romantic love

Seven ways meditation can help you be a better lover

woman holding a stick against a singing bowl

Although Buddhist meditation was originally practiced mostly by celibate monks and nuns, who were not only forbidden from having sex but even from having physical contact with the opposite sex, mindfulness practice can significantly enhance your love life. And by “love life” I don’t mean just sex, but your entire life with someone you’re emotionally and physically intimate with. But sex too!

Mindfulness Helps You Be Present for Your Partner

First, being mindful helps us to be present for our partner. So much of the time when we’re with another person, we’re not really there. Nowadays it’s common to see couples sitting together in a cafe, but focused on their phones. A modern prayer for couples might be along the lines of, “Lord, let my partner look at me with the same intensity they look at their phone.”

Simply being present and available for each other is essential for any kind of true intimacy to take place.

Mindfulness Helps You to Really Listen

And then there’s actually listening to each other. You know how you spend a lot of time in a conversation not paying attention to the other person because you’re busy thinking about what you’re going to say? Mindfulness can help us to recognize that we’re getting distracted and to come back to the present moment. When we do this, we’re able to communicate from a place of greater depth and authenticity.

Mindfulness Helps You to Avoid Judging

It’s very easy for us to put labels on our partner. We slip into the habit of labelling them “stubborn,” or “over-sensitive,” or “selfish.” These labels become mental traps for us, becoming triggers for our own reactions and preventing us from really connecting. Mindfulness helps us to see that our labels are unhelpful stories, and so rather than reacting to our own labelling (“There he/she goes again!”) we can stay in the moment and connect more authentically.

Mindfulness Puts You in Touch With Your Feelings

Mindfulness helps us to stay in touch with our bodies, and since our feelings are physical sensations taking place in the body, being mindful means that we’re more in touch with how we feel. One study showed that meditators were more in touch with physical sensations in the body than professional dancers.

One thing in particular is helpful here; many of the most important feelings associated with love are carried by the vagus nerve, which runs right past the heart. That’s why you experience heartache when your sweetie is away, and why you experience warm feelings of tenderness in the heart when you’re gazing into their eyes. Our ability to notice these feelings increases through practicing mindfulness. Also, the vagus nerve becomes more active (develops more “vagal tone”) when we practice lovingkindness or compassion meditation, and so the strength of those feelings actually increases.

Mindfulness Puts You More In Touch With Your Partner’s Feelings

Being mindful and paying attention to your partner, rather than to what you’re thinking about, helps you be more attentive. You are then better able to notice tiny “micro-expressions” that flit across the face in a fraction of a second. These micro-expressions are involuntary, and so they show what we’re really feeling, as opposed to what we want others to think we’re feeling.

In the context of a loving relationship the ability to pick up on underlying emotions allows you to be more empathetic.  Say you’re planning a trip and your partner says, “Sure, that would be lovely.” But you notice a flash of doubts or hesitation. When you pick up on those, you can ask “Are you sure you’re OK with this? You look like you might have reservations.” This gives your partner the opportunity to express their feelings more fully, and the empathy you’re expressing can help bring you together.

Mindfulness Makes You More Loving

Lovingkindness, or as I prefer to call it, simply “kindness,” sees that other people, just like us, want to be happy and don’t want to suffer. When we’re kind, we recognize that others’ feelings are as real and important to them as ours are to us. This means that we are more likely to to act in ways that respect their feelings.

Sadly, we often forget to be kind in our intimate relationships, and engage in unkind and disrespectful behaviors such as belittling, sarcasm, and criticism. Lovingkindness practice helps us to see such ways of acting as inappropriate and harmful, and helps us to relate instead in ways that help our partner to feel loved, supported, and appreciated.

Mindfulness Makes Sex Hotter

Lastly, the sum total of everything I’ve said so far, including our being more in the moment, more attentive, more aware of the body, more in touch with our own and our partner’s feelings, and kinder and more empathetic, helps us to have much better sex.

One study showed that women who were taught mindfulness became significantly more aware of their own physiological sexual responses and experienced them as more arousing than women in a control group.

If you’ve found this interesting you might want to register for our online course, The Path of Mindful Relationships: Exploring Romantic Love as a Spiritual Practice.

In short, if you want to have a better relationship, meditate!

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Meditation helps pinpoint neurological differences between two types of love

wildmind meditation news

Bill Hathaway, Yale News: These findings won’t appear on any Hallmark card, but romantic love tends to activate the same reward areas of the brain as cocaine, research has shown.

Now Yale School of Medicine researchers studying meditators have found that a more selfless variety of love — a deep and genuine wish for the happiness of others without expectation of reward — actually turns off the same reward areas that light up when lovers see each other.

See also:

“When we truly, selflessly wish for the well-being of others, we’re not getting that same rush of excitement that comes with, say, a tweet from our romantic love interest, because it’s not about us at all,” said Judson Brewer, adjunct professor of psychiatry at Yale now at the University of Massachusetts.

Brewer and Kathleen Garrison, postdoctoral researcher in Yale’s Department of Psychiatry, report their findings in a paper scheduled to be published online Feb. 12 in the journal Brain and Behavior.

The neurological boundaries between these two types of love become clear in fMRI scans of experienced meditators. The reward centers of the brain that are strongly activated by a lover’s face (or a picture of cocaine) are almost completely turned off when a meditator is instructed to silently repeat sayings such as “May all beings be happy.”

Such mindfulness meditations are a staple of Buddhism and are now commonly practiced in Western stress reduction programs, Brewer notes. The tranquility of this selfless love for others — exemplified in such religious figures such as Mother Theresa or the Dalai Llama — is diametrically opposed to the anxiety caused by a lovers’ quarrel or extended separation. And it carries its own rewards.

“The intent of this practice is to specifically foster selfless love — just putting it out there and not looking for or wanting anything in return,” Brewer said. “If you’re wondering where the reward is in being selfless, just reflect on how it feels when you see people out there helping others, or even when you hold the door for somebody the next time you are at Starbucks.”

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What does your heart say?

Heart-shaped stone sitting on a pebble beach

The Practice
Choose to love.

Why?
Many years ago, I was in a significant relationship in which the other person started doing things that surprised and hurt me. I’ll preserve the privacy here so I won’t be concrete, but it was pretty intense. After going through the first wave of reactions – What! How could you? Are you kidding me?! – I settled down a bit. I had a choice.

This relationship was important to me, and I could see that a lot of what was going through the mind over there was really about the other person and not about me. I began to realize that the freest, strongest, and most self-respecting thing that I could do was both to tell the person that we were on very thin ice . . . and to choose to love meanwhile.

See also:

To my surprise, instead of turning me into a doormat or punching bag, love actually protected and fueled me. It kept me out of contentiousness and conflict, and gave me a feeling of worth. I was interested in what the other person was going to do, but in a weird way I didn’t care that much. I felt fed and carried by love, and how the other person responded was out of my hands.

I got interested in “loving at will,” in how to go to the upper end of the range of what is authentically available to a person in terms of feeling or expressing compassion, good wishes, and warmth. You shouldn’t falsify what’s truly going on with you, nor let yourself be mistreated. But whatever this range is for you in any moment in any relationship, it’s your choice where you land within it.

I became less caught up in how I wanted the other person to think and feel and act, and more focused on my own practice of finding and re-finding some sense of love. It felt kind of like I was strengthening the heart like a muscle. I joked with myself that I was doing love pushups (not the sexual kind!).

If it’s authentically within reach, you can deliberately, even willfully settle yourself in love as a central quality in your mind. This is not phony: the love that’s there in you is genuinely there. In fact, choosing to love is twice loving: it’s a loving act to call up the intention to love, plus there is the love that follows.

Looking back, my shift out of quarreling and into a healthy feeling of lovingness helped things get better with this person. And the relationship taught me a good lesson:

Love is more about us being loving than about other people being lovable.

How?
Start with someone that’s easy to feel love around. Relax a bit. Take a breath or two and come home to yourself. Sense into the area of your chest and heart. Be aware of what compassion and kindness feel like; perhaps call up the sense of a time when you felt very loving. Ask yourself, Can I feel loving now? Open to a natural warm-heartedness. Choose to love.

Take a dozen seconds to open to feeling as loving as you can in your body. Take in this experience, let it sink into you. This will strengthen the neural trace of the experience – a kind of emotional memory – and make it easier to call up the next time. Also register the sense of deliberateness, of choosing to love.

Then try these methods with someone you feel more neutral about, such as a stranger on the street. Eventually try this approach with someone who is difficult for you.

It could help to be more aware of the other person’s stresses, worries, and longings. Without staring, look closely at him or her for ten seconds or so. Can you let your heart be moved by this face?

Get a sense of the different external and internal forces pushing and pulling the other person this way and that – perhaps leading him or her to do things that hurt you or others. Let your eyes relax, and get a sense of the bigger picture. Disentangle from the parts, and open into the whole.

Let love be there alongside whatever else is present in your relationship with the other person. There is love . . . and there is also seeing what is true about the other person, yourself, and circumstances affecting both of you. There is love . . . and there is also taking care of your own needs in the relationship.

Love first. The rest will follow.

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What do you call metta?

Dalai Lama

What’s your preferred translation of “metta”?

As a kind of postscript to our recent Urban Retreat, which was on the theme of metta, I’m going to share my thoughts about some of the terms people use, and propose an uncommon, but I think good, English term.

1. Lovingkindness

The most common English term that people use for metta is “lovingkindness.” That’s pretty much the standard term. A search for “metta is loving-kindness” on Google brought up 17,200 results.

What’s good about it?

It’s an old and well-established term in English. You might be surprised how old it is; it’s found for example in a 1611 translation of the Bible (this example is from the Book of Psalms):

I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation.
Withhold not thou thy tender mercies from me, O Lord:
Let thy lovingkindness and thy truth continually preserve me.

What’s not so good about it?

Well, how often do you hear people who aren’t Buddhists talking about “lovingkindness”? It’s a rare term, and because it’s rare it doesn’t resonate much on an emotional level. And so it’s rather abstract, and ends up suggesting that metta is something remote from our everyday experience; something we’ve yet to experience.

2. Love

Love is again less common than lovingkindness. A search for “metta is love” on Google brought up 34,800 results.

What’s good about it?

We can all resonate with the word “love.” It’s a very warm and emotional term.

What’s not so good about it?

The word “love” is very ambiguous, and we’re always having to qualify it in various ways, by specifying that it’s “non-romantic love” for example (but even that’s very ambiguous, because there are many kinds of non-romantic love, including love of our children, love or our country, loving chocolate, etc.).

And even the “love they neighbor” kind of love doesn’t necessarily fit very well with what metta is. For example, can you love your neighbor but not like them? Possibly, but it’s not very obvious to everyone what that means. But you can have metta for someone you don’t like.

Also, “love” is very much understood as an emotion — something we feel — while metta is a volition or intention — something we want. Specifically, metta is wanting beings (ourselves included) to be well and happy.

Which brings up another problem. “Self-love” has a bad reputation in the west, and it conjures up narcissism and arrogance.

3. Friendliness

Friendliness is less commonly used than lovingkindness as a term for metta, but it’s not uncommon. A search for “metta is friendliness” on Google brought up 2,180 results.

What’s good about it?

Friendliness is a good translation of metta, because it’s related to the Pāli word mitta, meaning friend. Metta isn’t about friendship, but it is about friendliness. It has the advantage of being a word in common use, and it’s one that we can relate to more easily than lovingkindness. Friendliness again is more of an attitude or intention, which is closer to metta’s role as a volition.

What’s not so good about it?

The word friendliness sounds a bit weak, and metta can feel quite intense (although it doesn’t have to). What do you think of when you call the word “friendliness” to mind? What images do you see? I see someone at a party, socializing, which isn’t really what metta is about.

4. Universal Love

It’s a term that used, although “metta is universal love” brings up only 9 results on Google. It’s found in books going back to the early 20th century, and I think it used to be more common. In my early days of practice, people would often say that metta was universal love, or universal lovingkindness.

What’s good about it?

Well, technically metta is an unbounded (appamāṇa) state of mind, which is to say that it’s not “bounded” (pamāṇa) by conditional relationships, which the word “universal” tries to communicate.

What’s not so good about it?

However, anything that’s “universal” seems pretty much out of reach. What images come to mind when you think of “universal love”? Are those images related to your day-to-day experience? “Universal love” suggests a degree of love that’s almost unimaginable. Sure, you have days when you’re in a good mood and you feel affection for lots of people, but do you love everyone? Every single person? That’s what the term seems to suggest. And probably because that seems to unattainable, “universal love” isn’t very popular as a translation for metta.

5. Goodwill

Goodwill isn’t a common translation of metta, but Bhikkhu Thanissaro, who has contributed the bulk of translations to the wonderful Access to Insight, prefers it. I only found 172 results, however, for “metta is goodwill.”

What’s good about it?

“Goodwill” is having a friendly or cooperative attitude, so there’s a close correspondence with metta. Thanissaro describes goodwill as “wishing the other person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that each of us ultimately will have to find for him or herself, and sometimes most easily when we go our separate ways.”

What’s not so good about it?

When was the last time you used the word “goodwill” or heard it being used? Perhaps on a Christmas card: “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men”? Perhaps in a business transaction: paying more for an asset than it’s worth? It’s just not a very common term. I certainly do talk about metta as wishing people well (which is another way of describing goodwill), but the term “goodwill” isn’t one I use much, or hear used, and it doesn’t really resonate with me. But perhaps it resonates more with you.

6. Kindness

Metta isn’t often translated as “kindness.” The phrase “metta is kindness” only brought up 88 results on Google.

What’s good about it?

Kindness is, like love, an almost tangible quality. It’s something we’ve all felt. We know we’ve experienced it within ourselves, and we can think of examples of people we know who are kind. And kindness is as much an attitude as an intention. What images come to mind when you think of kindness? I think of ordinary everyday situations, with one person being helpful and loving toward another person — perhaps someone who’s in trouble. So kindness is close to compassion, which fits with metta as well, since metta is the basis of compassion.

What’s not so good about it?

"My religion is kindness."

“My religion is kindness.”

Not much, in my opinion. Of all the terms we can use to translate metta, I think kindness is the most accessible, in that it’s part of our daily emotional experience. It’s easy to picture it. Think of the Dalai Lama’s smiling face: I think of his face as expressing great kindness. I think it’s closest in terms of describing a volition or intention: with both kindness and metta the intention is to help others find happiness. It does have a feeling quality about it — a sense of warmth and gentleness — but kindness is more defined by our intention and action than is the word love. Kindness is less ambiguous than love, and less over-used. It’s more palatable to think in terms of being kind to oneself as opposed to loving oneself.

So, out of all the possible options for words to translate metta, my vote is for that simple, accessible, appealing word, “kindness.”

What do you think?

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What do you give?

A monkey handing something to a person

Giving — to others, to the world, to oneself — is deep in our nature as human beings.

When our mammalian ancestors first appeared, about two hundred million years ago, their capacities for bonding, emotion, and generosity were extraordinary evolutionary breakthroughs. Unlike reptiles and fish, mammals and birds care for their young, pair bond (sometimes for life), and usually form complex social groups organized around various kinds of cooperation. This takes more smarts than, say, a fish laying a swarm of eggs and swimming away – so in proportion to body weight, mammals and birds have bigger brains than reptiles and fish do.

When primates came along about sixty million years ago, there was another jump in brain size based on the “reproductive advantages” (love that phrase) of social abilities. The primate species that are the most relational – that have the most complex communications, grooming, alpha/beta hierarchies, and so on – have the largest cortex (in proportion to weight).

Then early hominids emerged, starting to make stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. Since then, the brain has tripled in size, and much of this new cortex is devoted to interpersonal skills such as language, empathy, attachment to family and friends, romance, cooperative planning, and altruism. As the brain enlarged, a longer childhood was required to allow for its growth after birth and to make good use of its wonderful new capabilities.

This necessitated more help from fathers to keep children and their mothers alive during the uniquely long juvenile phase of a human life, and more help from “the village it takes to raise a child.” The bonding and nurturing of primate mothers – in a word, their giving – gradually evolved into romantic love, fathers caring for their young, friendship, and the larger web of affiliations that join humans together.

Additionally, our ancestors bred mainly within their own band; bands that were better at the give-and-take of relationships and teamwork out-competed other bands for scarce resources, so the genes that built more socially intelligent brains proliferated into the human genome. In sum, giving, broadly defined, both enabled and drove the evolution of the brain over millions of years.

Consequently, we swim in a sea of generosity – of many daily acts of consideration, reciprocity, benevolence, compassion, kindness, helpfulness, warmth, appreciation, respect, patience, forbearance, and contribution – but like those proverbial fish, often don’t realize we’re wet. Because of the brain’s negativity bias, moments of not-giving – one’s own resentments and selfishness, and the withholding and unkindness of others – pop out with blazing headlines.

Plus modern economies can make it seem like giving and getting is largely about making money – but that part of life is just a tiny fraction of the original and still vast “generosity economy,” with its circular flows of freely given, unmonetized goods and services.

When you express your giving nature, it feels good for you, benefits others, prompts them to be good to you in turn, and adds one more lovely thread to the great tapestry of human generosity.
How?

Take care of yourself. Don’t give in ways that harm you or others (e.g., offering a blind eye to someone’s alcoholism). Keep refueling yourself; it’s easier to give when your own cup runneth over – or at least you’re not running on empty.

Prime the pump of generosity. Be aware of things you are grateful for or glad about. Bring to mind a sense of already being full, so that you’ll not feel deprived or emptied out if you give a little more.

Notice that giving is natural for you. You don’t need to be a saint to be a giving person. Generosity comes in many forms, including heart, time, self-control, service, food, and money. From this perspective, consider how much you already give each day. Open to feeling good about yourself as a giver.

Give your full attention. Stay present with others minute after minute, staying with their topic or agenda. You may not like what they say, but you could still offer a receptive ear. (Especially important with a child or mate.) Then, when it’s your turn, the other person will likely feel better about you taking the microphone.

Offer nonreactivity. Much of the time, interactions, relationships, and life altogether would go better if we did not add our comments, advice, or emotional reactions to a situation. Not-doing is sometimes the best gift.

Be helpful. For example, volunteer for a school, give money to a good cause, or increase your own housework or child care if your partner is doing more than you.

Do your own practice. One of your best contributions to others is to raise your own level of well-being and functioning. Whatever your practice is or could grow to be, do it with a whole heart, as a daily offering to whatever you hold sacred, to your family and friends, and to the widening world.

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Portlandia’s Vipassana Romance

A third season of Portlandia — a Peabody Award-winning satiric sketch comedy television series, set and filmed in (and near) Portland, Oregon, and starring Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Carrie Brownstein, lead guitarist/singer for Wild Flag — is coming in January.

This preview clip features the venerable tradition of the “Meditation Crush,” also known as the “Vipassana Romance,” in which the silence of a retreat or meditation class allows the mind free reign to project our desires onto attractive yogis, and to create elaborate wish-fulfillment fantasies. Watch the clip and see how it turns out…

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Radical acceptance of desire

Vipassana romance between two tiny figures made from cardboard boxes.

When I was first introduced to Buddhism in a high school World Studies class, I dismissed it out-of-hand. This was during the hedonistic days of the late ‘60s, and this spiritual path seemed so grim with its concern about attachment and, apparently, anti-pleasure. Buddhism seemed to be telling me to stop seeking after romantic relationships, forego having good times with friends, avoid the highs of marijuana and give up my adventures in nature. In my mind, freedom from desire would take the fun out of life.

Years later I would realize that the Buddha never intended to make desire itself the problem. When he said craving causes suffering, he was referring not to our natural inclination as living beings to have wants and needs, but to our habit of clinging to experience that must, by nature, pass away, and that relating wisely to the powerful and pervasive energy of desire is a pathway into unconditional loving.

I first saw a glimpse of this possibility many years ago in what might be considered the hotbed of desire: romantic relationship. I’d been divorced for several years, and had met a man who seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. In our few casual encounters something had clicked and I was infatuated.

In the midst of the typical rush and excitement of such connections, I left for a weeklong meditation retreat. In the six years that I had been practicing Buddhist meditation, I’d attended a number of such retreats and loved the states of clarity and presence I touched there. But this time, instead of settling into even a semblance of mindful presence, my immediate and compelling draw was to the pleasures of fantasy. I was in the throes of a full-blown “Vipassana Romance,” as such fantasies have come to be known.

In the silence and austerity of retreat, the mind can build a whole erotic world around a person we barely know. Often the object of a VR is another meditator who has attracted our attention. In the time span of a few days we can mentally live through a whole relationship—courting, marrying, having a family together. I’d brought my fantasy person with me from home, and this industrial strength VR withstood all my best strategies for letting go and returning to the here and now.

I tried to relax and direct my attention to the breath, to note what was happening in my body and mind. I could barely complete two cycles of mindful breathing before my mind would once again return to its favorite subject. Then, with a stab of guilt, I’d remember where I was. Sometimes I’d look around and take in the serenity and dignity of the meditation hall. I’d remind myself of the freedom and joy of remaining present, and of the suffering that arises from living in stories and illusions.

This didn’t make a dent—the fantasies would take off again almost immediately. Hoping to get out of my head, I tried doing longer walking meditations on the snowy paths surrounding the retreat center. As my mind churned relentlessly onward, I felt self-indulgent and ashamed of my lack of discipline. Most of all I was frustrated because I felt I was wasting precious time. This retreat was an opportunity to deepen my spiritual practice, and there I was, caught up in wanting and off in the future.

After several days I had a pivotal interview with my teacher. When I described how I’d become so overwhelmed, she asked, “How are you relating to the presence of desire?” I was startled into understanding. For me, desire had become the enemy, and I was losing the battle. Her question pointed me back to the essence of mindfulness practice: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to our experience. She advised me to stop fighting my experience and instead investigate the nature of wanting mind. I could accept whatever was going on, she reminded me, but without getting lost in it.

While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural. The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment. It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive. Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness. The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening. Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.

In teaching the Middle Way, the Buddha guided us to relate to desire without getting possessed by it and without resisting it. He was talking about every level of desire—for food, sex, love, freedom. He was talking about all degrees of wanting, from small preferences to the most compelling cravings. We are mindful of desire when we experience it with an embodied awareness, recognizing the sensations and thoughts of wanting as arising and passing phenomena. While this isn’t easy, as we cultivate the clear seeing and compassion of Radical Acceptance, we discover we can open fully to this natural force, and remain free in its midst.

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Meditate for a date

Gabrielle Bernstein, Metro: Let’s face it: Though romantic relationships can be wonderful, sometimes they are totally nightmarish. While there are a lot of reasons romance can be tough, most of the time the chaos begins within.

The first step toward clearing a fear of romance is to accept relationships as opportunities for awesome spiritual growth. Rather than get all heady about what went wrong in the past, let’s focus on what you can change today. Outlined below are key principles that will help guide you to release fear in romance and cultivate more love in your life:

No one is sent to anyone …

Read the original article »

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Fill the hole in your heart

heart-shaped hole in wood

As we grow up and then move through adulthood, we all have normal needs for safety, fulfillment, and love.

For example, children need to feel secure, adolescents need a growing sense of autonomy, and young adults need to feel attractive and worthy of romantic love. When these needs are met by various “supplies” — such as the caring of a parent, the trust of a teacher, the love of a mate-the positive experiences that result then sink in to implicit memory to become resources for well-being, self-regulation, resilience, self-worth, and skillful action. This is how healthy psychological development is supposed to work.

But it doesn’t always go this way, does it? In the lives of most people (me included) – even without any kind of significant mistreatment, trauma, or abuse — the incoming stream of supplies has sometimes been a thin soup: perhaps your parents were busy caring for a sick sibling or preoccupied with their own needs and conflicts, or you moved a lot as a kid and had a hard time connecting with peers, or high school was more than the usual social nightmare, or potential lovers were uninterested, or jobs have been frustrating and dispiriting, or . . . in other words, a typical life.

EXCERPTED FROM:

Just One Thing
by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

book cover

Publisher: New Harbinger
ISBN: 978-1-60882-031-3
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

The shortages in a thin soup leave lacks, deficits, in key internal resources. For example, I was a year or two younger than my classmates, which led to a shortage of inclusion and valuing from them, which in turn led to a lack of confidence and sense of worth in groups that persisted into adulthood. The absence of good things naturally has consequences.

And so does the presence of bad ones. When blows land — when there is loss, mistreatment, rejection, abandonment, misfortune, or trauma — they leave wounds. Sometimes these heal fully, usually due to a rich soup of supplies. But often they don’t, leaving pockets of unresolved emotional pain like pus beneath a scab, while also affecting a person’s functioning like a lifelong limp from a broken ankle that never fully mended.

A lack or a wound will leave “a hole in your heart” — which gets even deeper when the two exacerbate each other. For example, I vividly recall the time a popular girl in high school really put me down; it was a minor blow in its own right, but my years of social isolation had left me with no shields or shock absorbers to buffer its impact, which was to make me feel awful about myself for a long time afterward.

So what can you do about your own lacks and wounds? You’ve got them; we all do. Life alone can be healing: time passes, you put more distance each year between yourself and the train wreck of your early childhood, seventh grade, first great love, last job, last marriage, or whatever, and you move on to a better place. But this essentially passive process of being carried by life is often not enough for a real healing: it’s too slow, or it doesn’t reach down deep enough, or key ingredients are missing.

Then you need to actively fill the hole in your heart.

How do we do this?

It’s fundamentally simple: you take in good experiences that are specifically aimed at your own lacks and wounds. It’s like being a sailor with scurvy: you need vitamin C — not vitamin E — for what ails you. For example, I felt both protected and independent as a child, so experiences of safety and autonomy as an adult — while valuable in their own right — did not address my issue: I needed the particular healing balm of experiences of inclusion and respect in groups.

Consequently, it’s important to know what your own vitamin C is (and sometimes a person needs more than one kind). Perhaps you already know, but if not, here are some questions to help you find out: When your lacks or wounds developed, what would have made all the difference in the world? What do you long for today? What conditions help you feel truly happy – and bring out the best in you? What sort of experiences feed and soothe a deep hunger inside?

More specifically, here’s a summary of some healing experiences – “vitamins” – targeted for particular lacks and wounds, organized in terms of the three motivational systems in your brain:

Lack or woundVitamin
Avoiding harmsWeakness, helplessnessStrength. efficacy
Alarm, anxietySafety, security
Resentment, angerCompassion for oneself and others
Approaching RewardsFrustration, disappointmentSatisfaction, fulfillment
Sadness, discontentment, “blues”Gladness, gratitude
Attaching to “Us”Not seen, rejected, left outAttunement, inclusion
Inadequacy, shameRecognition, acknowledgement
Abandonment, feeling unlovedFriendship, love

Once you have some clarity about the psychological vitamins you need, the rest is straightforward:

  • Look for these vitamins in your life; also do what you can to create or increase them. For example, I keep my eyes open for opportunities to feel liked and appreciated in groups, plus I prod myself to join groups to create those opportunities.
  • The vitamin you need is an experience, not an event. The point of situations in which you are protected, successful, or appreciated is to feel safe, fulfilled, and worthy. This is hopeful, because it gives you many ways to evoke key experiences. For example, if feeling that you matter to others is what will fill the hole in your heart, you could: look for signs that others wish you well, whether it’s the smile of someone making you a sandwich in a deli, the encouragement of a coworker, or a lover’s hug; think about the many people in your life today or in your past who like and appreciate you; ask your partner to be affectionate (and be open to hearing what would help him or her to do this); try to develop more relationships with people who are by nature warm and supportive.
  • Be willing to get a slice of the pie if the alternative is no pie at all. For instance, if you finish a tough project at work, focus on the sense of accomplishment for everything you got done rather than on a few loose ends; if a friend is warm and loyal, open to feeling cared about even if what you really want is romantic love.
  • Then, using the second and third steps of taking in the good, really savor the positive experience for ten or more seconds in a row while sensing that it is sinking down into you, giving you what you’ve always needed.
  • Have confidence that every time you do this, you’ll be wiring resources into your brain. When I started this practice myself, in my early twenties, the hole in my heart looked like the construction site for a skyscraper. But I just kept tossing a few bricks — a few experiences of feeling included — into that hole every day. One brick alone will make little difference, but brick after brick, day after day, year after year, you really can fill even a very big hole in your heart!
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Breathe in, breathe out, fall in love

A New York Times article about the phenomenon of “Vipassana Romance” (falling in love on retreat):

At that point in my life I had never attempted a full day of meditation. I was chain-smoking my way through a series of boyfriends because I had no idea how to be alone. I hated the cold spot in the bed and the empty hangers that rattled in the closet. Which is why I started meditating. I thought I’d try wading into loneliness the way you enter the sea, easing myself into the bone-chilling cold a bit at a time — first toes, then calves, then legs.

Today would be the first time I’d plunge in all the way. I was terrified. But after meditating Vipassana-style for a few months, I also knew how to handle that terror: I would place my fear in a display case, as if it were a diamond, and shine a spotlight on it. Breath in. Breath out. And so this is what I did for hours, until I itched with boredom.

Eventually, I allowed myself to spy on the other people in the room, their shoulders wrapped in blankets, hands fallen open, faces drained of expression. That’s when I noticed him several pillows away: a lanky man in a button-down shirt, his blond hair dangling over a delicate ear. It was hard to make out his face — I was sitting behind him — but I could see that he wore wire-frame glasses that were Scotch-taped at the joint. His corduroy pants had gone bald at the knee. His wrist peeped out of the sleeve, endearingly bony and frail.

Read the rest of the article…

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