Loving-Kindness Mindfulness Practice: Instructions for the Heart

When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive. —Thich Nhat Hanh

The world could use some extra love and kindness right now (and when can it not?). The COVID-19 pandemic revealed to us how globally interconnected we are–and that just as disease holds no regard for the artifice of borders, so too can acts of kindness have expansive effects, beyond our greatest comprehension.

In the words of the Dalai Lama, who co-founded the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education in 2005 in response to the question of how can we educate the heart, Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Even tiny insects survive by mutual cooperation based on innate recognition of their interconnectedness. It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.

The question that has continually arisen from my mind in recent times is: What knowledge and instruction do our hearts need at this time in order to grow?

Loving-kindness is a mindfulness practice that offers a wealth of benefits, from increasing positive emotions, reducing stress, to improving chronic pain. Remarkably, some of these benefits are received not only by those who practice loving-kindness mindfulness, but also by others who are (directly or indirectly) connected with the person practicing it.

Loving-kindness practices typically begin with cultivating feelings of self-compassion, then compassion for others, and conclude with returning to compassion for oneself. This is based on the principle that our capacity to offer compassion to others is generated by being compassionate towards ourselves. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that teachers with high levels of self-compassion are better able to emotionally support their most challenging students.

Self-compassion is defined by 3 elements: warmth and kindness towards oneself, a recognition of one’s common humanity, and a balanced relationship with negative emotions, so that painful feelings are not suppressed but rather are acknowledged and felt. As the origin of the word “compassion” translates to “suffer with”; therefore an integral part of self-compassion is to stay present with one’s own suffering, rather than abandoning it.

Love has been proven to heal: Research reviews show that therapies and practices that support the development of self-compassion are effective at mitigating depression. Physiologically speaking, compassion and caregiving behaviours (towards self or others) trigger the release of “feel-good” biochemicals like oxytocin, among other positive biological responses

A common mantra during the COVID-19 pandemic has been: Wash your hands. The act of washing our hands–individually and collectively–presents a compelling parallel to the cadence that loving-kindness practices share: We begin by washing our own hands (as an act of self care, to prevent ourselves from getting sick), to protect those we directly touch from getting sick (such as our families), and by extension, as an act of caring and protection for those whom we may never come into contact with–directly. We return to washing our own hands, after we come into contact with others, to again protect ourselves; a living demonstration of our interconnectivity. Thus, with loving-kindness mindfulness practices we follow this similar trajectory, coming full circle to self-compassion, as a perpetual springboard to expansive compassion towards others.

If you feel like you could benefit from more loving presence in your life, we invite you to try out this practice.

Loving-Kindness Mindfulness Practice: Heart-Mind Instructions

1) Begin by grounding yourself, noticing the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Then, inhale deeply into your lower abdomen. On your exhale, you might opt to squeeze your arms across your chest in an embrace, and linger for a full exhale. Take several deep breaths in this way.

Then, while taking care to allow each word to hold its full meaning, silently affirm to yourself:

May I be happy;
May I be safe;
May I be at ease;
May I be peaceful.

As you feel the full weight and warmth of each word’s meaning, focus your attention on cultivating feelings of love and kindness towards yourself. Repeat this cycle of phrases several times.

2) Then, while continuing to hold these intentions of loving-kindness, call to mind someone you love dearly, and affirm:

May they be happy;
May they be safe;
May they be at ease;
May they be peaceful.

Allow yourself to fully experience the love that you feel for this person. You might repeat this cycle of phrases several times, calling to mind close loved ones.

3) Next, call to mind someone you are acquainted with, and have neutral feelings towards, and repeat this practice above. It may be difficult to summon feelings of loving-kindness towards them; give yourself the time you need for these loving feelings to arise towards this person, and for the words to feel true to their meaning.

4) Expand this loving-kindness practice by calling to mind others you have further degrees of separation from, such as: animals, those who have passed on, and people you have never met before. If it feels appropriate to you, you might call to mind and hold in loving presence those around the world who are sick with COVID-19, those who have lost loved ones to it, and those who are feeling lonely and isolated right now as a result of the pandemic. Finally, call to mind someone who you are in conflict with or have a challenging relationship with, and extend your sentiments of loving-kindness towards them, as part of your practice.

5) Complete this loving-kindness practice by returning to yourself with compassion, repeating:
May I be happy;
May I be safe;
May I be at ease;
May I be peaceful.

Following this, you might spend several moments in warm silence, basking in the feeling of loving-kindness you have generated, before returning your attention to the world around you. Towards whom, or in what direction has your heart grown?