Practising Compassion Won't Make You a Pushover – It Takes Courage
After an illness left her blind and paralysed, Vanessa Potter decided to explore meditation as a means of working through the trauma she had experienced
Compassion meditation, or lovingkindness, proved to be a life-changing practice
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Ten years ago I would never have believed that I’d regularly practise compassion meditation, or that it would have a positive impact upon my life. Learning a Buddhist practice called lovingkindness as part of a meditation experiment with Cambridge neuroscientists, helped me develop feelings of warmth and friendliness towards myself and others.
I’d always thought I was friendly enough, but learning this practice I was shocked to discover how judgmental I could be. I’d never thought I beat myself up, but the practice revealed that too. When I started practising lovingkindness the scientists told me it would be the hardest work I’d ever do. 'Work?' I’d thought at the time. What could they mean?
I’d only ever dabbled in meditation, but in 2012 when a rare illness left me blind and paralysed for almost a year I needed new ways to manage the trauma I suffered. That experience opened up the spirituality doors and in 2017 I began a meditation experiment with researchers that changed everything. For the next three years I explored ten different ways to ‘train my mind', while the scientists recorded my brain activity via an EEG (electroencephalography) headset. The experiment was a gateway to different techniques and compared mindfulness, mantra practices, visualisation, breath and movement techniques — even self-hypnosis and psychedelics. I was curious to discover which methods helped me feel less stressed, less reactive and sleep better. My discoveries resulted in a book called Finding My Right Mind: One Woman’s Experiment to put Meditation to the Test, which is a companion for anyone wanting to explore which meditation best suits them. While each technique provided distinct and rich benefits, I had the least expectations for lovingkindness.
A lovingkindness practice uses simple imagery and silent phrases such as “may I be well” or “may you be happy.” The practice, also known as “metta” which means love or friendliness, helps us to feel kindly towards those in need, without requiring anything in return. The ‘love’ word is a bit of a red herring here — it only refers to the non-romantic variety. The idea is simple; you just wish everyone in the world to be happy and well. Compassion meditation is sometimes seen as weak or unimportant — that it will make us a push-over or less competitive. If we feel kindness — or even love towards others, how will we stay ahead and succeed? This couldn’t be further from the truth as compassion skills have been proven to improve collaboration and creative thinking.
During my compassion training I practised Sharon Salzberg’s ‘street lovingkindness’ exercise on my own and eventually adapted it to include my children. We did this while walking to school or the shops. As we passed strangers we sent them kind wishes like, ’be happy’, ‘be well', 'be safe'. We didn’t expect anything in return — we simply wished that they were okay. My children got creative and ‘zapped’ kindness at people they saw and the warmth and positive ripples this created inspired me to create a guided meditation to help others enjoy a taste of compassion for themselves.
Meditation is not a panacea. Learning different techniques hasn’t eliminated stressors from my life, but meditating has helped me manage them better. Meditation is not one-size-fits-all and I learnt to take a bespoke approach to helping myself. Initially I’d hoped lovingkindness might boost my own self-compassion. After my sight loss I’d felt distanced from those around me. Blindness had forced me into the dark and left me feeling isolated and emotionally numb.
Self-compassion is described by the researcher Kristin Neff as having an understanding and kindness towards yourself when you fail or make mistakes, rather than judging yourself harshly. Neff suggests we act the same way towards ourselves when we notice something we don't like, as we would towards a best friend. At times this proved surprisingly difficult and ironically part of the practice became forgiving myself for being harsh about my own failings.
During my twelve weeks of daily practice l gradually opened up and felt more aware of and connected to my emotions. I started to smile more. I realised that by being busy and running on autopilot I wasn’t allowing myself time to connect, even to my family. The practice taught me how to slow down and appreciate the small things in life — like ruffling my son’s hair or going for a walk with my husband. It was hard work but eight weeks of intensive compassion training provided a powerful way to take care of my own mental health. In doing so, those benefits spread out to those close to me too.
Vanessa Potter is a meditation advocate and author of Finding My Right Mind: One Woman’s Experiment to put Meditation to the Test (Welbeck Publishing)