Between recent world events and the upcoming presidential election, there has been much discussion around themes of hate, racism, bigotry and differences among people. While we may see the occasional story of kindness, the notion of being compassionate is all too often drowned out in our society.
We hold all these misconceptions about what it is to be compassionate and kind, including that it makes us weak, that it’s a form of self-pity, that it’s indulgent, and that it gets in the way of success. Our competitive, tech-driven, busy culture instead believes that being hard on one’s self is the key to achieving goals. The reality is that the great majority of us struggle with a judgmental voice when we don’t live up to our own expectations, and it is this voice that judges others as well. As a result, we may face to persistent negative emotions, doubt, feelings of worthlessness, shame and feeling disconnected from people around us.
But what would the world look like if we could turn down the volume of that voice and practice more kindness instead?
One mindfulness practice called “Loving-Kindness” helps us cultivate an attitude of open, unconditional friendliness. This practice entails sending kind, compassionate or loving intentions/phrases to several different categories of individuals:
- The self
- A cherished person or “mentor”
- A friend
- A neutral person or stranger
- An “enemy” or difficult person
- All living beings
A Loving-Kindness phrase is a wish for something that is universally desirable. Typical phrases include “May I (or may you) be safe,” “May I be healthy,” “May I be happy,” “May I live with ease.” A Loving-Kindness phrase may feel out-of-reach, for example if one is struggling with pain or illness. However, we can still connect with the intention behind it, even if we feel far from it. Through repetition comes rewiring—the more we practice setting these intentions through a formal Loving-Kindness practice, the more easily a stance of compassion and kindness becomes available to us when we are in situations where we may judge ourselves or someone else. Other science-based benefits to practicing Loving-Kindness include:
Another major benefit supported by research (as well as my experience teaching this practice) is that incorporating a compassion meditation, such as Loving-Kindness into meditation helps us recognize the inherent connection among us—the realization that we are all human, that we all struggle and that we can turn towards others’ suffering with warmth and compassion. It is the sense of “we are all in this together.”
There is no “right way” to feel when practicing Loving-Kindness. Remember that it is a mindfulness practice, so invite yourself to notice what your reactions are—you might notice frustration, doubt, irritation or even sadness. And that’s okay! It is important to remember that you don’t have to feel loving when you practice Loving-Kindness. Noticing difficult feelings that arise during this practice can be an important step towards healing.
The bottom line is: We cannot choose how or what we feel, but we can set an intention for how we wish to function in and respond to the world. Thus, Loving-Kindness and similar practices are about setting an intention for openhearted friendliness. So try it out, and maybe together we can make America kind again.
To listen to my brief and introductory Loving-Kindness practices listed, click here.
Deniz Ahmadinia, Psy.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the West Los Angeles VA where she is specializing in mindfulness-based and integrative health approaches. Dr. Ahmadinia has had extensive training in mindfulness-based treatments, as well as evidence-based practices to treat trauma, stress anxiety, and depression. Deniz’s research interests include mindful parenting, trauma, interpersonal neurobiology, and mind-body approaches to stress reduction and wellbeing. Visit her at www.latherapyspot.com