Apr 13, 2013
Taking kindness to heart (Day 2)
Today, as part of 100 Days of Lovingkindness, where we focus on the development of basic kindness and compassion, we’ll continue with the practice of self-metta.
I’m suggesting a simple practice today to help you bring a more kindly attitude into your daily life.
It’s simply this: be aware of your heart.
I’m not talking about noticing your heart beating, but about bringing awareness to the central part of your chest, and coming back to that over and over again during the day.
This area of the body is very important in terms of emotion, which is why “emotion” and “the heart” are virtually synonymous. And even more crucially, “love” and “the heart” are also virtually synonymous. The heart symbol — ❤ — means “love,” after all.
One reason for this is that there’s a large nerve called the vagus that runs down the center of the chest. The vagus is an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings the body back to calm, rest, and balance. And the vagus is very important in mediating feelings of love and compassion. When it’s activated, there can be a feeling of warmth and openness around the heart.
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that lovingkindness meditation significantly increased “vagal tone” over a period of seven weeks. Vagal tone is a measure of the activity of the vagus nerve and is a sign of good vagal health (it’s analogous to “muscle tone”).
Professor Stephen Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago has said that the vagus nerve is the nerve of compassion.
And Dr. Dacher Keltner, the author of Born to Be Good and Codirector of the Greater Good Science Center, points out that young children who have a stronger vagal tone are the ones who step in when they see another child being bullied. They’re also more cooperative and helpful to their peers.
Simply taking your attention to the heart can help to activate the vagus nerve. So try this:
- Become aware of the heart area.
- Notice what emotions and sensations are present — without judgement. It doesn’t matter what’s there: whether you’re feeling neutral, or even feeling crappy. That’s just where you happen to be starting from in this moment.
- Let go, as best you can, or any tension, letting a sense of softness emerge.
- Send thoughts of lovingkindness to that part of the body, saying “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be at ease.
- Repeat many times daily, whenever you pause, or whenever you’re taking a break or doing some routine task, like driving or showering, where your mind would normally wander.
Let go of any yearning for results; that’s simply grasping, and it’s also a rejection of your experience. Just let things unfold in their own time.
You also might want to bring this into your sitting practice of lovingkindness, which (as part of the challenge) we’re doing for at least five minutes a day. I’d recommend doing more than this, but five minutes is your emergency fall-back position for those days when it’s especially hard to get on the cushion.
If you’ve missed the previous posts for 100 Days of Lovingkindness, you can start here.