Many of the traditional loving-kindness phrases used in meditation (May I be happy, May I be free from suffering…) have been handed down over centuries, so it’s not surprising they can be a bit hard to connect with. For this reason, we believe that it is important to find phrases that resonate. This is especially true when we want to generate feelings of loving-kindness for ourselves: What we say must feel authentic to have impact.
The aim is to find language that evokes the attitude of loving-kindness and compassion. Here are some guidelines:
Phrases should be simple, clear, authentic, and kind. There should be no argument in the mind when we offer ourselves a loving-kindness phrase, only gratitude.
You don’t need to use “may I.” Loving-kindness phrases are wishes. “May I” is simply an invitation to incline the heart in a positive direction, meaning “If all the conditions would allow it to be so, then…”
The phrases are like blessings. They are not positive affirmations (for example: “I’m becoming healthier every day”). We are simply cultivating good intentions, not pretending things are other than they are.
We are simply cultivating good intentions, not pretending things are other than they are.
The phrases are designed to evoke goodwill, not good feelings. A common reason for difficulty with loving-kindness meditation is that we have expectations about how we’re supposed to feel. This practice doesn’t directly change our emotions. However, good feelings are an inevitable byproduct of goodwill.
The phrases should be general. For example, “May I be healthy” rather than “May I be free from diabetes.”
The phrases should be said slowly. There’s no rush—saying the most phrases in the shortest time doesn’t win the race!
The phrases should be said warmly, like whispering them into the ear of someone you truly love.
Finally, you may address yourself as “I” or “you,” or use your proper name (“George”). You may also use a term of endearment, such as “Sweetheart” or “Dear One.” Addressing yourself in this way supports the attitude of kindness and compassion.
Try it out:
- Put a hand over your heart, or elsewhere, and feel your body breathe. Now take a moment and allow your heart to open gently—to become receptive—like a flower opens in the warm sun. Ask yourself this question, allowing the answer to arise naturally within you:What do I need? What do I truly need?Let the answer be a universal human need, such as the need to be connected, loved, peaceful, free. If this need has not been fulfilled in a given day, your day does not feel complete. When you are ready, write down what arose for you.
- Now consider a second question: What do I need to hear from others? What words do I long to hear? If I could, what words would I like to have whispered into my ear every day for the rest of my life—words that might make me say, “Oh, thank you, thank you,” every time I hear them?Words that we would like to hear from others again and again are qualities we would like to actualize in our own lives. For example, longing to hear “I love you” probably means that we wish to know we are truly lovable. Open the door of your heart and wait for words to come. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to this possibility, with courage. Listen. When you’re ready, write down what you heard.
- Take a moment to review what you have written and settle on two to four words or phrases you would like to use in meditation. These are gifts you will give yourself over and over again. If you heard that you need “kindness,” “to belong,” or “more peace in my life,” maybe the wishes can become:May I begin to be kind to myself, May I know that I belong, May I live in peace.“I love you” can become the wish May I love myself just as I am.“I’m here for you” can become the wish May I feel safe and secure. “You’re a good person” can become the wish May I know my own goodness.
- Finally, try out your phrases to see how they land. Begin saying them over and over, slowly and gently, allowing them to resonate within you. Let the words take up space, allow them to fill your being, if only for this one moment. Then gently release them and rest in the experience.
Excerpted from The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff, PhD, and Christopher Germer, PhD. © 2018 Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. Reprinted by permission of Guilford Press.