kindfulness

Practicing in balance

Photo by Jordan Steranka on Unsplash

There’s an unfortunate tendency these days to see mindfulness as being the only quality we need to develop in meditation, and that everything else follows automatically. But that’s not how practice works, or how it’s traditionally been taught.

Just the other week I had a conversation with someone who seemed rather proud that the only form of meditation practice he did was mindfulness of breathing. He saw this as being a complete and sufficient practice unto itself.

The problem was that his personality seemed very lopsided. He was very austere and emotionally dry. In our conversation there was no emotional give and take, and when I talked about a personal matter that was troubling me his responses totally missed the mark. It was like we were talking two different languages that, rather confusingly, used the same words to mean very different things. It was very perplexing. Although I think he wanted to be able to respond empathetically, he didn’t seem to be able to actually do so.

What was lacking was the balancing factor of kindness and compassion. There is a whole set of meditation practices to do with things like kindness, compassion, appreciation, and reverence. And those practices are important; they are not optional extras but part of Buddhism’s core curriculum.

Now some people are naturally warmer and more emotional than others. They may have very well-developed connections of love and affection in their lives. There may be a lack of balance in their practice, but it doesn’t become a big problem like it does with the person I just talked about. They may not even notice the lack of balance, in fact. But they’re not tapping into their full potential.

Now, mindfulness meditation can be taught with an emphasis on warmth and kindness. I do this myself, and call kindness plus mindfulness “kindfulness.” It’s possible for us to bring quite a bit of kindness into our experience this way. But even if we do, there is still an imbalance. We’re still not developing our full potential as compassionate human beings.

Mindfulness is wonderful. It allows us to see how the mind functions. So it lets us see how anger manifests, for example. And it gives us an opportunity to change the way the mind works. So when we observe that anger is making life unpleasant, we can choose to let go of angry thoughts. We might also realize that we have reserves of kindness and compassion available that we can tap into. And so, when we’re mindful, we may find that we’re also, quite spontaneously, a bit kinder and more compassionate.

But traditionally, kindness and compassion are not just faculties we can tap into, but faculties we can develop, strengthen, and deepen.

In the past we might have just thought of kindness and compassion as rather mysterious “things” inside us. But now we can see that they actually involve specific parts of the brain. Those parts of the brain, like any others, actually grow as we exercise them, in the same way as muscles grow when we use them. And the parts of the brain that are active when we’re compassionate are not the same parts that are active when we’re simply being mindful, so they aren’t exercised automatically as we practice mindfulness.

And this is why there are specific meditation practices to help us cultivate kindness and compassion. They use very specific mental muscles.

If we never did any leg exercises at the gym but only worked on our arms, we’d probably find that our legs did get a bit fitter. After all, if you’re standing and you’re holding weights in your hands your legs are doing some work. But that’s not the same as doing a leg workout. If you only worked out your arms, your legs would end up underdeveloped. This is what can happen with our emotions.

This is why in my own teaching, and in the teaching tradition I was trained in, both mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness practices were stressed equally. I was always encouraged to alternate these practices and to give them equal weight. In fact, as one of those people who was not naturally very emotional and with a tendency to negativity, I was encouraged at times to put more emphasis on lovingkindness practice. I needed to restore a balance that was missing.

And so that’s how I still teach. When I introduce people to meditation I introduce both mindfulness and lovingkindness practices. And I encourage my meditation students to, where possible, alternate these two approaches to meditation. Mindfulness and lovingkindness practices need equal attention so that we can become not just exceptionally mindful and aware individuals, but exceptionally empathetic and compassionate as well.

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The components of self-compassion

sunflower like the sun in hands isolatedThis post is taken from one of the emails from our online course, How to Stop Beating Yourself Up: Learning the Art of Self-Compassion.

Self-compassion is treating ourselves with the kindness, respect, and gentleness that we would offer to those we most love.

There are four components of self-compassion.

There’s mindfulness, which is the ability to observe our experience rather than merely participating in it and being swept along in it. Mindfulness requires that we stand back from our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and see them as objects separate from ourselves, rather than as what we are.

There’s equanimity, which involves accepting difficult experiences rather than denying them, ignoring them, or obsessing and ruminating over them.

There’s self-kindness, where we treat ourselves with gentleness, understanding, and compassion. Self-kindness requires that we recognize that we are feeling beings and that happiness and well-being are states we desire. These states can only arise when we treat ourselves kindly.

There’s the ability to put our suffering in perspective, which is where we recognize that we, like everyone else, are doing this difficult thing of being human. We all desire happiness, and find happiness elusive. We all wish to be free from suffering and yet encounter suffering over and over again. When we lack perspective, we tend to assume that there’s something uniquely inadequate and even broken about ourselves. We see our difficulties as a sign of failure. When we have a wiser perspective, we don’t judge ourselves, and in fact we may find that we have compassion not only for ourselves, but for others too.

These four factors work together in order to produce self-compassion. They’re not entirely separate from each other, but are manifestations of each other. For example, mindfulness, equanimity, and perspective are all expressions of self-kindness. When we’re kind to ourselves, these three other qualities are how we act.

These four qualities will be woven into all of the writings and guided meditations in this course, although at different times some will be emphasized more than others. Our first meditation, the “kindfulness of breathing” from yesterday’s email, principally brings together mindfulness, equanimity, and kindness.

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Kindness and personal responsibility

Ryan James Lock, Huffington Post: Lady Gaga and the Dalai Lama recently gave a talk about the importance of kindness and personal responsibility recently and the response has been amazing.

I’ve always been pretty interested in personal development and conscious living. Over the last few years, I’ve read more self help books than I can count- most of which were extremely helpful and some of which were….less than.

Whatever belief system the book, workshop, class audio or course was based on, one common thread ran through nearly all of the material and that …

Read the original article »

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Suck at meditation? You may just be doing it right

David Ferguson, The Guardian: I suck at meditating. I’m one of those perennially distracted people who knows they need to meditate, has meditated in the past with some success and who knows they should meditate more, but who finds it so much easier to do things like dishes, laundry and exercising than to schedule time to do nothing.

When I read this Forbes article touting mindfulness meditation as the “next big business opportunity”, my initial impulse is to grind my teeth in frustration. Co-opting a centuries-old spiritual practice as the engine of your hip new startup strikes me …

Read the original article »

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Our latest meditation CD: How to Stop Beating Yourself Up!

Wildmind’s newest guided meditation CD (and MP3) has just been published and it’s all about self compassion.

Most of us are far too hard on ourselves. We doubt our own worthiness. We talk to ourselves unkindly and often sacrifice our own well-being in order to “get things done.” Often we fear that if we stop criticizing ourselves we’ll cease to perform well.

Paradoxically, though, it’s people who lack self compassion who are more prone to stress and burnout, while self-compassionate individuals are more emotionally resilient, better able to face challenges, and overall more effective.

Self-compassion can be learned. It arises from developing four skills:

  • Mindful awareness, which helps us to recognize our mental habits, including that of giving ourselves a hard time
  • Acceptance, which allows us be with our suffering without reacting to it or seeing it as a sign of failure
  • Self-kindness, which helps us, in the face of difficulties, to give support, encouragement, and compassion to ourselves
  • Realistic perspective on life, which help us to see our problems in a balanced and mature way

Each of those skills—which are woven into the four guided meditations on this CD—can be learned through practice.

Self-compassion helps us to relearn our own intrinsic worth as human beings, and is an essential step toward having true compassion for others.

This CD includes 4 tracks:

  1. Kindfulness of Breathing 12:08
  2. Empathizing With Ourselves and Others 25:39
  3. Being With Difficult Experiences 19:56
  4. Four Steps to Self-Compassion 12:35

Total Running Time: 69:38

Listen to these two-minute MP3 samples:

Track 1: Kindfulness of Breathing

Track 2: Empathizing With Ourselves and Others

Track 3: Being With Difficult Experiences

Track 4: Four Steps to Self-Compassion

Purchase How to Stop Beating Yourself Up now as an MP3 download!

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Kindfulness of breathing (Day 12)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Do you find it a bit much doing lovingkindness practice every day? Do you feel the need to stay in balance by doing other practices, like mindfulness of breathing? I don’t blame you!

In our last special project, which was to meditate for 100 days (the 100 Day Meditation Challenge) we got about a week into it and then I realized I’d become a bit clearer about the intention behind the challenge. It’s happened again!

Someone wrote in our Google+ Community (a place where people are sharing their experiences of participating in 100 Days of Lovingkindness and giving each other support and encouragement) saying that she was getting a bit bored by doing only one practice, and losing her focus and awareness.

And this reminded me that when I’m teaching people meditation I always encourage them to alternate the mindfulness of breathing and development of lovingkindness practices. The two practices are complimentary: mindfulness of breathing brings clarity, calmness, and a better perception of what’s going on within us. Lovingkindness practice helps us to be more patient and forgiving with ourselves as we do this, and to be kinder toward whatever experiences we find. It’s like having a left and a right leg; you can make good progress by hopping on one leg, but it gets rather tiring after a while.

Lotus, isolated on whiteIn presenting this opportunity to focus on lovingkindness practice for 100 days, I didn’t have in mind either that people would do nothing but lovingkindness meditations, or that they would be able to sustain doing two full-length sits every day. So the suggestion was that in order to honor our commitment to daily lovingkindness practice we’d do a minimum of five minutes of seated practice. Now this could be five minutes of lovingkindness before doing mindfulness of breathing or (and this will make more sense for many people) do five minutes after.

But why limit yourself? You could do three minutes at the start and two at the end. Or you could (if you’re doing the four stage version) do a minute of lovingkindness at the start of each stage and one at the end. Or you could simply blend the two practices, by cultivating a loving gaze, and observing your breathing throughout the practice in that kindly way. I’m inventing the terms “Breathingkindness” and “Kindfulness of Breathing” to describe this approach to meditation.

It’s certainly not helpful, and completely contrary to the spirit of metta, to be rigid with ourselves. Although some kind of commitment to practice is vital, the attitude with which we do that practice is vital. It has to be kind, patient, and forgiving.

[Read the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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Kindly awareness

Hand tenderly cradling a rose, which is still attached to the bush

If your life feels like a struggle with the world, it may be that your real struggle is with yourself. But if we turn towards our experience with kindly awareness we can find the deepest kind of peace and happiness that comes from within

Mindfulness means paying attention. Simply paying more attention to our surroundings brings many benefits, but something interesting also happens when we also pay attention to the thoughts in our heads and the feelings that go with them.

Many people notice how hard we on ourselves we can be. There’s a constant commentary on everything we do, often including self-criticism, harsh judgments, chivvying and berating. That has an effect and those thoughts turn out to be closely related to stress, anxiety and depression. It’s hard to relax if you feel that what you do isn’t good enough.

That’s where kindness comes in. Noticing our thoughts helps us let unhelpful ones go rather than dwelling on them and that’s a way of being kind to ourselves. But feelings are important as well, and it’s very helpful to find techniques that help us respond to our experience with a sense of kindness.

The Kindly Breath

One way to do this is through using the breath. As we breath in we can imagine that the breath expresses a sense of kindness that enters and fills the body. Words or phrases can encourage that, so we can quietly repeat to ourselves ‘May I be well; may I be happy’, letting the words express a heartfelt wish.

In this way, kindness can be a part of a breathing meditation and it can help us to face whatever difficult situations, thoughts, feelings or sensations (like pain) may confront us.

Compassion for Others

Kindness for ourselves can open into kindness or compassion for others. Our own suffering can cut us off from others, and experiences like stress, pain or depression can make us preoccupied with our difficulties. Connecting with others can be a way out of that, and the kindness we develop for ourselves can grow into kindness or compassion for others.

In fact, one of the most popular Buddhist meditation, taught by the Buddha himself, practices is called ‘development or loving-kindness’ or mettabhavana. In this practice you develop feelings of kindness for yourself, a good friend, someone to whom you feel neutral, and someone you find difficult. Then you spread the kindly feelings to everyone in the world.

if you are interested in learning more about this practice, you can use this guide.

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