March 4, 2017

How To Awaken and Cultivate a Compassionate Heart

How To Awaken and Cultivate a Compassionate Heart
Creative Visualization Cover

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen nor even touched, but just felt in the heart.” — Helen Keller, The Story of My Life

It’s easy to erect a wall around the heart.

After all, who among us hasn’t experienced hurt, trauma, or addiction in some form or another?

If you have a human body — and I assume you have brought yours along as you read this — then you know the truth of loss, sadness, grief, and various kinds of emotional and physical pain. These forms of suffering can be viewed as a “bad” thing, but they can also be an opportunity to open the heart and to recognize that suffering is a universal human condition that we all share.

This recognition serves as the pathway through which we can cultivate a more awakened, trusting, and compassionate heart.

As precious and temporary as life is, how can we not risk opening even the wounded heart?

If we lock ourselves in the jail cell of hurt, loss, and unforgiveness, we do ourselves a disservice.

To close off the heart is akin to what songwriter Joni Mitchell described when she sang, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Paving over the heart in an effort to shield it from hurt only produces a barren, cold place. Fortunately, a blade of grass always seems ready to burst through the tiniest crack in the concrete. Such is the everlasting persistence of the heart’s renewal.

Our brains have evolved to love and bond with others. Love is as natural an impulse as taking a breath.

In Just One Thing, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson wrote,

“The brain has tripled in size since hominids began making stone tools about 2.5 million years ago, and much of this new neural real estate is devoted to love and related capabilities. We need to love to be healthy and whole. If you bottle up your love, you bottle up your whole being. Love is like water: it needs to flow.”

If our flow of love has stopped because of self-centeredness, mistrust, disappointment, injustice, or a host of other causes, how can we get it moving again?

Jenny was a high school senior, just seventeen years of age, when she came to see me for debilitating migraines, depression, and anger. She was very mature despite the many arrows of sorrow that pierced her.

Jenny had never met her biological father, and because her mother struggled with various forms of addiction, Jenny was sent to live with her aunt and uncle at the tender age of seven. Though her mother was no longer a substance user, she seemed incapable of loving her daughter — something Jenny wanted more than anything else in the world. Jenny’s mother was very narcissistic and was more interested in her own life than her daughter’s many accomplishments at school.

Each visit with her mother left Jenny feeling unwanted, unappreciated, and depressed. Forgiving past hurts and injustices is something many adults are unwilling to undertake, so I was unsure whether Jenny would jump on board. But in our talks, the idea of forgiving her mother resonated with Jenny.

We discussed why forgiving helps us lessen our own pain — not by forgetting what another has done, and certainly not in ways that allow further abuse.

As a homework assignment, I asked Jenny to find some meaningful quotations about forgiveness. One quote that resonated with her was by Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Jenny was able to do something very special — she gave up her expectation that her mother should apologize for her misdeeds and act differently. Instead, Jenny focused on making space in her heart for her mother’s own struggles and suffering.

It wasn’t easy. Jenny meditated on loving-kindness before and after seeing her mother in order to keep her heart open and heal each fresh wound so that her pain and anger wouldn’t fester. Jenny also learned that by forgiving, she was offering a very special gift to her mother, something that no one else could give her. I was proud of Jenny’s effort to remain compassionate toward her mother, which remains an ongoing life lesson in softening and opening her heart.

I am reminded of the story of one of the Dalai Lama’s monks who was tortured for years while in a Tibetan prison.

After his release, he was asked what was the most difficult challenge he faced during his incarceration. He answered that it was the time he began to lose compassion for the one who was torturing him. That the monk did not pave over his heart to make a parking lot is a testament to the heart’s resilience and its ability to overcome hatred and fear.

These stories, and others like them, tell us that keeping the heart open is a process. The heart may suffer unspeakable hurts, but it contains the multiple antidotes of love, hope, forgiveness, resilience, and compassion.

Tune In and Turn On to Compassion

Have you ever felt the natural impulse to help someone in need without thinking about what’s in it for you?

This is compassion — a kind of helping that doesn’t come from a place of ego gratification or self-centeredness.

Compassion is more encompassing than altruism or charity. It’s also broader than the feeling of empathy that comes from putting yourself in the shoes of another.

In addition, compassion is not about thinking, “Look how good a person I am for helping others.” If anything, a compassionate perspective encourages us to broaden our view and consider the larger social good.

Scientists have begun studying compassion by exploring how the practice of loving-kindness — an ancient meditation for directing feelings of love and caring to oneself and others — affects such things as negative thinking, depression, and even pain.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology investigated the effects of the loving-kindness meditation on working adults. The researchers found significant differences between the control group and those who practiced the meditation.

They concluded, “This meditation practice produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions, which, in turn, produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms). In turn, these increments in personal resources predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.”

In another study, a team of researchers at the Duke University Medical Center demonstrated direct effects on the body from loving-kindness meditations using forty-three adults with chronic lower back pain.

The mean age of participants was 51.1 years, and each had experienced chronic pain for at least six months. The intervention involved eight weekly, ninety-minute loving-kindness group meditation sessions.

Compared to the control group, those practicing loving-kindness significantly reduced their levels of pain, anger, and psychological distress. Post and follow-up analyses also showed significant improvements, while no changes were recorded in the usual-care control group.

At a fundamental level, compassion transforms our brains. Scientists have conducted studies in which monks who have practiced over ten thousand hours of compassion meditation were put into MRIs to evaluate their brain function.

The results revealed that the monks’ compassion-trained brains featured high-amplitude, synchronous gamma waves — an unusual brain wave pattern that is believed to be the signature of a highly functioning brain.

Fortunately, it doesn’t require five years of intensive practice to get the benefits of compassion.

Compassionate action grows simply from understanding the universality of suffering and its roots.

You begin by noticing that people’s actions are often motivated by either wanting pleasure or avoiding pain. We need only examine our own life experience with the Eight Worldly Winds (see chapter 4, page 49) to understand how grasping for what is desirable and pushing away what is undesirable produce the clutter of suffering.

When you penetrate the truth of this, you clearly see ignorance, avarice, delusion, or hatred without needing to respond in kind. Sweeping these harmful emotions away, you are free to respond with love, understanding, and compassion.

Consider the following questions for bringing a compassionate heart to others:

  • If I asked my heart for advice about a difficult predicament I currently face, what insight, wisdom, or deeper truth would it offer?
  • If my heart could express how it feels about wanting to heal an important relationship in my life, what would it say?

Of course, the best place to start applying compassion is at home. Instead of interpreting our sorrows as pathology — calling them depression, anxiety, and the like — we can see their source: the stickiness of clinging and unhealthy attachments that keep us stuck. Getting stuck in this way is the nature of life itself.

Why blame, shame, or call ourselves names?

We can sit with the knowledge of our own sticky human nature — a very healing way to greet this moment. Accepting the conditions that have produced our anger, our sadness, our anxiety, and our depression dramatically shifts our personal identity. Each time we send compassion to ourselves, we pull out suffering at the roots. It’s a slow, but honest, decent, and hospitable way to treat ourselves.

Of course, you are always welcome to label yourself as defective and in need of repair, but then remember: How does that make you feel? Has that mindset ever helped you solve anything?

It is better to practice self-compassion. Here is an easy way to begin.

Take a few moments to try the following:

  • Begin by thinking of some action, word, or thought that hurt someone else — and that you blame yourself for.
  • Think of some action, word, or thought that caused harm to yourself — either intentionally or unintentionally.
  • Knowing that no one is perfect, how can you bring greater self-acceptance and self-compassion into your life? Can you choose to open your heart and soften your view of those hurts?

Since all of us have done something to hurt ourselves or someone else at some point, spend the next minute forgiving yourself for an action, thought, or deed that caused harm. Even if you don’t believe that you deserve this forgiveness, offer this as a gift to yourself, and see how it feels.

It was a warm, sunny afternoon in Southern California when I was invited to join some friends who were having lunch with a spiritual teacher, whom I had heard of but never met.

When it was time to say good-bye, I prepared to shake hands with the spiritual teacher. Instead, he wrapped a big, warm bear hug around me, and I reciprocated. Instantly, I felt something subtle, something unusual, which I could not put into words.

As I turned to leave the room, it happened. A tingling as sweet as honey spilled warmly down my back and neck, soon covering my entire body. All my cells felt as if they had been immersed in the energy of pure love, as if an inner light had been switched on. As this giddy sensation filled me, I could not suppress the wide smile that spread across my face. By the time I stepped outside, I was so engulfed with an overwhelming sense of joy and well-being that I had no idea where I had parked my car!

By nature, I am a skeptic. Maybe that is from being raised by an engineer father who approached everything with a scientist’s mindset: if something wasn’t observable and couldn’t be explained, then it wasn’t real. But here I was, powerfully and undeniably immersed in the energy of loving-kindness — a meditation that I had long been practicing and had learned from other teachers.

All my previous loving-kindness meditations had served as preparation, and now I knew what it felt like. More importantly, I knew with absolute certainty that it was real, as real and powerful as the juice in an electrical outlet. And it could be transmitted by anyone willing to practice it, just as the Buddha had taught more than 2,500 years ago. Despite having had several mystical experiences throughout my life, this one finally helped me break the irrational hold of my rational mind.

Lifestyle Tools: Awakening the Heart with Loving-Kindness

Find a quiet place where you can sit, stand, or lie down as you do this meditation, which consists of movement, visualization, and words.

Begin by setting the intention to open, awaken, and soften your heart. This is a nondiscriminating kind of love that you extend to yourself and all beings — friends, neutral people, and even unfriendly people — as well as to those you love and care about. Don’t try too hard — just let your heart and being naturally do the rest. Use this anytime that you feel fearful or when your heart is closed and walled off.

Loving-Kindness Meditation

Begin by slowly cupping your hands and palms, one at a time, over your heart. Hold that position softly.

Let yourself feel the warmth between the hands and your heart. If you don’t feel warmth, imagine a golden glow, and bask your heart and hands in that warm glow. If your heart feels heavy, or as if it has a wall around it, give that wall permission to lessen and dissolve.

Let your heart’s own protective wisdom glow and grow warm.

Take a nice, long in-breath, breathing in the love of the universe — as well as the love from all the benefactors and spiritual people who have graced your life or whom you admire. Imagine this love as a golden light that illuminates your heart, softening it and making it glow with warmth and kind feelings toward yourself and others.

Now, slowly move both hands outward from the heart.

As you do this, extend the heart’s warmth and glow so it stays connected with your palms. Continue to breathe in the love of your benefactors and of the loving universe into your heart. Move your hands outward until they form a semicircle in front of you. Your arms are open and receptive and connected to your heart energy.

Imagine this glowing warmth of the heart spilling outward, overflowing toward others.

You might picture this as a bubble that extends outward, with the bubble enveloping everything it touches inside its golden, glowing sphere. This glow creates inviting warmth, a warmth of availability to others. It is also protective, keeping you safe while extending the non-discriminating wish for the well-being of all others.

Finally, if you’d like, picture the golden glow of loving-kindness expanding and extending far, far beyond you, into the neighborhood, the county, the state, the country, the hemisphere, the world, the solar system, the universe, and all universes and all beings. Hold this glowing light for all suffering ones.

To conclude, bring your hands back toward your heart center. Again cupping your palms over your heart, send loving-kindness to yourself.

Say or think the following words:

May I be safe, happy, healthy, and well. May I be free from pain, hunger, and suffering. May all beings be safe, happy, healthy, and well. May all beings be free from pain, hunger, and suffering. May I be available to act on behalf of those who suffer.

Last, take a nice long breath or two to reorient yourself to your surroundings and the present moment. As you exhale, slowly allow your hands to fall at your sides, ending your practice.

During the day, you can do this entire practice or any of the individual parts — just the movement, the visualization, or the words.

Here are two examples for centering with loving-kindness that take less than a minute:

1. Mentally say the following words throughout the day as a way to stay centered and keep your heart open: May I, and all beings, be safe, happy, healthy, and well.

2. Whenever you feel hurt, angry, or closed, simply cup your hands over the heart center as you connect with your heart’s warm, compassionate glow. Breathe in compassion and forgiveness, and breathe out the hurt. Take from one to three breaths in this way.

Also, you may want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • When can I integrate this practice into my day?
  • How can I put compassion into action and be available to others?
  • How can I journal my experiences and invite others to try loving-kindness?

Excerpted from the book Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What’s Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation. Copyright © 2016 by Donald Altman. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

About the author

Donald Altman, M.A. LPC, is a psychotherapist, award-winning writer, former Buddhist monk, and teacher. He served as adjunct professor at Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling, and is an adjunct faculty member of the Interpersonal Neurobiology program at Portland State University.

Donald Altman is the author of Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What’s Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation and several other books about mindfulness. He is a practicing psychotherapist and former Buddhist monk. An award-winning writer and an expert on mindful eating, he teaches the neurobiology program at Portland State University. Visit him online at

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