Embedded in every moment of suffering is a wish for peace, a desire for the situation to be met with ease, comfort, kindness, and goodwill. Compassion is a response to suffering. The source of it is love.
Love literally opens us, expands our awareness, and awakens otherwise unrecognized possibilities. Barbara Frederickson, author of Love 2.0, one of the most highly-cited scholars in psychology, and founder of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, is a leading expert on the science of love and positivity (find your positivity ratio – sadly 80% of U.S. adults fall short of the recommended amount).
Love has a powerful physical and biochemical basis in the body. The amygdala – the structure in your brain linked to emotional processing, oxytocin – a neuropeptide in the brain, and the vagus nerve – the longest nerve with the widest distribution in the body (running from your brainstem to your heart, lungs, and other internal organs) are the three central players. Oxytocin plays a key role in social bonding and attachment. Acting through the vagus nerve, it decreases cortisol (a stress hormone) and calms the heart rate, soothing our natural fight-flight response. It has the power to calm and connect us with others in a way that syncs our moods and bodies, as with infant and parent. The vagus nerve orchestrates your experience of connection by even stimulating facial and ear muscles to facilitate expression, eye contact, and vocal tracking.
Scientists can assess your capacity for connection, what’s called vagal tone, by measuring your heart rate in conjunction with your breathing. A higher vagal tone is linked with an increased ability to regulate physical and emotional responses leading to greater flexibility and resilience. The biochemical reactions in your body also alter the ways genes are expressed within cells.
Your body is constantly adapting to your internal as well as external environment! Positive emotions like love strengthen your mind-body connection and increase overall health. Research shows that behaving kindly to yourself and others raises your natural levels of oxytocin triggering a cascade of physiological and emotional benefits.
Love is the root of compassion and what we, as humans, yearn for at a deeply intrinsic level. It is a basic need. And thankfully, it can be found and cultivated from within.
To recap from last week, we began with self-compassion consisting of three main elements: self-kindness versus self-judgment, a sense of common humanity versus individuality, and mindfulness versus over-identification. Self-compassion leads to eudemonic (lasting) happiness and a sense of well-being rooted in self-acceptance.
This week in Compassion Cultivation Training, we hone in on self-love at the root of self-compassion and the practice of loving-kindness for oneself. Loving-kindness means:
- Seeing the good: cherishing your skills, talents, and abilities, having gratitude and appreciation for your life, having a friendly attitude toward yourself – one that is warm, caring, tender and non-judgmental.
- Embracing your desire for happiness: acknowledging and honoring your deep personal longing for connection, meaning, joy, and purpose in life.
- Moving toward happiness: recognizing that which fulfills your innermost needs and desires and discerning between things that will bring lasting happiness vs. fleeting satisfaction.
Loving-kindness meditation helps us to recognize that we are not our thoughts and emotions. Our true nature is much deeper, and our daily life is simply the raw material for our personal development.
To tune into loving-kindness, we can ask:
- What do I really aspire to?
- What do I wish to develop in my life?
- If anything were possible, what would be my gift to the world?
If you’re experiencing negative emotions, dig deeper: Does what you’re feeling now get you closer to satisfying your highest aspirations? If not, what underlying need or desire is at the root cause of your feelings? In your heart of hearts, what do you want most?
To deepen the practice, take action:
- Practice daily generosity: do something nice for yourself, even if it’s small.
- Stop and take notice of the feelings of gratitude that arise in daily life.
- Look for the good in yourself: think of three things that you appreciate about yourself at night before bed and in the morning to bookend your day with positive intention.
- Ask others for help: ask eight people to e-mail you just three things that they appreciate about you and keep the messages in a “Kudos to Your Name Here” file (via e-mail, print, or some other method) to refer back to in times of distress.
- Choose one of your top values and write about it for 10-15 minutes.
- Reflect on the people in your life who’ve inspired you.
- Repeat loving-kindness phrases in daily meditation: may I be happy, may I be healthy, and may I know peace.
Love is a capacity inside every one of us, a capacity for deep connection. Expressing loving-kindness for oneself increases our sense of purpose, social support, and satisfaction with life. This life-giving source of energy helps us develop natural qualities of goodness and compassion.
Colossians 3:14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Turn toward love to find lasting peace.