Big Love

It’s February. The month of love. Or at least the month of Valentine’s Day–a holiday that many people either love or love to hate. Often those feelings depend on a person’s romantic status. And sometimes the whole idea can leave us a tad lonely. Are we loved enough? Are we, ourselves, being loving enough? Cue eating the whole box of chocolates that we may or may not have purchased for ourselves.

But what if the month of love were a reminder that love takes many forms? Every language and every culture has many words for love. Valentine’s Day may bring words like eros and passion to mind, but don’t those words just represent one kind of love?

There is a concept addressed in every spiritual tradition that, in English, is most often called “lovingkindness.” In the Bible it is hecedh. In the Buddhist tradition, it is metta. In Judaism, it is chesed. These words all point to the same kind of love: benevolence, or unconditional goodwill toward all living beings–one’s self included.

We live in a highly polarized environment these days. At times, the outlook for unconditional brotherly/sisterly love seems bleak. But in the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Lovingkindness offers us the chance to lay down our anger, our defenses, our questions of whether we are loved or loving enough. It gives us a chance to reset our relationship with the world from one focused on not having enough love, to having so much love that we can give it unconditionally.

One way to cultivate lovingkindness is to practice it through meditation. There are many ways to do it and it can easily be adapted to prayer. One key element is that you begin with directing love to yourself.

Sitting quietly and comfortably, close your eyes and take a moment to notice the stillness of your body and the movement of your breath. Then offer yourself these statements of goodwill:

May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I feel peace.

After repeating these to yourself, think of someone for whom you have neutral feelings–neither particularly positive nor negative. Perhaps the person who you stood next to in the check-out aisle or someone you work with but have never actually spoken to. Offer that person the same statements of goodwill:

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you feel peace.

Now think of someone for whom it is difficult to feel positive feelings. Someone your heart feels hardened to. Remember that they, too, suffer at times and (knowing that it costs you nothing), offer that person the statements of goodwill:

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you feel peace.

Finally, come back to yourself again. Offer yourself these words of kindness once more:

May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I feel peace.
Now bring your focus back to your breath and body.

Research suggests that doing this practice regularly will make you feel more positively connected to others. It can be an active way to stop in the middle of your day and reorient your heart and mind when you have a sense of there not being “enough” love in your life. Emotions like loneliness, envy, or competitiveness might be a cue that a brief return to a bigger, more expansive, love-based approach could make your life, and the whole world, more loving and more kind.

It may be hard to remember how to do this exercise just from memory. If you would like a guided approach, try some of these options:

Lovingkindness Meditation from The Greater Good Center:

Lovingkindness Meditation by Jon Kabit-Zinn:

Lovingkindness Meditation by Sharon Salzburg:

Allowing Change to Happen

It’s finally fall! Like the leaves changing colors and the animals adapting to the cooler temperatures, fall is a time undeniable change.

And sometimes change is hard.

We often resist it. We make assumptions about what we think we want. We want to avoid change, we want to go back to the way things were before, or we want something to be completely different.

We have an illusion of control.

Yet, so many things happen to us—without our input. There is the story of the man who had his life turned upside down by a heart attack, the woman who lost her spouse to death and had to drop everything, the family who lost their home to a hurricane, the successful employee who was laid off when the economy tanked, the cyclist who was hit by a car, the pedestrian hit in a crosswalk, and so many more examples.

We have very little control over our lives.

Change is a normal part of life. Our job is not to control the change but to adapt and adjust. We are challenged with being mindful and finding joy despite the change.

Mindfulness helps us to stay present and connect with joy.

We can mindfully be aware of our current situation and observe it with a non-judgmental attitude. This shift in our attitude helps us to stop resisting the change in our lives.

So, what exactly is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is
1. Awareness
2. Of present experience
3. With acceptance

Mindfulness involves:
Paying attention
Becoming aware of present moment realities
Not judging whatever is happening as ‘good’ or ‘bad’

“The non-judgemental observation of the ongoing stream of internal and external stimuli as they arise”. Ruth Baer (2003)

“Keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality” (Thich Nath Hanh, 1976)

“Mindfulness is simply the knack of noticing without comment whatever is happening in your present experience” Guy Claxton (1990)

What Mindfulness is About:

Being present to our experience however distressing or upsetting it may be

Bringing us closer to difficulties but without becoming caught up in our reactions to difficulties

Slowly developing is a gentle grip on who we are
Settling in to our current experience in an alert, open-hearted way

You can start practicing Mindfulness today with this Take Ten Breaths Exercise.

Take Ten Breaths
1. Throughout the day, pause for a moment and take ten slow, deep breaths. Focus on breathing out as slowly as possible, until the lungs are completely empty, and breathing in using your diaphragm.
2. Notice the sensations of your lungs emptying and your ribcage falling as you breathe out. Notice the rising and falling of your abdomen.
3. Notice what thoughts are passing through your mind. Notice what feelings are passing through your body.
4. Observe those thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad, and without trying to change them, avoid them, or hold onto them. Simply observe them.
5. Notice what it’s like to observe those thoughts and feelings with an attitude of acceptance.

Change is hard. It takes practice to develop an effective mindful, accepting posture towards what we cannot control.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed by changel, it may be helpful to talk to a mental health professional.

Mindful Transitions is a team of Clinical Social Workers that is dedicated to helping older adults and their families. We can help our clients work through difficult changes.  To learn more about our services, please call us at (678) 637-7166.

How to Create Joy

NPR recently published From Gloom To Gratitude: 8 Skills To Cultivate Joy.  This piece covered the methods and outcomes of a program designed for caregivers for people living with dementia.  Life Enhancing Activities for Family Caregivers (LEAF) is a 6-week positive emotion regulation intervention that taught caregivers 8 skills in an attempt to build more positive emotions alongside the negative emotions.

Here are the skills taught throughout the program:

  1. Take a moment to identify one positive event each day.   
  2. Tell someone about the positive event or share it on social media. This can help you savor the moment a little longer.   
  3. Start a daily gratitude journal. Aim to find little things you’re grateful for, such as a good cup of coffee, a pretty sunrise or nice weather.   
  4. Identify a personal strength and reflect on how you’ve used this strength today or in recent weeks.   
  5. Set a daily goal and track your progress. “This is based on research that shows when we feel progress towards a goal, we have more positive emotions,” Moskowitz says. The goal should not be too lofty. You want to be able to perceive progress.   
  6. Try to practice “positive reappraisal”: Identify an event or daily activity that is a hassle. Then, try to reframe the event in a more positive light. Example: If you’re stuck in traffic, try to savor the quiet time. If you practice this enough, it can start to become a habit.   
  7. Do something nice for someone else each day. These daily acts of kindness can be as simple as giving someone a smile or giving up your seat on a crowded train. Research shows we feel better when we’re kind to others.   
  8. Practice mindfulness by paying attention to the present moment. You can also try a 10-minute breathing exercise that uses a focus on breathing to help calm the mind.  

Many of the participants reported an improvement in mood and a decrease in depression just by employing these practices. The shift from what isn’t working to what is working, or from examining what is so bad to what may still be good, can make a big difference.

This ties into another piece recently published, this one by the New York Times, on Washing Dishes. The author reframes the drudgery of life’s tasks as the good stuff in life. 

“But lately I’ve been wondering what that time and space is for. Implied in the quest for convenience is a distinction between the life we deem worth living and the life we have to endure in order to get there. One is a possibility, the other an obligation; one is a means, the other an end. Look at dishwasher ads from the 1950s, when the appliance became commonplace, and you see narratives of a life reclaimed, an escape from the purgatory of work into the freedom of leisure. Life hacks, multitasking, the ruthless compression of our daily routine: We still frame the ordinary as something that exists only for the thing beyond it, as a hazard to be optimized away instead of an organism to be nurtured and interacted with.”

(The whole piece is short and worth reading.)

When there are hard things in life that we cannot change, maybe we can shift our perspectives just a little to open up the small joys.