Part One: Cultivating Kindness
Sometimes when people are beginning to learn lovingkindness meditation they think that kindness is something that’s to be manufactured. And so they make lots of effort to try to generate some feeling, as if they’re trying very hard to wring some emotion from the heart. This problem can be even more acute when the word “lovingkindness” is used, and if that word is explained as “universal love” or “universal friendliness.” We can very easily pick up the idea that we’re trying to experience something we’ve never experienced before.
And sometimes, if you make a lot of effort, you can become excited, and those feelings of excitement convince you that something is happening. But that’s not really kindness, and often when we do this a sense of disappointment and even despondency sets in, because you don’t get the expected result. So obviously this isn’t a very useful approach.
You can’t actually make kindness happen — all you can do is set up the conditions for them to arise and then see what happens. Kindness can’t be “manufactured” through meditation. It can’t be squeezed out of our being.
It’s a bit like growing seeds. You can’t make a seed grow. All you can do is provide warmth, water, and soil, and then be patient. Cultivating kindness is like that. It’s organic and natural.
In cultivating kindness we’re learning to be more empathetic and supportive toward ourselves and others. So how do we set up the conditions for doing this?
Jump to a section:
Part One: Cultivating Kindness
- Emotional Awareness Exercise
- Cultivating Seeds of Emotion
- 1. Embodying Kindness
- 2. Kind Eyes
- 3. Reflecting Empathetically
- 4. Using Words or Phrases
- Mixing and Matching
Part Two: Developing the Kindness Habit
- Developing the Kindness Habit Via Your Environment
- Developing the Kindness Habit With the Body
- Developing the Kindness Habit Through Your Thinking
- Developing the Kindness Habit by Choosing Your Attitudes
- Developing the Kindness Habit Through Connection
- What’s Next?
The first thing is to become aware of how you actually are feeling just now. This is essential groundwork. You can only start from where you are.
Try this exercise, either by following the written instructions or by listening to the audio guide below:
- Sit quietly, let your eyes be soft, and let your awareness connect with the sensations arising in your body
- As best you can, let go of any tensions you notice
- Bring your awareness to your heart area, and see what emotions are present, smile, and watch what happens
- If you’re not sure what you’re feeling, pay attention to the kind of thoughts you’re having. Are they anxious? Critical? Self-critical? Depressive? Joyful? Your thoughts can give you a clue to how you’re feeling.
- If you’re not sure about how you’re feeling, see if you can notice how you feel about not being sure about how you feel! Sometimes that makes it clearer.
- Remember: whatever you are feeling (good, bad, or even neutral) is fine. You can work with whatever is there, and you can only start from where you are
- See if you can be kind to yourself. Be patient as you attempt to find out how you’re feeling.
- Don’t try to find out what you’re feeling. Rather than a frantic search, think more of relaxing into an awareness of what’s already there.
- Lastly, gently bring yourself back to the outside world, beginning to move the body again, and finally letting the eyes gently open
For the seeds of kindness to grow, they need soil and water. The soil is our awareness: we need to be aware of what we’re feeling in order to cultivate kindness. So while in the Mindfulness of Breathing practice our focus is on the physical sensations of the breath, in the Metta Bhavana practice our focus is on how we feel, and how we relate to others.
An awareness of our feelings helps nourish us so that kindness can flourish. As we stand back from our feelings in meditation — simply observing them — we find that reactive states like anxiety and annoyance begin to subside and that more wholesome states like patience and kindness begin to emerge.
There’s an intelligence inherent in the aware mind that recognizes that reactive emotions are fundamentally unsatisfactory and lead to suffering, and so energy is withdrawn from them. That same intelligence recognizes the fundamentally satisfying and enriching nature of skillful emotions such as kindness, and by dwelling upon kindness it strengthens it.
So awareness is the soil, but what is the rain? The rain is a variety of methods we can use to encourage the development of the seeds of metta. There are four main methods that I’ve found useful: using words, memories, creative imagination, and body memory.
We’ll look at each of these methods in turn. Some of them will work for you, and some probably won’t. It’s best to try a few methods and see which suit your personality. But make sure you give any method you try time to work. Like seeds germinating in response to water, your emotions may take time to begin unfolding in response to the method you choose.
Often, the first thing I suggest when I’m leading people in a period of lovingkindness meditation is that they “sit with kindness.”
Sitting with kindness really means two things: 1. Sitting at ease, and 2. Sitting upright and open.
- Sitting at ease is the most obvious of these. If you’re being kind you don’t want to be holding yourself in a tense, rigid way. It’s not kind, for example, to force yourself into a cross-legged posture if that’s going to cause you pain. It’s not kind to hold yourself upright by sheer willpower in order to avoid slumping. What you ideally want is to find a way of sitting that’s comfortable for you, so that you can meditate without being constantly distracted by pain and aches. (Our Posture Workshop can help you with this.) And you want to notice unnecessary effort that you’re making in the body, and let go of that as best you can. Sitting with minimal effort is ideal.
- The other part — sitting upright and open — is less obvious. In fact you might think that if it’s kind to be at ease, you should lie down to meditate. The thing is, though, that if you’re really being kind to yourself then you have your own long-term happiness and well-being in mind. And while lying down helps you be relaxed, it doesn’t help you to have the kind of attentive mindfulness you need in order to meditate. Lying down to meditate promotes sleep, as anyone who’s done shavasana (corpse pose) in a yoga class will know. If you haven’t fallen asleep yourself while doing this at the end of a class, you’ll certainly be familiar with being surrounded by a chorus of snoring yogis!
The way you hold your body has a huge effect on the way you experience yourself. If you slump you’ll tend to feel sleepy, and eventually you’ll feel depressed. When you slump, your chest sinks in, your shoulders fall, and your chin moves towards your chest. The flow of your breath is restricted and your body and brain cannot function effectively. When your posture is like this it’s virtually impossible to be anything but depressed, and when you’re in this slumped, hopeless state, then it’s very hard to feel good about yourself.
Conversely, when your body is sitting upright, but relaxed, with your chest out and your shoulders back, and your head held high, then it’s much easier to feel good about yourself. It’s much easier to feel strong, and confident, and capable, and in fact it’s hard not to feel confidence when the body is sitting in this way. The breath is able to flow freely and the body seems to be alive with energy.
All of this can be summed up with the idea of sitting with dignity. A dignified posture is one while is upright and open, and also relaxed and at ease.
In a way our bodies have memories. If you remembering a time you felt confident and kind and recall exactly how your body felt at that time, you’ll find that kindness naturally arises.
Your posture, in fact, is a tool you can use at any time in order to feel kinder and more confident.
One of the simplest and most effective ways of connecting with our innate kindness is something I’ve borrowed from Jan Chozen Bays’ lovely book, “How to Train a Wild Elephant.” It’s an exercise she calls “loving eyes.”
We know how to use loving eyes when we are falling in love, when we see a new baby or a cute animal. Why do we not use loving eyes more often?
So at the beginning of your meditation, you can recall, or even just imagine, the experience of looking with loving eyes. You can recall, or imagine, looking at a beloved child, or a lover, or even a pet. Notice how you feel around your eyes and around your heart.
The sense of care, and appreciation, and non-judgement evoked in this way is transferable, so once you’ve evoked a loving gaze you can turn that sense of looking lovingly upon your own being.
You can kindly observe your breathing, for example, aware of this fragile human body as it takes care of itself with every in-breath and out-breath. You can be aware in a kindly way not just of the breathing, but of feelings (even painful ones), thoughts, and the mind itself. Regard them all with affection.
This practice, I find, is a very quick way to help a sense of kindness to emerge. And the body loves being loved! As mammals, we respond strongly to being touched or seen with genuine love. As you look with kindness upon your own body, you’ll often find that it responds by relaxing and by releasing feelings of pleasure.
Give this a try, both in your sitting practice and as you go about your daily life. You can start right now, as your eyes scan the words in front of you. Look with love. And then turn that loving gaze upon your own being. Then, carry that loving gaze into your next activity.
I’ve found it very powerful to spend time in meditation reflecting on the situation we find ourselves in as human beings. So you could try doing the following right now:
- Spend a minute or two first of all connecting with your breathing
- It will help if you start with the “kind eyes” exercise above, and regard your breathing, and anything else you’re aware of, with kindness.
- Take on board that you are a feeling being — that you feel pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering, and that your feelings are important to you. You prefer pleasure to pain, happiness to suffering. To check this out in your experience, remember times you’ve been unhappy and times you’ve been happy, and let yourself recognize which is preferable. Really feel this.
- Let yourself take on board that life is complicated, confusing, and hard to navigate. You don’t experience as much happiness and ease as you’d like to, and you experience more suffering than you prefer. And this is not a failing on your part, but just what it’s like to be human. We’re all fighting a hard battle.
- Having recognized all this, offer yourself some support and encouragement. Regard yourself with kind eyes. Say to yourself, “I care about you and want you to be happy. May you be well. May you be at peace.”
- Finally, choose one other person and recognize that everything above applies to them as well. Spend a moment wishing them well, too.
This way of reflecting on the human condition helps us to connect empathetically with ourselves. Instead of thinking that we’re failing when we’re unhappy, we come to see that we’re simply facing the inherent difficulties of being human. Instead of thinking that we need to be criticized for not being happy enough, we come to see that we need and deserve our own support. Kindness is now more likely to arise naturally.
And this empathetic reflection becomes the basis for having kindness toward others as well. Others, whether friends, enemies, or strangers, are in exactly the same situation as we are. Their suffering is just as real to them as ours is to us. Their happiness is as real to them as our own is to us. They’re equally struggling, and equally deserving of our support: one struggling being to another.
Just one more thing: sometimes reflecting on “this difficult thing of being human” (the title of one of my books) can bring up heartache or sadness. This is normal. It’s not a sign that there’s anything wrong with the technique. It’s certainly not a sign that there’s anything wrong with you! It’s just something that happens sometimes when we recognize that life can be difficult. The thing to do in the case of painful feeling arising is to regard them with kindly eyes, and to talk to them (see below) in a kind, supportive, loving way. What’s happening as you experience sadness or heartache is that some part of you is saying that it needs support. So give it the empathy and kindness it needs.
Using phrases is the classic method of doing the Metta Bhavana practice, and in fact I touched on this approach in the previous section.
I use this method more often than any other. There is no limit to the words or phrases you can use. Phrases for the first stage (cultivating kindness toward ourselves) could be things like “May I be well. May I be at peace. May I be kind to myself and others.”
Other phrases can be used, though. Please note that these aren’t “affirmations.” You’re not saying “I am well, I am at peace, I am kind to myself and others.” Studies have shown that for many people affirmations such as those actually make people feel worse, because on some level they know they’re lying to themselves.
So the form of the phrases is, “May I be…”
You could say things like:
- May I be at ease
- May I be free from suffering
- May I be safe from danger
- May I feel strong and confident
- May I be well in body and mind
- May I be healthy
Often I’ll use the second person “you” when talking to myself. You might want to try that and see if it works for you.
Above I suggested “may I be kind to myself and others.” I like to include that particular phrase because it’s helpful if we remind ourselves that the purpose of the practice is to cultivate kindness.
Three is a nice number or phrases to repeat. Any more and it can be stressful to bear them all in mind.
Leave time between each repetition of the phrases so that you have time to absorb the effect of the words. I often fit the phrases in with the rhythm of my breath. Often what I do is the following”
- Say “May I be well” on one out-breath.
- Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, observing the heart.
- Say “May I be at peace” on an out-breath.
- Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, again observing the heart.
- Say “May I be kind to myself and others.”
- Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, observing what’s happening in the heart.
It’s helpful to say the phrases to yourself as if you mean them.
When you’re thinking these words, you’re being active. You’re talking to the heart. When you’re listening for the effect they’re having then you’re being receptive. You’re listening to the heart. This practice needs you to be both active and receptive — actively working on cultivating kindness, and receptively watching what effect your actions are having.
Without those “silent breaths” where you’re observing the effects of the phrases, you’re likely to feel that you’re bombarding yourself with words. And you won’t be giving yourself the time and space you need to stay in touch with your felt experience, and so will lose touch with it
On the other hand, if you leave very long gaps between phrases you might find that you get distracted a lot. So choose a pace that’s most appropriate for you.
You also don’t have to use a phrase. You can just repeat a word like “love,” or “kindness,” or “gentle,” or “patience.”
The tools outlined above are all powerful ways of helping to set up the conditions for kindness to arise. They’re even more powerful when they’re combined.
I’ve laid them out in the order that I usually use them and introduce them in guided meditations.
So first I aim to embody kindness by remembering what it’s like to sit with kindness.
Then I recall an experience of looking with love, and then bring the feelings that arise in and around my eyes into the way I’m regarding my own being.
Then I’ll connect with myself empathetically, reminding myself that I’m a feeling being, that I’m doing a difficult thing in being human, and that I can be my own source of support.
Finally I’ll offer myself the support and encouragement I need in the form of phrases such as “May you be well. May you be as ease. May you be kind to yourself and others.”
Of course I continue to sit with kindness and to regard myself with kind, loving eyes as I’m doing this.
I do something very similar when it comes to wishing others well, too. I’m call them to mind and regard them with loving eyes. And I’ll remind myself that they, just like me, are a feeling being, that they too are doing a difficult thing in being human, and that they, just like me, need support and encouragement. And then the phrases (and continued kindly regard) become my way of offering those things: “May you be well. May you be as ease. May you be kind to yourself and others.”
This might just be a personal preference, and because it works for me it won’t necessarily be the most appropriate method for you, although as my teaching has developed over the years I’ve found this approach to be helpful for most people. But try out several methods — including others, perhaps, that I haven’t included here, and see which work for you and which don’t.
Part Two: Developing the Kindness Habit
Kindness Is a River
Rivers create their own valleys. Water flowing over rock and soil cuts channels, which grow deeper with every passing year. The contours of the channel then define the course of the river. The river creates the banks, and the banks create the river.
Similarly, our thoughts and emotions condition each other. They become habits. Our emotions give rise to thought, and our thoughts reinforce our emotions.
For example, when we’re in an irritable mood, our thoughts tend to find fault. The sense of being surrounded by faults reinforces our irritability. Our irritability makes us ignore good things that are happening around us, and causes us to focus on what we don’t like. So our emotions shape our thoughts (the river bank), and our thoughts influence our emotions (the river). It’s disturbingly circular.
How do we ever escape from a mood once we get into it? It seems that some people never do. I’m sure you’ve seen elderly people whose faces have fixed in a mask of disapproval and resentment. They’ve spend their lives conditioning themselves to find fault in everything. As a result they’ve conditioned themselves to be unhappy and unloving.
Fortunately there are influences on our emotions that we have a certain amount of control over. What a relief! This means that we can act to change our emotional states and escape from the kinds of ruts in which we sometimes get stuck.
More good news is that kindness too can become a more deeply worn habit. With practice, the parts of our brain to do with empathy, warmth, and compassion become more active and even expand in volume. And so lovingkindness meditation is not just about temporarily inducing a kinder state of mind. It’s about changing our brains so that kindness more and more becomes our default response in every situation.
There are several influences you can choose, that help you to be kinder:
- Your environment
- Your body
- Your thoughts
- Your decisions
- Your communication
We can use each of these in our meditation practice in order to help us break old emotional habits and to develop greater positive emotion.
It’s tremendously encouraging when we realize that we’re able to change how we feel. No longer do we have to be victims of our own emotional responses. No longer do we have to be compelled to repeat old and unhelpful patterns of feeling and action. With mindfulness — and with the tools for change that lovingkindness meditation offers us — we become happier and freer.
Our environment has a strong effect on how we feel. I notice that an untidy living space makes me feel bad about myself. And feeling bad about myself leads me to think that spending time tidying the space I live in is time wasted — after all I’m not that important (getting things done is the important thing. Conversely, when I spend time tidying up and cleaning my living space, I feel happier. So simply making a change in your environment is both a way of showing yourself kindness and a way of developing kindness.
If you’re in an emotional rut you can take a walk in the park, or in the woods, or take a hike in the hills, or take a different route to work. You can eat your lunch somewhere new, or go to a new coffee shop. These little things can help to shift a settled mood.
When you meditate, you can make your environment supportive of your efforts to develop kindness by creating a beautiful space to practice in. You can make an altar that is both pleasing and expresses your ideals. Candles, incense, flowers, and images that are meaningful for you can all help to create a sense of calmness and uplift. You don’t have to use Buddhist images of course. You can use images from nature, or pictures of figures that inspire you.
How you hold your body has a big effect on how you feel. When you’re depressed or feeling defeated, you collapse. Your chest caves in, your shoulders slump forward, and you end up staring at the ground in front of you because your chin is coming down to meet your chest. And when you hold your body like that it’s almost impossible to feel happy or at ease. When you’re anxious, you might well find that you shrink, so that you’re physically taking up less space. You might wrap your arms around yourself or otherwise hold them close to your body in a protective posture.
On the contrary when you feel strong and positive and confident you have your chest open, your shoulder back, and you look the world right in the eye. When you’re feeling confident you do the opposite of shrinking. You take up more space.
The really important thing about this is that it works the other way around as well. If you consciously change your body’s posture, you’ll change the way you feel. Having a more upright and open posture helps you to develop confidence and feel good about yourself.
This is one of the reasons why posture is so important in meditation. It’s not just a matter of being comfortable — you’re working directly on your mind through your body.
So if you struggle with being kind to yourself, and tend to get stuck is depressive states where you don’t value yourself or think that other people don’t value you, your posture is an easy place to start changing things. Keep noticing when you’re slumping and shrinking into yourself, and make a gentle effort to open up and take up more space. Take up more space with your arms, moving them a little away from the body. take up more space with your legs, for example standing with your feet apart. Make sure that your back is straight and that your chest is open so that you can breathe freely.
Studies show that just a few minutes of a more upright, open, and expansive posture can help you feel better about yourself and act in ways that show more self-confidence. This is very good news if you want to move from being down on yourself to being kind to yourself.
What and how you think has an effect on how you feel about yourself. If you’re constantly criticizing yourself, or finding fault with the world around you, you’re going to feel unhappy. If you have thoughts that are more forgiving, kind, and appreciative, then you’re going to be much more at ease with yourself.
Fortunately we have some degree of choice about what we think about. This is largely the basis of the Metta Bhavana practice, where we encourage the conscious development of thoughts such as “May I be well” that will give rise to kindness and feelings of wellbeing. If nothing else, while we’re saying things to ourselves like “May I be well,” we’re not indulging in self-criticism, worry, and so on. The lovingkindness phrases prevent the mind from doing so much negative thinking. But these thoughts have a positive effect as well. In wishing ourselves well we start to feel kinder toward ourselves.
We can of course do this outside of meditation as well. In fact since we spend far more time not meditating than we could ever spend in meditation, it’s particularly important to learn to recognize when we’re engaging in unkind thoughts. If you find yourself being self-critical (“Oh no, I messed up again. What an idiot I am!”) you can come back to the body instead of continuing with the criticism. You can turn your thoughts around so that they move in a more patient and kind way. How might you respond to a friend who said aloud, “Oh no, I messed up again. What an idiot I am!”? You might point out that everyone makes mistakes. You might suggest that in the great scheme of things the mistake they made doesn’t matter very much (will anyone care in 100 years?). You might suggest that it’s more important for them to look at what they can learn from their mistake.
So you can do this with yourself as well. Treat yourself as a friend. Talk to yourself as you would a friend. And do it in a kind, encouraging, friendly tone of voice, in contrast to the harshness and sarcasm of the way you criticize yourself.
Mindfulness helps us to observe how we’re thinking and how it makes us feel. As we begin to pay more attention to this relationship, we start to see how often we indulge in thoughts that make us unhappy by generating anxiety, ill will, feelings of powerlessness, etc. And that give us more choice and freedom. It gives us the choice to be kind. It gives us the freedom to let go of thinking that diminishes our sense of well-being.
Each time we decide to let go of a thought that we know to be unhelpful we make a small change in our habitual way of being. These changes actually shape the brain, helping us to create and reinforce neural pathways of kindness and patience. Each change is small, but we can make hundreds or thousands of such changes every day.
These thousands of small changes, over time, create a huge change in our emotional life. Watch the stories you tell yourself. And ask, are they helpful? If they’re not, then change them.
Just keep coming back to the question: “Am I being kind to myself and others right now?”
At every moment of your existence — any moment in which you are mindful, that is — you have some degree of choice about how you relate to yourself and the world.
When I find myself unhappy, one of the things I often do is to ask a simple question: “Is there anything you’re doing right now that’s inhibiting your well-being?” And I’ll simply check out my whole being — body, heart, mind — and see what’s going on.
Maybe there will be some tension in the body or find that I’m slumping (if sitting) or rushing forward (if walking). Or I’ll find I’ve been emotionally pushing back against something, or emotionally clinging to something I want. Or I’ll find that my thoughts are irritable or anxious.
And then I’ll just let go of anything I’ve been doing that it’s helpful in that moment. All of those little things I do that inhibit my sense of well-being are forms of unkindness, either toward myself or to others.
Immediately I’ll feel a lightening, and be more at ease.
And then it’s possible to let more gentleness, patience, and kindness arise through simple things: taking a full deep breath and then letting go; smiling; connecting with the heart; remembering what it feels like to be kind; offering a few words of reassurance (“It’s okay. It’s okay not to feel good. We can deal with this.”)
In any moment of our lives, there’s a choice between being kind or unkind. Moment by moment we can learn to make kindness a habit.
You’re a feeling being: someone who feels, and for whom feelings are important.
So is everyone else. You’re just like them. They’re just like you.
Your feelings are real to you, and there’s a big difference between being happy and unhappy.
The same is true for everyone else. Their feelings are as real to them as yours are to you. Their joys and sorrows are just as vivid to them as yours are to you.
All things considered, you prefer happiness, ease, and peace to misery, turmoil, and conflict.
So does everyone else. You’re just like them. They’re just like you.
Your deepest desire is to be at peace and to escape suffering.
This is every being’s deepest desire.
You’re doing a difficult thing in being human, going through life desiring happiness but all too often suffering in one way or another.
So is everyone else. We’re all doing a difficult thing in being human. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
So every time you’re talking to someone, watching them, or even just thinking about them, bear this simple thought in mind: “This person’s feelings are real to them, just as mine are to me. Let me remember that so that I can support their well-being.”
That simple empathetic perspective can begin to create a habit of empathy that will transform your relationship with others, and with yourself.
It’ll take time. It’ll take practice. But it will change you in ways you can’t imagine.
If you’ve been reading about these ways to cultivate kindness, you really should try the meditation practice, starting by cultivating kindness toward yourself.