Episode 119 -- June 3, 2021

Loving-Kindness: Finding a Friend in Yourself

In her book A Kinder Voice: Releasing Your Inner Critics with Mindfulness Slogans, meditation teacher and psychotherapist Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart shares effective strategies to calm our self-critical mind. She presents readers with the ancient Buddhist practice of using compassion slogans, short, accessible phrases—much like the slogans of the Twelve Step program—that have the power to transform the heart and mind.

This excerpt explores "loving-kindness practice"—training that transforms our negative or critical thoughts about ourselves and in the process helps rewire our brain. We learn to use the same kind and compassionate voice with ourselves that we would offer a friend as we reflect on the highs and lows of our daily experiences on the journey of recovery.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Moving from Mindfulness to Concentration
In beginning kindness practice with ourselves, we move away from pure mindfulness practice, which is based on observing the mind without judgment and coming back to the present moment time and again. Now we begin to incorporate a more active form of concentration meditation. Now we hold an intentional, directed thought. We do think about something, giving a job to the busy monkey-mind that randomly jumps from point to point. We train ourselves to send kind and befriending thoughts toward ourselves, etching new neuropathways in our brains. We say a loving-kindness blessing and repeat it like a mantra, over and over again. In this way, over time, loving-kindness soaks into our mind, into the depths of heart and soul.

Put another way: Mindfulness helps us see how we are wired and perhaps become less judging about what we find. This practice begins inner transformation. Then we go deeper to plumb the depths of our mental habits. For this deeper level of change—releasing our inner critics and re-wiring our brain in new patterns—we add the practice of concentrated kindness and compassion. And in the process, we give ourselves the same care we'd give to a valued friend.

Hearing the Kind Voice of Another Person
Some of us need to incorporate the voice of another kind person to help us learn kindness for ourselves.

This was true for me after a seminar for helping professionals that I led in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The seminar had gone well for the most part. However, local administrators had eaten the first ten minutes of my session with announcements, and I subsequently went over the allotted time. When the clock struck 4:30—the appointed time to end—people became restless and started walking out. Seeing their backs through the exit pricked my shame. I should have cut out some of my material and ended on time. It was a chronic problem of mine, and I knew it. In the car on the way home, critical thoughts rustled:

  • They must not have liked the seminar.
  • I must have been dull.
  • I had too much material again.
  • I should have known better.
  • When will I ever learn?
  • They'll never ask you to present again—and that's probably a good idea.

Just then, a mindfulness bell rang inside my mind. You're being really hard on yourself! Nit-picking. What would it sound like if you were kind to yourself about your mistake instead?

At that moment, the image of a dear colleague came into my mind. A longtime Zen priest and psychotherapist, his voice is gentle and his smile crinkles up his whole face. Insightful in a razor-sharp and deep way, he also laughs with abandon at his foibles and mistakes. I could hear his voice and feel the radiance of his countenance. He would have said: It's okay. You're okay. The talk was probably good enough. You can let it go now. Think about what you want to do differently next time and then let it go.

Just then, I was able to hold on to my colleague's voice in me. The knots loosened in my stomach and I could breathe better. The cold numbness in my chest subsided. Ahhh... okay. I made some mental notes about next time and began to sing in the car.

When I walked into our apartment that evening, my husband said, "How'd the talk go, honey?"

"Well, it wasn't perfect. Next time I'm going to cut some material. But, it was probably good enough." And I meant it. That dry, hardened soil of my heart had loosened, now able to take in the nectar of love.

I didn't know about it then, but recent research has found that compassion practices such as this—generating a visual image of a compassionate figure who sends unconditional love—actually lower stress hormones such as cortisol in the body. As the "bad stuff" is decreased in the body, the "good stuff" is increased. Self-compassion has been shown to increase oxytocin, a hormone that fosters feelings of safety, generosity, and self-compassion.

Loving-Kindness Is a Limitless Quality
Not to be confused with a Hallmark-card feeling, loving-kindness is simply described in Eastern literature as the ability to befriend ourselves and others just as we are. This includes all aspects of ourselves, especially the unwanted parts—the crabby self, the intolerant self, the critical self, the scared self, and more.

Perhaps we fear that practicing loving-kindness toward ourselves will make us into an egoist or a narcissist. But, befriending ourselves actually begets greater compassion and tolerance for others. It's when we try too hard to be a good person by gritting our teeth that we run into trouble with the ego. Codependent resentment or exhaustion builds. We wonder why we haven't been appreciated more by others. By contrast, numerous meditation masters hold that if you truly love yourself, you'll more easily love others.

The practices in loving-kindness come from an ancient body of Tibetan Buddhist teachings called the Brahma-viharas, translated to mean the "Divine Abodes." These teachings say that there are four such Divine Abodes, or Sublime Attitudes: the qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Why are these considered divine and sublime? It is because each of these four qualities is the essence of our True Nature, the Divine Within. Each of these qualities is seen as sublime because they are spiritual in nature. We are instructed to begin with loving-kindness as the foundation for building greater compassion, joy, and equanimity.

Practicing Loving-Kindness
So how else do we practice loving-kindness meditation? Formal loving-kindness meditation uses mental recitation to encourage and expand our desire to grow the quality. We repeat a four-line stanza time and again in our mind, soaking it into our consciousness, absorbing it into our bones, holding our desire with our power of intention. A contemporary translation of the four lines offered by Sharon Salzberg in her book Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness suggests these lines for meditation, which are a good way to end this excerpt:

May I feel safe,
May I be happy,
May I be healthy,
May I live with ease.

About the Author:
Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart, a licensed psychotherapist for more than thirty-five years, was among the pioneers in recognizing the similarity between Twelve Step recovery programs and the ancient Buddhist path of mindfulness. Her books integrate meditative practices with the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, offering new insights into what it means to live fully—body, mind, and spirit—in the here and now. A noted lecturer and retreat leader, Thérèse is a recognized expert in contemplative meditation techniques and compassion-based cognitive psychotherapy and is the author of Paths Are Made by Walking: Practical Steps for Attaining Serenity (2003) and Mindfulness and the 12 Steps (2010).

© 2016 by Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart
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