In a previous post I discussed heartfulness as it relates to interpersonal relationships– bringing kindness and compassion to others. But, now let’s explore the equally important task of using heartfulness intrapersonally- giving kindness and compassion back to yourself.
(See previous post here)
Over a decade ago, I was counseling a young woman with chronic pain. She was a hardworking, single woman in her early 30s who suffered from the anxiety, depression, and catastrophizing thinking that compounds the struggles of many people with chronic pain. She was very judgmental of herself—her own worst critic—but not in a motivational/improvement kind of way. Instead, she was self-critical in a mean way that lowered her self-esteem and riddled her with worry and stress.
One-fourth of the behavioral medicine plan I worked with her on taught methods of self-regulation—biofeedback, self-hypnosis, and mindfulness meditation (link is external). After training her on each approach, I asked her to practice daily in between our meetings. As she became more mindful of her wandering mind, she realized many of her thoughts had to do with failure. We labeled this her “judging mind.” During mindfulness, she learned to use her character strengths of curiosity and critical thinking to objectively observe this “judging mind” as soon as it popped up. She learned to say— “Oh, there you are judging mind” or “That mean thought of ‘I’m worthless’ is just a thought. That’s part of my judging mind.” Then she’d let it go, and return to her present moment, feeling a bit more empowered.
After building in this mindfulness practice, I taught her loving-kindness practice, which involves attending to the strengths of love/kindness within yourself and consciously enhancing the positive feelings through loving imagery and phrases. After practicing this for a couple months, she returned to meet with me. I asked her how her loving-kindness practice was going. Her eyes widened and she noted with excitement: “I learned something important as I practiced—what I’ve been neglecting in my life is I can be my own best friend.”
She was, for the first time, initiating heartfulness toward herself. In starting to become a friend to herself, she was turning her character strengths inward. She saw that she was a person of value, that it was important to be kind to herself, and that she could be grateful for who she was. Her perspective was widening. She had come a long way in caring for her body over the recent months and managing her chronic pain.
Want to be deliberate about heartfulness?
No one would argue that being loving and kind to others is a good thing. Science supports this clearly. Love and kindness build relationships. But, turning love and kindness inwardly can be equally powerful. These strengths build your relationship with yourself,helping you to befriend yourself.
Researchers have only recently begun to unpack this idea that dates back to Buddhism 2,600 years ago—strengths can and should be directed to ourselves and it’s anything but selfish to do so because it makes us stronger and hence more available and present to others.
Research on love/kindness turned inward (references below) has revealed improvements in anxiety, social support, life purpose, mindfulness, and even physical symptoms. Long-term effects have been shown. Even brief meditation practice on love can increase positive feelings and social connection to others. Meaningful changes in the brains of people who practice with these strengths has also been found.
To learn this practice, often called loving-kindness meditation, follow these steps:
- Start with mindful breathing (remember mindfulness catalyzes heartfulness)
- Image a situation in which you felt loved by someone. Take time to feel the emotion of love in that moment.
- Mentally state and image these phrases:
- May I be filled with loving-kindness.
- May I be safe from inner and outer danger.
- May I be well in body and mind.
- May I be at ease and happy.
If you are looking for guidance in terms of how much time for each of the 3 steps above, consider something like 3 minutes for each of the 3 phases. After you practice a few times, increase to 5 minutes per phase.
Mindfulness catalyzes heartfulness. When we are heartful, we are expressing our best strengths to benefit others. We can also be heartful toward ourselves. Mindfulness and heartfulness make a virtuous circle that synergizes good within us and around us.
Cohn, M. A., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). In search of durable positive psychology interventions: Predictors and consequences of long-term positive behavior change.
Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(5), 355-366.
Hofmann, S. G., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D. E. (2011). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(7), 1126-1132.
Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5), 720-724.
Leppma, M. (2012). Loving-kindness meditation and counseling. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 34(3), 197-204.
Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: Effects of meditative expertise. PLoS ONE, 3(3), 1-10.
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing (link is external). Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Sears, S., & Kraus, S. (2009). I think therefore I om: cognitive distortions and coping style as mediators for the effects of mindfulness meditation on anxiety, positive and negative affect, and hope. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 561-573.
VIA Institute on Character: www.viacharacter.org