METTA: KINDNESS IN MINDFULNESS
Jeffrey S. Kahn, PHD, MAC, CGP, DABPS
The Pali word “metta” means loving kindness and, when cultivated in the practice of mindfulness, also is associated with compassion, equanimity, empathic happiness, and appreciation. Compassion, together with wisdom, comprise mindfulness, and are sometimes referred to as “the two wings of the bird”. Mindfulness is a quality which we all possess to some degree and which can be increased through practices designed to cultivate it.
Mindfulness is defined as “present moment awareness with acceptance” (Dr. Ronald Siegel) or “the awareness that arises from paying attention in a certain way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn). This awareness represents a different relationship to one’s sensory perceptions as well as to our thoughts and feelings: we become the observers of our thoughts and feelings, we are not our thoughts and feelings, and we do not assume they are facts and become swept away by them. Other perceptions and attitudes about our experience produce other feelings, and possibly, other actions. The ability to “just notice” our thoughts and feelings, calm and center ourselves, reflect on alternative understandings of events (including our own and other’s behaviors), and thoughtfully choose the most skillful and wise response, prevents impulsive (and perhaps harmful) reactions. Mindfulness also maximizes our ability to see things clearly, to see things as they really are. Remembering to “be here now” also minimizes anxieties about the future and depression about the past.
Kindness is the affective component of mindfulness. In Pali, there is only one word for mind and heart, so mindfulness could also be referred to as “heartfulness”. Cultivating it produces empathic, kind, forgiving attitudes towards ourselves, towards the ones we care about the most, and, ideally, further and further outward, to include all people. This attitude, directed at oneself, has obvious psychological benefits. Directed at others, kindness produces beneficial emotions in the recipient as well as in the giver—a non-zero-sum process.
While the origins of mindfulness and the practices used to cultivate it date back 2,500 years to Buddhist psychology’s goal of reducing suffering and increasing happiness, there has been a tremendous growth in its utilization in modern Western medicine and psychotherapy because of its dramatic beneficial effects, validated in over a thousand experimental studies. It has been integrated into numerous psychotherapeutic programs, including one called Compassion Focused Therapy, developed by Paul Gilbert.
For many people, cultivating wisdom and kindness through practices which can be quickly learned may be sufficient to alleviate moderate levels of stress and low mood. More severe emotional and physical pain may benefit from the addition of mindfulness-based psychotherapy. But the end product, the change, can be pervasive: if you are wise and kind to yourself, you will not do harmful things to yourself; you will do helpful and growth-oriented things. If you are wise and kind to others, you will not do things that are harmful to them and you will do things that are beneficial to them, showing your connection, compassion, and contribution to their well-being which helps them, produces empathic happiness in you, and which, almost certainly, deepens and strengthens your relationship with them.
May you be strengthened through the cultivation of mindfulness and may all the people you relate to also benefit.