Overcoming the Obstacle of Doubt During Meditation

I have previously discussed a range of obstacles that can impact on our attempts at meditation – aversion, sleepiness, desire and restlessness. Today I want to concentrate on “doubt” as an obstacle or source of distraction during meditation.

Doubt is a common experience during meditation, particularly for people who are at the early stages of meditation practice.  We can doubt ourselves. whether we are doing it right or whether we are progressing at some ideal rate.  We can also doubt the process of meditation itself because we are so easily distracted, or we may not be experiencing the benefits that are claimed for meditation practice.

It is a common experience in learning any new skill, such as playing tennis, that we will have doubts and some confusion about what we are trying to learn.  It is also easy to give up when we are in the early stages because we are conscious of our incompetence.  Early on in meditation practice we are assailed with all kinds of obstacles and we can experience the strong temptation to give it away.  However, persistence pays in meditation as in other facets of our life.

We can find it really difficult to deal with the endless thoughts that assail us during meditation – the distraction of things to do, mistakes made, future pleasant events and related desire, impending difficulties or current challenges.  By letting these thoughts pass us by and returning to our focus, we are building our “meditation muscle” – our capacity to restore our focus no matter what the distraction or how often distractions occur.

With persistence in meditation we are able to bring our renewed level of self-awareness and self-management more and more into our daily lives – to overcome the challenges, tests of our patience and disturbances to our equanimity.

Overcoming doubt during meditation

Diana Winston, in her meditation podcast on managing doubt during meditation, provides us with some sound advice on ways to overcome these doubts as we meditate:

  • Accept the doubts – acknowledge the doubt as the reality of “what is” for you at the present moment. Focusing on the doubt and its manifestation in your body, enables you to name your feelings associated with the doubt and to “look it in the face”, rather than hide from it.
  • Don’t beat up on yourself – doubts assail everyone, particularly in the early stages of engaging in meditation practice.  The doubts themselves can lead to negative self-evaluation if you think you are the only one who has doubts.
  • Spend more time on being grounded during meditation – this process can take us out of our doubts and ground us more fully in the present moment.  Diana suggests, for example, spending more time on scanning your body for tension and letting go to soften the muscles in your abdomen, shoulders, back or neck.  Another suggestion she makes is to focus on the sounds around you – listening to them without judgement as to whether you like them or not, just focusing on the sound itself.
  • Remind yourself of your motivation in doing meditation – are you practising meditation to gain self-control, improved concentration, calmness in the face of stress, improved resilience in dealing with difficult situations or general wellness? If you can focus in on your motivation, you will be better able to sustain your meditation practice.  Learning any new skill takes time and practice and a sustained vision of the end goal.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can overcome doubts that serve as obstacles to our progress.  We can avoid the self-defeating cycle of indulging our doubts – our indulged doubts impact the effectiveness of our meditation which, in turn, increases our doubts about the value of meditation for us when we are already time-poor.

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Overcoming Aversion as a Barrier to Meditation

One of the weekly MARC meditation podcasts addresses the issue of overcoming aversion as a barrier to meditation.  Aversion is the last of five obstacles to meditation covered by Diana Winston in a series of meditations aimed to remove the barriers that stop us meditating or divert our attention during meditation.  In a previous post, for example, we discussed ‘desire‘ as one of these obstacles.

Diana points out that aversion may arise through boredom with the practice of meditation, resentment of the time that needs to be set aside to maintain daily meditation practice, or residual negative feelings from something in our lives.  These feelings may be anger over a job loss, frustration about not making progress with a project or residual feelings from conflict with someone at work or at home.   These negative feelings can result in our feeling reluctant to even start our meditation.

Diana suggests that the feeling itself – whether boredom, anger, resentment or frustration – is the starting point.  Just noticing what we are feeling, acknowledging it and understanding how it has arisen, can be the focus of our meditation.  We do not need to focus elsewhere or be tied to a routine or prescribed topic.  It’s enough to deal with ‘what is’ – what we are thinking and feeling in the moment.

What is important though is to treat ourselves with loving kindness – not beating up on ourselves for a lack of interest at the time or the presence of negative residual feelings.  A way to negate this negative self-evaluation is to engage in a further meditation focused on loving kindness towards our self.

Loving kindness meditation in the event of aversion to meditation practice

Loving kindness meditation can focus on our self and/or others – these can also be combined.  When using the loving kindness approach, it is recommended to start with loving kindness towards others and to use the resultant experience of ‘warmth’ to turn the focus onto yourself.

Having first become grounded, the meditation begins with a focus on someone you admire or love.   After imagining the person of your choice, the meditation begins with wishing them wellness, e.g. “May you experience strength, health and happiness.”

This then flows onto loving kindness meditation towards yourself.  Here, you extend to yourself similar wellness wishes and avoid any judgmental thoughts that could diminish your self-esteem.  The reality is that even experienced meditators encounter obstacles to their meditation practice, including aversion.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can learn to handle whatever comes our way, including obstacles such as aversion.  Loving kindness meditation extended to others and to our self, can free us from negative self-evaluation in the event of experiencing a meditation obstacle.

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Being Mindful About Our Thoughts

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Mindfulness of Thoughts, explains the role thoughts can play in our lives and provides options for using mindfulness meditation to control our thoughts.

Thoughts have a powerful influence over our lives – they can be positive or negative with consequential impacts on the way we see and experience the world.  They can express our perceptions of others and our experiences.  Our thoughts can extend to our needs such as who I wish to marry, where I would like to live, my ideal job, what I want to study/research or what I am going to do with the surplus in my life.

We also have thoughts that contribute to our pain and suffering such as negative self-evaluation, anxious thoughts, thoughts about grief or thoughts that engender negative emotions such as rage, anger, frustration or envy.

Being mindful about our thoughts

Mindfulness can really help us to manage our thoughts.  Diana suggests that a fundamental rule is, “Don’t believe everything you think”.  Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us too, “We are not our thoughts”.  Thoughts can be seen as real but, in reality, they are just passing through our mind, unless we cultivate and encourage them.

We can be trapped by our thoughts or create some space so that we have times when we are free from them.  Freedom comes from just noticing our thoughts as they pass by rather than being enmeshed in them and acting them out, particularly where they are negative.

Diana uses the metaphor of a passing train as a way to illustrate how one thought leads to another, which leads to another…as if they are coupled or joined together.  They become like a “thought train that leads us down a particular track”.  Before you know it, a lot of time can elapse and you begin to wonder where the time has gone – you have been lost in your thoughts.

By being in the present moment through mindfulness, you can stop yourself from going down that particular track that your thoughts are leading you along. Diana suggests that an alternative position is to visualize yourself staying on the platform and watching the thoughts go by, avoiding getting on the thought train, just letting the train go past.

Meditations to control our thoughts

We can build awareness by focusing on our breathing while noticing when thoughts arise and then returning to our focus – our breath.  This practice of noticing, not cultivating our thoughts, and returning to our focus, is a powerful way to achieve equanimity and avoid being disturbed and captured by our thoughts that can lead to a negative spiral.

A second meditation practice is to actually notice a thought and pay attention to it for a brief interval – just noticing it briefly and returning to our focus.  It becomes like a temporary aside.  We could notice that we are engaged in planning, critiquing or other frequent forms of our mental activity.

A third meditation practice is open awareness – like noticing thoughts as if they are clouds in the sky passing by us as the wind blows them along in a hazy way.

Each of these meditation practices can help us to be mindful about our thoughts and to learn to control them so that they do not control us and the way we experience, and relate to, the world.  Diana, in her meditation podcast, leads us through each of these meditation practices to enable us to experience the sense of freedom and control that comes from release from the binds of our thoughts.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that address our thoughts, we can develop a sense of peace and control and free ourselves to show up for our lives – not being held back by the heavy anchor of negative thoughts.

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Meditation and Mental Health

Jonathan Kryiger and Andrew H. Kemp, researchers at the University oF Sydney, discussed meditation and mental health in a blog post titled, Beyond Spirituality: the role of meditation in mental health.

in their article, they identify a number of benefits for mental health reported in research on meditation.  They indicate how meditation, both by expert practitioners and people who meditate for short periods of time, can result in positive changes in their body, brain, emotional regulation ability and rate of ageing.

Of particular note, is the ability of meditation to assist in the treatment and management of acute and chronic pain.  Particular forms of mindfulness meditation such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) demonstrate positive results in the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety.

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

While the generic benefits noted above can be realised through different forms of meditation, the focus of mindfulness meditations can vary considerably.  Throughout this blog, we have mentioned some meditations that target specific negative emotional responses that are injurious to mental health:

  • Forgiveness meditation, in which we focus on forgiving another person who has caused us harm or hurt, aims to reduce resentment which can undermine our self-esteem, self-confidence and effectiveness
  • Self-forgiveness meditation targets the never-ending cycle of self-criticism and negative self-evaluation which brings with it debilitating shame and guilt
  • Gratitude meditation can help to reduce depression which can disable us from taking constructive action in the various arenas of our daily life
  • Equanimity meditation helps us to replace mental agitation and disappointment with calmness and self-assurance
  • R.A.I.N. meditation helps us to face the “fear within” and frees us from the disabling effects of fear and anxiety that hinder our capacity to live fully and creatively
  • Somatic meditation enables us to get in touch with our bodies and progressively remove the emotional imprint of adverse events or trauma manifested in muscle tightness or pain
  • Loving kindness meditation focused on others can take us beyond damaging self-absorption and self-preoccupation and free us to access peace and happiness through the appreciation of others and their contributions to the quality of our lives.

The weekly meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA can extend the range of meditations we employ to target unhelpful and unhealthy emotions that impact the quality of our mental health.

As we grow in mindfulness through focusing our meditations on replacing negative emotions with positive ones, we can experience real growth in our mental health and our capacity to live life fully and creatively, develop loving and fulfilling relationships and avoid the downward spiral of mental illness.

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Replacing Shame with Kind Attention

Shauna Shapiro, co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, maintains that mindfulness practice involves more than paying attention.  In 2005, Shauna published an article with her colleagues titled Mechanisms of Mindfulness.  In that article, Shauna and her colleagues shared a model of mindfulness that shows that the effectiveness of mindful meditation depends on more than attention alone – it requires a positive interaction of intention, attention and attitude.

In one of her TEDx Talks, Shauna particularly focused on “attitude” because the attitude you bring to mindfulness practice actually grows stronger.  She maintained that her 20 years of mindfulness research confirmed categorically that mindfulness generates clear benefits for our mind and wellness.  However, these benefits are mediated by the attitude we bring to our mindfulness practice.

Shauna’s research and her own lived experience bore out the fact that everyone has a tendency to feel shame for some of the things that they have done in life and that during mindfulness practice, shame can take over and shut down our capacity to learn and develop.

What Shauna discovered was that the attitude required for effective mindfulness practice was one of “kind attention“.  In her view, it takes a lot of courage to face the parts of our self that we are ashamed of.  However, instead of dwelling on negative self-evaluation, which only grows stronger with attention, we need to be kind to ourselves and express self-love and self-compassion.  She found that the simple act of saying, “Good morning Shauna” each morning with her hand on her heart (as an expression of self-love), can begin the movement towards self-love and the ability to say, “Good morning Shauna, I love you”.

Shauna explained that at first this process feels awkward and trite, but she found from her own experience and mindfulness practice that it gradually replaces self-loathing with self-care.  She explained that what we pay attention to grows stronger.  So if we spend our day consumed by shame, frustration or anger, we are only strengthening these attitudes.  Whereas, if we focus on kind attention and genuine self-compassion, we strengthen those attitudes and thicken the part of the brain that enables learning, growth and transformation – a process called “cortical thickening“.

What is interesting is that not only does our neo-cortex thicken but also its connection to the “fear centre” (the amygdala) of our brain is weakened.  So that through continuously practising kind attention, we are better able to view the world and ourselves positively and act effectively in our environment, whether at work or at home.

Shauna told the story of a veteran who was consumed by shame for what he had done in the war zone but when he shared his story with other veterans, their compassion towards him helped to dissolve his entrenched sense of shame (contributing to his PTSD) and enabled him to experience self-compassion.  So, our compassionate attitude to others can also help them move beyond the disabling effects of shame.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practice imbued with kind attention and self-compassion, we strengthen our ability to concentrate, remain calm and make decisions that enable us to function effectively in our challenging world.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Become What You Practise

Last year, Dr. Shauna Shapiro gave a TEDx Talk on The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger.  In the presentation she highlighted the power of mindfulness practice by drawing on ancient wisdom and recent neuroscience.

Shauna maintained that one of the problems of modern society is that we hold ourselves up to impossible standards and expect perfection when this is not humanly possible.

Dr. Harriet Braiker epitomised this impossible goal when she wrote her 1986 book, The Type E Woman: How to Overcome the Stress of Being Everything to Everybody.  In that book, Harriet challenged women to stop trying to achieve perfection in all their multiple roles, e.g. the perfect spouse, mother, business partner/worker.  She argued that women where killing themselves trying to achieve the impossible.

Shauna stated that perfection was not possible but recent neuroscience has confirmed the long-held view that transformation is possible – we can learn, adapt and change.  Our minds are not a fixed entity but can be transformed through the facility of neuroplasticity.

Shauna who is a Professor of Psychology and co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, found through her research that one of the most powerful means of personal transformation is mindfulness.  This discovery reinforced her own experience of the power of mindfulness when she suffered a serious illness in her teens and had to cope with a pervading sense of loneliness and fear.

In sharing the challenge of learning mindful breathing in a monastery in Thailand, Shauna expressed the frustration she experienced with her wandering mind making mindful breathing a very difficult challenge.  She came to realise that part of the work of mindfulness practice is “to train the mind to be here, where we already are”.

In her presentation, Shauna stopped for a moment to engage the audience in a brief grounding exercise, involving breathing and posture, to reinforce the fact that despite our very best conscious efforts, our mind continues to wander.  Unfortunately, as she illustrated, what happens is our mind then starts wandering into the negative self-evaluation terrain – “What’s wrong with me, other people are doing it right”.

Shauna recounted that her saviour in her time at the monastery was a visiting monk who shared with her the wisdom of five words – “what we practise grows stronger”.  If we practise negative self-evaluation or impatience or resentment, this becomes embedded in our neural pathways.  Alternatively, if we practise being calm and focused through mindfulness meditation, that is what we become.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice or Tai Chi, we refocus our minds, change our neural pathways and open ourselves up to personal transformation on many fronts, not the least of these being greater calmness and focus.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Grow Mindfulness through Humility

I have been discussing being mindful at work.  It seems appropriate to draw on the lessons from superb leaders who turned their companies into great companies that enjoyed longevity as well as success.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins identified what characterised these highly successful leaders.  It was not, as you might surmise, their outgoing nature, their capacity to “sing their own praises” or their readiness to boast about the achievements of their companies.  These great leaders were characterised by two key qualities, “personal humility and professional will” reflected in their quiet, almost shy, demeanour together with their determination and resilience

I want to concentrate on the “personal humility” quality here.  Humility is closely linked to mindfulness in that genuine humility requires a level of self-awareness that is realistic and accurate and not based on negative self-evaluation.

Developing mindfulness through personal humility

Personal humility is a “road less travelled”.  Most people are either boastful of their achievements (a habit cultivated by our competitive society) or dishonestly “modest”.  The middle road is difficult to achieve but beckons when you want to grow in mindfulness and achieve its attendant benefits.

Shamash Alidina, author of The Mindful Way Through Stress, provides some strategies to develop personal humility in his insightful and comprehensive article on how to be mindful at work:

  1. Develop mindfulness practices  – as we have seen through the blog posts on this site, mindfulness meditations and activities help you to develop a genuine self-awareness that is neither boastful nor involves “beating up on yourself”.  These practices enable you to move from self-absorption (talking about your own achievements all the time in conversations with others) to recognition of what others have contributed to your present success.
  2. Being conscious of who has helped you – at any point in time, you can take a few minutes to focus on who has helped you to be where you are.  Being conscious of what you have it terms of work, colleagues and professional networks, can help you to develop a fine-grained awareness of those who have contributed to making you who you are and what you have achieved.
  3. Show appreciation to those who have helped you – this can be expressed towards people who have done even the smallest thing to help you, e.g. finding a resource for you or linking you to another person or idea.  If you develop the habit of showing appreciation in your everyday life, then it becomes a spontaneous act to do so in your work situation/ professional life.  Often we appreciate someone’s words or actions but fail to communicate this to them – we assume they know.  Expression of appreciation is an act of gratitude that builds mindfulness.
  4. Value the opinion of others – it is so easy to quickly dismiss the perspective, opinions or  views of others as if our stance is the right one all the time. However, being humble demands a recognition of the limitations of our own perceptions, knowledge and skills and an openness to others through respectful listening for understanding.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices, being conscious of who has helped us and showing appreciation and respect for their help and alternative opinions, we can progressively develop a true personal humility.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Barriers Experienced During Walking Meditation

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in the Power of Awareness Meditation Training Course, identified a number of barriers that you could experience during a walking meditation.   These relate to your internal thoughts and feelings and your physical balance.

I discuss three of these barriers below and offer some suggested strategies to overcome them:

  1. Loss of balance – you can experience a loss of balance because of the unusual slowness of the practice of walking meditation.  The way around this barrier is to go a little faster until you find a speed that enables you to walk with ease and maintain your balance.  Over time and with further practice, you will be able to walk more slowly without losing your balance.
  2. Invading thoughts – despite your intention to still your mind and the incessant internal chatter, you may find that, since you have stopped rushing to go somewhere,  your mind will become hyper-active.  You could be invaded with all kinds of thoughts, e.g. thoughts related to planning, negative self-evaluation, problem solving, or anticipation of a future event.  The secret here is not to entertain these thoughts but let them float by and bring yourself back to your focus on your bodily sensations.  This serves as good training for any form of meditation.  In terms of negative self-evaluation, it is important to remember that there is no right way as far as walking meditation goes.  You have to find the approach and location to suit yourself.  The main thing to achieve is slowing down with a focus  on bodily sensations.
  3. Strong emotions – sometimes when you slow down your pace of life through a walking meditation, some deep feelings emerge.  They could be feelings of anger, grief, disgust or any other strong feeling.  It is as if the hectic pace of life has enabled you to hide away from these feelings and avoid noticing them and naming your feelings.  The feelings refuse to stay submerged when your focus turns from rushing  to meet external expectations to focusing on you internal state, both physical and emotional.  In this scenario, it is possible to stop walking and begin a standing meditation where you pay attention to the strong feeling, accept its existence, investigate its impact on your body and nurture yourself by drawing on your internal resources – a process we discussed as R.A.I.N meditation.  When you have the strong feelings under control, you can resume your walking meditation.

As you grow in mindfulness through standing and walking meditations, you will develop strategies to overcome the barriers to your focus and, in the process, acquire a core skill that will positively impact other forms of meditation and your daily life.  Focus is the foundation for awareness,  productivity, creativity and social skills.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Who Are You Really?

You might identify yourself with one of the many roles that you have – mother, daughter, wife, sister, aunty, grandmother – or a past role, e.g. ex-wife.  Alternatively, you might describe yourself in terms of your profession.  However, you are more than your many roles or your profession.

You might identify with a demographic characteristic such as your race, age, gender, socio-economic status or nationality.  However, you are more than any demographic characteristic or the sum of those characteristics.

You could identify yourself in terms of a disability or a perceived deficiency such as disorganised, clumsy or lacking flexibility; but you are not your disability or your deficiency – imagined or real.

Jon Kabat-Zinn maintains that you are not your thoughts – you are not the narrative in your head or your negative self-evaluation.

So, who are you really?

Consciousness – more than your brain.

Scientists have identified the many parts, functions, and conditions associated with the complex organ – your human brain.  They have been able to highlight the impact of perceptions and emotions on various parts of the brain.   They can show how your brain interacts with your senses and interprets sensory data.   However, you are not your brain or any  characteristic of it – you are more than your brain.

While scientists are increasingly gaining intimate knowledge of the brain and its functions, they have not yet been able to explain what your “consciousness” or “awareness” is.  Numerous articles have been written about consciousness but each has failed to provide an adequate theory to explain the nature of consciousness – which is considered to be “the last frontier of science“.  Scientists struggle even to explain why consciousness is so baffling.

You can be conscious of your own thoughts or your connection with other people and with nature or be aware of the existence of your sub-conscious and its impact on your thoughts, memories and creativity.

Getting to know who you really are is a lifetime pursuit of self-awareness as you delve into the depths of your consciousness and explore the vast “spaciousness” that is involved.

Jack Kornfield suggests that you can narrow your awareness to an experience, such as listening to the birds in the tree, or expand it by opening “the lens of consciousness so that it can become like the sky or space”.

As you grow in mindfulnes through mindfulness meditation, you can deepen your self-awareness and explore who you really are – beyond the boundaries of your self-limiting identification.  It’s in this expanded awareness that you can find happiness, creativity and calmness.  Otherwise, you cannot realise your full potentiality.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Loving Kindness Meditation Towards Our Self

In previous posts, I explored mindful self-compassion,  the challenges in extending compassion to yourself and the power of self-compassion to transform yourself.   I also discussed compassion meditation where we are extending compassion to others.

In these discussion about compassion, we focused on pain and suffering experienced by ourselves and/or others.  In contrast, in the loving kindness meditation, we are exploring what is good and lovable in ourselves and others.

Loving kindness meditation can focus on ourselves or others.  In this post, I will focus on extending loving kindness to ourselves; in a subsequent post, I will explore how to undertake loving kindness meditation towards others.

The basic approach to loving kindness meditation

Diana Winston describes loving kindness meditation as the explicit cultivation of “open heartedness”.  She explains that this is a natural human process and is not false or artificial.   Diana contrasts loving kindness meditation with basic mindfulness meditation in that in the latter, it is essential to stay in the moment, while in loving kindness meditation it is okay and important to be creative in exploring images and loving memories about ourselves or another.

Jack Kornfield, in the online Power of Awareness Course, suggests that there are three elements that traditionally form the framework for a loving kindness meditation:

  1. Intention to express loving kindness towards ourselves or someone else
  2. Envisaging love for oneself or for another
  3. Cultivating the art of loving kindness – developing our open heartedness.

The benefits of loving kindness are numerous and can impact every facet of our lives – our interpersonal relationships, our sense of presence and the way we view every living thing.  Loving kindness meditation towards our self can be difficult because our culture cultivates the opposite – a sense of unworthiness or negative self-evaluation.  Regular meditation practice can overcome these cultural barriers.

If we experience thoughts or feelings other than loving kindness towards ourselves, we can accept them and make them the focus of our meditation too.  When we name our unkind feelings, we can learn to tame them so that they do not prevent us from extending loving kindness towards our self.  Diana Winston suggests that, in this way, these obstacles can become a cleansing process to free ourselves for self-love.

The process of loving kindness meditation towards our self

Jack Kornfield suggests that after becoming grounded and focused on our breath, we can think of two people separately for whom we have an uncomplicated love and appreciation.   Once we have each person in focus, we can extend kind thoughts to each of them in turn  – wishing them health and wellbeing, hoping that they will be safe and strong, wanting them to be happy.

We can then envisage these people individually extending similar loving kindness towards our self.   We can imagine them saying similar words or expressing kind thoughts towards us – wishing for our happiness, wellness, safety and strength.   We can then rest in the warmth of love and appreciation – something that is often below our level of conscious awareness, but which we act on in our daily lives.

As we grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation towards ourselves, we make explicit what we know implicitly, silence the negative self-evaluations that otherwise persist in our thoughts and open ourselves to extending loving kindness to others.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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