Tons of scientific research confirms what anecdotal evidence has long maintained: kindness reduces pain and anger and boosts well-being. In this sixth and final installment of our Getting Started series, we explore the powerful role kindness and generosity can play in our lives and show you ways to incorporate it into your everyday practice.
We can be terribly hard on ourselves. For many of us, an inner critic sits on our shoulders mocking us, pointing out every misspoken word, every moment of irritation, anger, or impatience, every wandering thought or expression of greed or desire. The critic loves nothing more than to play on our feelings of shame, doubt, and regret.
It can be hard to resist the critic’s screeching accusations. But mindfulness meditation offers a remarkably easy tool you can use to calm yourself and mute the noise. Within that quiet space, you can find the room to express kindness, first to yourself (and to your inner critic) and then to others in an ever-widening circle, activating the nervous system’s self-soothing process.
At a recent retreat, meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach said, “Whatever we can’t embrace with love imprisons us.” Our ability to love or to wish someone well—including ourselves and the critic within us—allows us to be free. As you wish someone well, you disentangle from fear, resentment, and guilt. This disentanglement is liberating.
You can experience this for yourself with a simple exercise. When you encounter a difficult feeling, emotion, or situation, pause and take a couple of deep breaths. Then place the palm of your hand over your heart and pay attention to the feeling of warmth from the gentle contact with your body. Say a few words to wish yourself well: “I care about this suffering” or “May I be happy, peaceful, and live with ease.” Take your time, wishing yourself well, as you would a loved one facing a difficult time. Can you feel the tension easing from your body?
We experience a similar feeling when we extend good wishes to another. True, when we practice kindness, we feel compassion for the other’s suffering and rejoice in his or her happiness. But we also feel our own hearts open as we recognize that we all want to escape unnecessary pain and suffering.
Try the exercise above by sending wishes of kindness to someone. Genuinely wish him or her well. After a while, turn your wishes to yourself. Do you notice any softening in your feeling toward yourself?
In the next few pages, you will find exercises to help you strengthen the muscle of kindness and generosity. With a little time, you should be able to experience directly the change in your own heart as you extend wishes of well-being to others and yourself.