by Daron Larson
In his new book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story, ABC News anchor Dan Harris recounts a 2004 nationally-televised on-air panic attack, in large part fueled by an emerging drug addiction. That event led him on a search to discover practical ways to increase his contentment. He reflects, with humor, on his skeptical experimentation with mindfulness meditation.
One of Dan’s teachers recommended adding the concept of “loving-kindness” to a regular mindfulness practice. The idea of loving-kindness involves imagining the well-being of both the self and others.
Respected mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg describes loving-kindness as “the cultivation of a steady, unconditional sense of connection that touches all beings without exception, including ourselves.”
Social psychologist Erich Fromm described it as a way to cultivate an internal sense of friendliness, through remembering that human actions are driven by basic desires to be safe, happy, healthy and comfortable. As such, it requires regular practice.
“In the months after I started adding compassion into my meditation practice,” Harris writes, “things started to change. It’s not that I was suddenly a saint…just that being nice – always important in the abstract, at least – now became a conscious, daily priority.”
Harris also found that the exercise helped his concentration. “Acknowledging other people’s basic humanity,” he says, “is a remarkably effective way of shooting away the swarm of self-referential thoughts that buzz like gnats around our heads.
Emma Seppala, an Associate Director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, notes that a loving-kindness practice increases positive emotions, decreases negative emotions, supports feelings of social connection, decreases symptoms related to depression and PTSD, increases compassion and empathy, and helps curb self-criticism. The amount of positive emotion directly correlates with the frequency of daily practice.
To experiment with compassion meditation, set aside five to ten minutes a few times each week to imagine people thriving. Keep the focus on allowing, rather than forcing, feelings of friendliness and emotional warmth to emerge. Let curiosity, rather than perfectionism, steer exploration.
When unpleasant emotional responses arise, notice what they feel like in the body, without passing judgment. When no particular feelings appear, take the opportunity to savor the peace of emotional neutrality. When warmth or friendliness emerges, simply become acquainted with these feelings.
Here are some archetypes to consider while meditating:
Imagine joy and vitality displayed in the life of someone who has consistently been supportive. What activities make this person feel alive? Conjure the evidence of safety, happiness, health and comfort. Then take a minute or two to notice any emotional reaction this thought process evokes.
Imagine happiness and well-being in a friend’s life. What might that look like? Resist the urge to police the delight. Let her run on the beach, eat pumpkin pie with ice cream, and read gossip magazines in your mind. Remember that this game of imagination is about becoming more familiar with our own emotional responses.
Imagine contentment in the life a stranger, someone regularly encountered but whose back-story is unknown. It could be the man who whips up a morning latte, the woman who delivers the mail, or even a neighbor. Enjoy letting the mind fill in the unknowns. Get creative and enjoy.
This can be tricky, but give it a shot. Many people report finding it easier to imagine the happiness of others than to imagine their own. Consider what a safe, healthy and comfortable life would look like. Instead of getting hung up on one session, see if this gets easier to visualize with consistent practice over time.
Imagine a difficult person at a different stage in life. Zoom out to observe that person as a stranger. Try to remember to stretch compassion and flex creative muscle. It is about the experience of both mind and emotion. It is not about condoning or forgiving. Do not censor any reactions, just feel them.
See what it is like to try to imagine the happiness of everyone. Let the imagination note how it feels to picture all people feeling safe, happy, healthy, and experiencing some degree of comfort in their lives right now.
Daron Larson is a Mindfulness Teacher and Freelance Contemplative based in Columbus. For more information, visit Attentional-Fitness.com.