If your life feels like a struggle with the world, it may be that your real struggle is with yourself. But if we turn towards our experience with kindly awareness we can find the deepest kind of peace and happiness that comes from within
Mindfulness means paying attention. Simply paying more attention to our surroundings brings many benefits, but something interesting also happens when we also pay attention to the thoughts in our heads and the feelings that go with them.
Many people notice how hard we on ourselves we can be. There’s a constant commentary on everything we do, often including self-criticism, harsh judgments, chivvying and berating. That has an effect and those thoughts turn out to be closely related to stress, anxiety and depression. It’s hard to relax if you feel that what you do isn’t good enough. As the Dalai Lama says, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”
That’s where kindness comes in. Noticing our thoughts helps us let unhelpful ones go rather than dwelling on them and that’s a way of being kind to ourselves. But feelings are important as well, and it’s very helpful to find techniques that help us respond to our experience with a sense of kindness.
The Kindly Breath
One way to do this is through using the breath. As we breath in we can imagine that the breath expresses a sense of kindness that enters and fills the body. Words or phrases can encourage that, so we can quietly repeat to ourselves ‘May I be well; may I be happy’, letting the words express a heartfelt wish.
In this way, kindness can be a part of a breathing meditation and it can help us to face whatever difficult situations, thoughts, feelings or sensations (like pain) may confront us.
Compassion for Others
Kindness for ourselves can open into kindness or compassion for others. Our own suffering can cut us off from others, and experiences like stress, pain or depression can make us preoccupied with our difficulties. Connecting with others can be a way out of that, and the kindness we develop for ourselves can grow into kindness or compassion for others.
In fact, one of the most popular Buddhist meditation, taught by the Buddha himself, practices is called ‘development or loving-kindness’ or mettabhavana. In this practice you develop feelings of kindness for yourself, a good friend, someone to whom you feel neutral, and someone you find difficult. Then you spread the kindly feelings to everyone in the world.
We touch on loving kindness meditation on the eight-week mindfulness course and I will be teaching it more fully on the Level II Course for Mindfulness Graduates this Autumn. Meanwhile, if you are interested in learning more about this practice, I recommend the excellent guide on the Wildmind site. It also has links to guided meditation CDs and other resources.