Add kindness to your meditation toolkit

It’s time for part three in the toolkit series. In previous episodes, we explored the value of diligence and patience as meditation tools. Today, we’ll look at how kindness facilitates your practice. I’m talking primarily about practicing kindness toward yourself, but kindness toward others comes into play here, too.

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To begin with, let’s note that practicing meditation is being kind to yourself. Sitting regularly teaches you to focus on the present moment and to transform your habitual reactions. The practice brings you a wealth of cognitive, physical health, and emotional health benefits.

But your meditation practice also benefits others. For those who worry that taking time out to meditate is selfish, it’s important to be aware of the ways your mindfulness benefits those around you.

Mindfulness teaches you to be more present for others, so you listen more deeply to them, understand them better, and demonstrate more compassion for them. You become calmer and are, therefore, better able to negotiate conflict and help others. You may even be better at avoiding conflict to begin with, because you’ll be able to gain a broader perspective on the actions of others. This small sample of benefits demonstrates that your mindfulness practice is not selfish at all.

Kindness is also valuable because it is a partner to patience when you come up against obstacles or distractions in meditation. I use the term obstacles a lot in my blogs, but the things that seem to get in your way when you meditate are only obstacles because you react to them as if they are obstacles. 

Thoughts, for example, cause a lot of concern for some meditators, especially beginners. You might worry that having a thought is problematic, because it takes your attention away from the breath where you think it is supposed to be.

But, a thought is just a thought. It isn’t a problem or an obstacle. It is simply something to notice and then let go of so you can get back to focusing on the breath. But if you react toward that thought with frustration, impatience, concern, etc. or, if you start thinking of yourself as a poor meditator because you had a thought, you create a problem that wasn’t there to begin with.

Learning to sit with thoughts typically happens in stages. The first stage is to notice your thoughts – because prior to learning to mediate, many of us don’t even realize how active our mind is. We don’t notice that our thoughts are separate from us and that we can observe ourselves having thoughts.

Stage two involves noticing how you react to your thoughts. Most people start off having negative reactions to their thoughts, because they judge thoughts to be obstacles to their meditation.

The third stage is accepting then letting go of both the thoughts and your reactions to them. To get to this phase, you need kindness. You need to realize that it was your reactions to the thoughts that created the distraction, not the thoughts themselves.

And you need to be kind to yourself when you make this discovery. Realize that being upset or judgemental was your way of trying to get the meditation right. You were reacting in the best way you knew how, but now you’ve discovered a better way, to avoid reacting automatically as if thoughts were problems.

Kindness allows you to forgive yourself for making mistakes during the learning process. And you certainly should be kind about this. Any good teacher will tell you that making mistakes is an essential and integral part of the learning process. Be kind to yourself. Celebrate your mistakes and the things they’ve taught you!

The same approach can be applied to any “obstacle” that comes up: perhaps your legs go numb or you develop mild aches during a meditation session. These are not problems. They are simply physical sensations. It’s how you respond to them that turns them into problems, and with practice, patience, and kindness, you will learn how to accept them without reacting to them negatively.

Kindness is also helpful when you’ve been less than diligent in your meditation habit. If you miss a meditation, for example, be kind and forgive yourself.

There is, however, something to watch out for here. You need to carefully examine your excuses for skipping or shortening your practice, and balance kindness with diligence. That’s why I started the series with a discussion of diligence.

If you’re diligent, you can find a work-around for almost every situation that can come up to derail your practice plans. Strive to practice diligently, but, when you do fail, treat yourself kindly. Accept that you’re a beautiful, but imperfect human being who slipped up. You’re not a bad person. You just didn’t act as skillfully as you could have. Be gentle with yourself, but then put diligence back into play and get right back on schedule.

Some people resist the idea of being kind toward themselves. They have learned, instead, to be hard on themselves. If you’re one of these people, let me ask you this, When you’re hard on yourself, how do you feel? Do you feel motivated and inspired, or do you feel bad about yourself? I venture to guess that it’s the latter.

Accepting that you’re an imperfect person and allowing yourself to make mistakes creates a supportive environment in which to learn and grow. And remember, I recommend practicing kindness in concert with diligence. Being kind isn’t about accepting all of your excuses without challenging them. It’s about letting go of a temporary setback and objectively examining what went wrong so you can get right back on track.

The benefit of kindness is that it helps you be patient with unsatisfying situations so you can persist in the practice. And that’s what we’re aiming for here, persistence, because the benefits of mindfulness come only with regular practice.

Practicing kindness pays off in another way, too. Kindness is a skill that grows with practice. You can turn that skill toward others, too. Last week, I suggested that you practice patience when another person inspires a negative reaction from you. I recommended pausing for one full breath before responding to that person. It is much easier to practice patience if you also practice kindness. Imagine, for example, someone says something offensive to you. Before responding, you might kindly consider that they might not mean to be offensive, or that they might be acting badly because they are stressed or misinformed. This makes it easier to be patient with their behaviour instead of automatically responding with resentment or anger.

Let’s take a few minutes now to practice responding kindly to distractions.

The following is a 10-minute guided meditation with instructions for practicing kindness.

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