindness for ourselves, we develop a calm mind, a mind free from anger, greed and jealousy. Only in the fertile ground of a peaceful mind can kindness flower. As long as we calm our mind, even if we don’t feel loving, the practice will work anyway. If you keep doing it, staying with the intention and just repeating the phrases and making a connection with yourself, it will inevitably work. We set the intention to be better friends to ourselves and to others, by realizing that we all want to be happy and free of suffering
As we practice, we bring to mind different people or groups and we send them friendly wishes by silently repeating different phrases. Traditionally, the phrases come from each of the following four categories:
- Safe and protected
- Physically healthy
- Mentally happy
- Ease of well-being
As you say the phrases, connect with the felt sense of the goodwill we are sending. The feeling is more important than the words. Experiment to find the best words to open your heart to kindness. It may be that you have to adapt the phrases. I sometimes use phrases that send wishes of compassion or equanimity instead of kindness when that is what is needed to open my heart. In the meditation, you will repeat these phrases over and over again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind. Kindness is not a one and done. Practice this meditation for a number of weeks, until the sense of kindness for yourself grows.
As we often have trouble feeling love for ourselves, we will start with a benefactor. A benefactor is a person, animal, place, scene, memory or divine being that allows us to feel unconditional love. It is not necessarily your spouse as life gets in the way and adds complications to that love. You may choose a child, a puppy, a sunset, a beach, a spiritual leader to be your benefactor. The benefactor will help us to wake up the feelings of love or innate goodness in ourselves that may be hidden under layers of defenses. The defenses may keep us from feeling the love, that is why we may simply set the intention and repeat the practice over and over until we penetrate the defenses.
Once we have developed a loving feeling, we turn our attention to sending kindness to ourselves. At first it may feel mechanical and awkward; it will feel that way until you penetrate your defenses. Be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be received in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection. If strong judgement, anger or aversion toward yourself arise, turn your attention back to your benefactor. Simply allow the feeling of love, no matter how often your inner critic tells you that you don’t deserve it.
At any point that you are not feeling loving, simply go back to your benefactor and allow the feeling of love to penetrate your body.
After you have practiced kindness for yourself, practice sending kindness to a loved one. As you say the phrases, really feel the well wishes you are sending that loved one. And when negative feelings come up, simply change the channel and go back to sending well wishes. This is not the time to ruminate about relationship issues. Our purpose is to develop our kindness muscle by sending well wishes. Keep in mind that it may be necessary to modify the phrases you use so you can feel the good will that you are sending.
Next, try sending kindness to a neutral person. Someone like a clerk at the grocery store, someone we see on the bus, at the health club, or at work. The idea is to develop our feelings of kindness toward all beings. Once you have practiced this, you may choose to send kindness to neutral people whenever you are waiting in line at the store, or at a red light. Simply look over at the car next to you and wish them well.
The hardest group to send kindness to are people that we are having difficulty with. Some people call this group difficult people, but that makes them the problem. The real problem is how we relate to them. We may feel they don’t deserve our well wishes. But as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering to disarm all hostility.” One caution about sending kindness to a person we have difficulty with, pick someone who may be irritating and practice with them before moving on to someone who arouses strong negative emotions.
Finally, we send kindness out to all beings everywhere. It may be easiest to start with small groups such as your family, friends, co-workers. Then move on to your city, state, country and lastly the whole world.
While you are learning kindness, it may be easiest to practice in formal meditation sessions. However, kindness can be practiced anywhere. You can use this meditation in traffic jams, in buses, in stores, at work and on airplanes. You can use it at any time to calm your mind and keep you connected to your heart.
Sending kindness gives expression to our wishes for the well-being and happiness of ourselves or others. You will find that recognizing and expressing goodwill will have a softening effect on your heart. Usually it evokes feelings of love, tenderness, and warmth. But, softening of the heart can expose difficult or painful buried emotions. Allowing all these emotions to surface in their own time is part of kindness practice. As we build muscles, sometimes we experience pain. We simply back off a little, but continue to practice.
Opening our hearts allows us to be kinder to ourselves and to others. This makes life’s ups and downs less of a roller coaster ride. By opening our hearts, we see the big picture giving us a better understanding and therefore acceptance of things as they are.