Loving Kindness – A Heart Practice
By John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP, ABIHM
Founding co-chair LMS Physician Wellness Program
Your ever-present heart is your physical, emotional, interpersonal, and spiritual resource.
You experience the breadth of your emotions in your heart. Your heart is where you feel the love for your romantic partner, dear friends and family, children, pets and nature. Those who have the experience of holding their newborn child or grandchild for the first time often report a feeling in the heart unlike anything they have ever known or even considered possible. We feel the grief and loss of loved ones in our hearts as well. We even have palpable, heartfelt ‘driveway moments’ listening to stories on the radio that move us deeply and connect us emotionally to people we don’t even know. Research has also identified anger, rage and hostility as emotional toxins that increase our risk of heart attacks and death.
This normal physiological experience of deep emotions in the area of the anatomical heart is part of the emerging science of heart-brain-emotion interactions sometimes referred to as neurocardiology. While much of this field is properly concerned with pathology, a growing body of research concerns the health benefits of positive psychological states, emotions, behaviors and attitudes- such as loving kindness.
Luckily, you can actively cultivate attributes of the heart, including loving kindness. Modern medical and psychological research is increasingly suggesting that cultivation of heart qualities is associated with positive health outcomes. Regularly practicing loving kindness toward yourself and others can result in increased life purpose, social support, decreased illness and depression symptoms and increased life satisfaction.
Getting started– To begin, give yourself the great gift of 5-10 minutes of self-care. Any position will do- sitting, reclining, lying down or standing – eyes open or closed. Ask other family or staff to give you some privacy and turn off the phone. Having a pet nearby may be distracting OR may actually connect you to your heart and your intention to be kind.
Intention– As with any important activity or behavior, it is important to begin with an intention to keep you aligned with your heart qualities, values, purpose and meaning. An example might be-‘I am practicing loving kindness… for myself… for other people… for animals and plants’– or any other object of your heart’s kindness.
Paying attention– Knowing that our normal mind is a wandering mind, you may notice that sounds, memories, planning, restlessness and fatigue distract you during your practice. That moment we notice this distraction is a very important moment. Rather than being harsh or self-critical, we simply notice the distraction and gently escort the attention back to the practice of loving kindness. We view the distractions as a normal, predictable part of the practice.
Kindness for yourself– With your attention on the heart center, the center of your chest, perhaps placing your hands over your heart, saying to yourself these phrases, repeating each phrase several times- ‘May I be safe… May I be happy… May I be well… May I be peacefully at ease…’
Kindness for other people or animals — or Mother Earth– If it feels right, you may extend loving kindness to specific people, such as a beloved person, someone you hardly know at all- even someone you find difficult- saying ‘May you be safe… May you be happy… May you be well… May you be peacefully at ease.’
Anywhere, anytime– Over time, you may find yourself using these heart phrases at home, at work, while driving, shopping and walking the dog. It only takes remembering- and you are more likely to remember if you practice daily- even for a couple of minutes.
Whether you are healthy or have a chronic medical condition, practicing loving kindness may enhance your physical and emotional well-being and relationships. It may extend your life – it may even save your life.
– Osteraas ND, Lee VH. Neurocardiology. Handbook of Clinical Neurology. 2017;140:49-65
– Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, November 2008)
Dr. Patterson has made two loving kindness recordings (4 minutes and 11 minutes) you can find at this page on the Mind Body Studio web site https://www.mindbodystudio.org/?page_id=1594
About the Author–
Dr Patterson spent 30 years in solo family medicine in Estill County/Irvine, Kentucky, where his staff included a mental health counselor and dietitian. He majored in psychology at Vanderbilt and has viewed his entire medical career through that mind body lens, including residencies in family medicine and preventive medicine and a master’s degree in public health. He is certified in family medicine, integrative holistic medicine, mind body medicine, mindfulness-based stress reduction and yoga therapy. He is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is on the faculty of Saybrook College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (Pasadena) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio on Southland Drive in Lexington, where he offers individual consultations and group classes for persons with stress-related chronic conditions and burnout prevention for health professionals, teachers, businesses, faith communities and non-profits, emphasizing a mindfulness-based approach to promoting resilience, managing stress, preventing burnout and cultivating compassion. Those with financial hardship simply pay as they are able.
He can be reached through his website at www.mindbodystudio.org