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The Power of Positive Emotion

Emotions can be our best friends or our worst enemies. On the one hand, they allow us to enjoy life, cultivate loving relationships and a sense of purpose and can drive us toward helping those in need. On the other, they have the power to start wars and affect mental illness. People either become victims of their emotions or beneficiaries. The work in psychotherapy then is often about addressing unconscious, destructive patterns of feeling and emotion.

The therapist, teacher, and author Robert Falconer suggested that counselling affects change in two distinct ways, counteractive and generative. Counteractive change, as practiced in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), focuses mainly on challenging negative or distorted thoughts and emotions using various rational and empirical techniques. In contrast, generative change emphasizes the development of new, healthier ways of feeling that make older modes obsolete. Of course, each strategy has its pros and cons and is more or less helpful depending on individual circumstances. Nonetheless, this blog post will concentrate primarily on generative change, on fostering the new.

Compassion is a worthy starting point. It is rooted in the desire to alleviate others’ suffering and wishing that they be happy, healthy, safe and at peace. Literature suggests that genuinely compassionate people have robust physical, psychological, social, and spiritual health. For example, they typically have far fewer mental health symptoms than uncompassionate people. Researchers also found that by training individuals in self-compassion, they become physically healthier and make behavioural changes in diet, sleep, and exercise to enhance their well-being. In another study, psychologists identified positive links between compassion and several criteria of healthy interpersonal functioning, such as secure attachment, adaptive parenting behaviours, robust family, romantic and friendship relations, and constructive conflict and transgression repair behaviour. What better reasons to practice compassion than these? Nonetheless, Western society seems to promote and prioritize many other detrimental emotional states above compassion, such as greed and envy.

Let’s address some misconceptions about compassion. First, many assume it’s useless to feel compassion for someone who acted poorly, that a person must deserve compassion to receive it. These ideas are false. Compassion for a criminal does not mean you endorse or approve of criminal behaviour; the same goes for your own bad behaviour. Instead, it means you have the courage and openness to empathize with others, recognizing a more profound truth, hurt people hurt people. It means you understand that loving kindness, not anger or hatred, is the path to overcoming pain and suffering.

Another misconception is that you become weaker and more vulnerable by having compassion. This belief is also mistaken. In reality, compassion reflects tremendous courage and awareness and requires significant practice and patience to cultivate. To illustrate this point, imagine encountering your worst enemy, someone you intensely dislike. Now, are you more likely to react to them negatively with, say, anger or respond positively with compassion? Which feeling do you expect would emerge more reflexively? Building compassion does not make a person weaker; it makes them stronger. It enables us to let go of negative emotions toward others, which we have held deep in ourselves. And it encourages us to resolve conflicts peacefully, not prolong them.

The following exercise can help to develop genuine empathy, love, and compassion. Metta (or loving-kindness) meditation stems from 2500 years of Buddhist psychology. The clinical psychologist and Buddhist practitioner Dr. Lorne Ladner instructs people on practicing metta in his book The Lost Art of Compassion (2004). The meditation has four parts. In each one, the practitioner brings to mind a different person (self, friend, enemy, or stranger) and generates compassion, sensing how it affects their mind, body, and spirit.

Part 1: The Self

Begin by bringing awareness to yourself and whispering the words, 'May I be free from suffering' and 'May I be happy.' To stimulate self-compassion, recall a time when you were suffering in some particular way. Perhaps you fell ill, lost a valuable object, or suffered hardship. Picture the event or situation in your mind. Ask yourself: What was happening? Where was I, and with whom? What was I doing or feeling? Reflect now on how you are vulnerable to all sorts of suffering. And, continue thinking: May I be free from suffering. May I be happy. Do this until you notice a sense of compassion for yourself.

If you find this part challenging, find comfort in knowing compassion for yourself is often harder to manifest than compassion for others. We are each our own worst critics, as the saying goes. A good indication of whether you're lacking in self-compassion is if you judge yourself more harshly than others for the same behaviour.

Part 2: Friends and Loved Ones

Think about someone you feel closely connected to or care deeply about, an adult or child, pet, or endangered animal. Recall a specific moment when you witnessed or felt their suffering and what they experienced. Imagine your compassionate awareness radiating from your heart, reaching out to them, and alleviating their pain. Say the words, May they be free from suffering. May they be happy. Try to feel the energy moving from your body, gently touching them, soothing them, and removing their suffering. Make a mental note of what person or animal excites your compassion more than another.

Part 3: Strangers

Think about the town you live in, the many people you don’t know much about or those to whom you feel neutral. For example, those you pass by on the street, your neighbours, the cashier at your local grocery store, the taxi driver, or the person who delivers your takeout or mail. Consider the kinds of suffering they experience in their lives. Consider the pain they may undergo in secret, without your conscious awareness. Make the wish, May they be free from suffering. May they be happy. Imagine compassionate energy radiating from your heart, filling your whole town with the warm glow of love, freeing beings from suffering.

See if you can expand your compassion to embrace more and more beings in your city, nation, and worldwide. Think of children living in poverty, people in starvation, those suffering from various afflictions, and people living under oppression. Consider the many hurting people around you: living on automatic pilot, going through the motions of life, living in quiet desperation, living in isolation without anyone caring for them, and people who cannot feel compassion even for themselves. When you find that focusing on a specific person or place evokes a stronger feeling of compassion, stay with that image awhile. Imagine the warm light from your heart touching them and freeing them from pain. Whisper the words, May they be free from suffering. May they be happy.

As you ponder these thoughts and images, pay closer attention to the physical reactions of compassion in your body. You may notice feeling calm and relaxed but attentive and alert, your breath deepening, an opening in your chest, or subtle vibrations. Does your posture or facial expression change? You may also notice feelings of sadness and disillusionment, which naturally follow from recognizing the magnitude of suffering around you. Importantly, these feelings indicate that your heart is unlocking and will diminish as your ability to generate compassion improves.

Part 4: Enemies and Beyond

Focus on any person or group that generates negative feelings within you--someone who has wronged you or caused difficulty for you. Importantly, practicing compassion for your enemy is not about approving any harmful actions they have committed. Neither does it make you more vulnerable to harm. Instead, it helps you understand and empathize with others. This way, you may realize how 'hurt people hurt people' and become more capable of de-escalating and resolving conflicts effectively. By releasing negative feelings for another, you allow yourself to let go of negativity which occupies you. Consider also how your life could change if your enemies did become free from suffering. Would they still be enemies?

Think now of how your enemies may be struggling, and whisper the words, May they too be free from suffering. May they too be happy. Pay attention to any feelings of compassion, large or small, for your enemy. If none manifest, that is okay! Continue trying to empathize with them. Try to imagine your compassion gently holding them, overcoming their negative emotions, problems, and suffering. It may help thinking about someone you once considered an enemy that later became a friend or vice versa. Indeed, the boundary between friend and foe is often in flux.

See next if your compassion can expand from your enemies to all beings. Picture your compassion enveloping the entire planet and then radiating throughout the universe. Say and feel the words, May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be happy. Then, building on the feelings of compassion and love, imagine them flowing freely without limit, holding everyone and everything in a warm embrace.

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