Day 4: Taking Lovingkindness to Heart

Dear <<First Name>>

Today, as part of 100 Days of Lovingkindness, we’ll continue to focus on the practice of self-metta.

I’m suggesting a simple practice today to help you bring a more kindly attitude into your daily life. It’s simply this: be aware of your heart.

I’m not talking about noticing your heart beating, but about bringing awareness to the central part of your chest, and coming back to that over and over again during the day.

This region of the body is very important in terms of feelings, which is why “emotion” and “the heart” are virtually synonymous. And even more crucially, “love” and “the heart” are also virtually synonymous. The heart symbol — ❤ — means “love,” after all.

There's a reason for this, which is that there’s a large nerve called the vagus that runs down the center of the chest. The vagus is an important component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for bringing the body back to calm, rest, and balance. And the vagus is very important in mediating the feelings that can be associated with love and compassion. When it’s activated, there can be a feeling of warmth and openness around the heart. (You can have love and compassion without these feelings, but they're a nice bonus.)

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that lovingkindness meditation practiced for just a few weeks significantly increased what's called “vagal tone,” which is a measure of the activity of the vagus nerve and is a sign of good vagal health (it’s analogous to “muscle tone”).

Professor Stephen Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago has described the vagus nerve as the nerve of compassion.

And Dr. Dacher Keltner, the author of Born to Be Good and Co-director of the Greater Good Science Center, points out that young children who have a stronger vagal tone are those who are more cooperative and helpful, and who, for example, step in when they see another child being bullied.

Simply taking your attention to the heart can help to activate the vagus nerve. So try this:

  • Become aware of the heart area.
  • Notice what emotions and sensations are present — without judgement. It doesn’t matter what’s there: whether you’re feeling neutral, or even feeling crappy. That’s just where you happen to be starting from in this moment.
  • Let go, as best you can, of any tension, letting a sense of softness emerge.
  • Send thoughts of lovingkindness to that part of the body, saying “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be at ease.”
  • Repeat these phrases many times daily, whenever you pause, or whenever you’re taking a break or doing some routine task, like driving or showering, where your mind would normally wander.

Let go of any yearning for results; that’s often simply grasping, and it can also involve a rejection of your current experience. Just let things unfold in their own time.

With metta (lovingkindness),
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