Section I - Developing our Capacity for Love Continued
Exersize 1. Smile, its contagious!
The relationship between our body and our emotions is very close. When we are angry, our muscles tense, our face frowns, our fists may even clench. When we are scared, our heartbeat increases, our eyes open wide, and we are ready to run. When we are happy we smile or laugh, our muscles are relaxed and even our movements are more graceful. Once again we tend to think that these are a response to the emotion, the emotion comes first and then has an effect on the body. Although this is the case, it can work the other way; our body can effect our emotions. You can try this now, just smile! Notice the effect it has even when there is no one around you. And if you take your smile into the world, this will affect how others feel. Notice how when you smile at someone he or she almost always will have a smile back. They almost can’t help it. So a good practice is just to smile at people, friends, relatives, strangers, even difficult people or enemies. Go for a smile-walk; you can feel as though you are on a mission to bring a spark of happiness to everyone you encounter.
Exercise 2. Give Gratitude.
This can have a very profound effect on our heart. So often we focus on the negative things in our lives that it blots out our positivity. But all of us have things that we can be grateful for. Do we have a place to live? Do we have enough to eat? Are we healthy? Do we have job, friends, parents, and children? Even the weather, our relationship with nature is something we can count as a blessing. In fact just being alive, able to see, hear, taste, touch, feel, and think is a wondrous thing, a miracle actually. So one thing we can do is to go over this list, perhaps as a start to the day, or as we go to sleep.
But there are also people in our lives to whom we will feel grateful if we think of what they mean to us, or what they have done for us. It can make a very big difference both to ourselves and to others if we give expression to our gratitude when others have done something for us. And don’t let it be just a simple “thank you”; it is far more effective if you say precisely what it is that you are appreciating. For instance, if you enjoy time spent with a friend, let them know; say something like “I had a great time tonight, we really laugh a lot when we are together”, or “thank you for taking the time to talk with me, I feel really good when I can bounce my ideas off of you”. Giving gratitude strengthens your positive feelings for another and usually will stimulate the same in them.
Exercise 3. Working directly on the heart
Find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed for about 15 or 20 minutes. Take a minute to just relax and put down the concerns of the day. Maybe a few deep breaths and tune in to how your body is feeling.
Connect with a deep feeling of love for yourself.
Now bring to mind the image of a mother and her newborn baby. See her as she looks at the child with love in her eyes. Try to imagine, try to feel what she is feeling. When you have got this feeling you will have the raw material for the rest of the exercise. So the first step is to ‘direct’ this feeling towards your self. This is a crucial starting point, for if you cannot feel love for yourself, it will not only be hard for others to like you but it will be hard for you to like other people. So just sit in this feeling, allow yourself to enjoy being loved and accepted just as you are. Doing this gives you the basis for empathy, an indispensable faculty for being able to love others. Stay with this feeling for a couple of minutes. If your mind wanders, and it most likely will wander from time to time, just bring yourself back to the feeling.
A good friend.
Next, bring to mind a good friend, someone you like already, preferably someone for whom we do not have romantic feelings for (remember we are trying to develop a feeling that can be directed towards all, not just those we are sexually attracted to). Once you have chosen someone, see their face, imagine them there with you and direct this feeling towards them. Do this for 2 or 3 minutes.
A Neutral Person
The next step is to choose someone who is neutral to us, maybe the postman or a store clerk. Someone we don’t really know very well and for whom we do not have strong feelings one way or another. Direct this feeling towards them, again for 2-3 minutes.
A difficult person.
Now we come to a more challenging step; we bring to mind someone with whom we do not really get along. Someone we perhaps even dislike, or who dislikes us. See them in our mind’s eye, and send the feelings we have been cultivating towards them. If you find this difficult just stay with it, try to imagine them with a smiling face, see them as being happy. Or imagine them as they were as a baby, it is harder to have negative feelings for a baby. Do this for 2-3 minutes as well.
Spread the love outward
Finally put all 4 of these people together in your mind’s eye. Send the exact same feeling to all of them equally. See them as surrounded by the feeling, participating in it. Then once we have this feeling established, start to imagine that this feeling in your heart is expanding outwards, engulfing those around you. Everyone in the building you are in, everyone in the village or town, everyone in the country, and so on engulfing all beings in all the world and in all directions of space. Stay with this feeling for as long as you can, and when you are ready, bring this exercise to a close.
Hopefully, you will have noticed that as you went on, you developed a stronger momentum of love growing within you. This is not only how it works within an individual exercise, but as you find more time to do the exercise, and to do it a number of days in a row, you will build up a momentum within yourself that will start to imbue your daily life and permeate your actions. To keep this up over weeks and months you will start to radiate this love, so that others may even be able to notice a difference in you, and your positivity will start to influence the world around you.
Excersize 4. Working with painful emotional states: press the ‘pause button’.
It is relatively easy to practice friendliness and love when things are going well, or at least not going badly. But of course our lives are not always this smooth. We will find ourselves subject to anger, anxiety, stress, and so on. Then there are more passive painful states like depression, laziness, and wilful indecision. Actions and decisions that proceed from these states will inevitably make things worse.
For instance if we are angry, we may feel like shouting, or saying something unkind, or even may wish to strike out at someone. Or if we are anxious, we can make rash decisions that we come to regret later. Then again with a passive state like depression, we may neglect ourselves, over-eat or indulge in drink to compensate. So when we are in these painful states it takes a greater effort to work on ourselves. But it is also perhaps the greatest opportunity to make real progress.
Press the ‘pause button’.
So how do we work on ourselves when we are prone to such states? The answer must necessarily begin by becoming aware of our state. Often these states come on quickly and before we know it we have done something or made a decision that we regret. So we need to start developing the habit of noticing our state. If we can do this, we can press the ‘pause button’ before we give expression to this state in our actions. Give ourselves some space to consider what consequences may come from any action we feel like doing. This does not mean we pretend we are not feeling what is there, just that we are not giving it a life in action. Indeed we are acknowledging what we feel and in this way we have a chance to work with it. Not letting it decide how we act is doing the work.
With anger it is easy to see how this would work; we notice we feel the anger, and press the pause button before we speak. Acknowledging the anger, we reflect on what would happen if we shout or strike someone. Acting out of anger is like picking up a hot coal to throw at someone, both parties get burned. We then can choose a different way to respond. You can decide to postpone your discussion another time or you may decide it is better to physically leave to another place.
With something like depression or laziness it is a bit more difficult to see how this works because these can often cause inaction rather than action. But the pause button works here as well, because even choosing not to act is an action, or at least a decision. So again when you become aware that you are in this passive state, you can pause and reflect on what happens if you do nothing. If you just lie on the sofa eating chocolate and watching TV while you are depressed, you will probably just perpetuate the feelings, undermining your self-esteem. You can make a decision to be more active, seek out a friend, or go for a walk in nature for instance. An especially effective remedy for depression is to do something kind or generous for someone else. Of course if your depression really is severe your best decision may be to get some professional help.
One of the first principles of developing character is to find ways to go beyond the narrow limits of self-interest. We have a natural tendency to define our self by our possessions, whether it is food, money, a car, a place to live, etc. These things make our 'self' feel more secure. So to give something away is to go against this inbuilt defence mechanism.
But the interesting thing is, that instead of feeling insecure, we start to feel more expansive, and more connected to others, which is a far more secure place to be. A wise man (who wishes to remain anonymous) once told me we have only two needs in life; to love and to be loved. If those two are filled, then all other needs will follow on from that. Generosity is an expression of your love, and almost always creates gratitude in the recipient.
At first this may be hard to appreciate, but the more one takes up this practice, the more clearly the relationship between giving and love becomes apparent and grows. And it does not matter if you are penniless, you can always give; you can give your time, your attention, your support, your help. Even a simple smile given to a stranger is a gift. This is why I say it is the most basic practice that anyone can take up in order to grow as a human being.
So what I advocate is to make a commitment, a resolution if you like, to give something to someone at least once a day. Do this consciously, make a decision and follow through. At first you may choose to think before hand what and to whom you would like to give. As you carry on, you may decide to wait for an opportunity to present itself. When you feel the impulse to give, and you will feel it the more you keep this up, act on it. Don't let the selfish voice in your head over-ride the love in your heart.
From this you can see there are levels of development in this practice. As it builds in frequency over time, a momentum of love starts to take on a life of its own. Eventually, you will see that even the gratitude you receive is a subtle way of getting something back from giving. So when you can feel this, you are ready for the highest form of generosity; anonymity. Give a gift without having the person know who it came from and watch your response. Part of you may be crying out to say "it came from me!", but just watch the feelings. You will soon find the purest enjoyment of the happiness of the recipient, without even thanks as a reward.
There is one other recommendation I would like to make. We are often encouraged to make a charitable gift to an organisation like a charity, political party or church. These gifts help good things to happen in the world, and I am not saying you should stop this. But I have found that by giving directly to an individual, the effect on me is stronger. I have in the past felt pressured by these groups, which can undermine the naturalness that should be present in giving. So if you do give to an organisation by all means continue if that is what you feel. Just don't count that as your one gift for the day, let that be something you have done for or given to an individual, at least at first in this practice.
I hope you decide to take this practice up. Give it a duration, say 3 months. If after that time you notice a change taking place in your heart, nuture that change, it is personal growth.