What we water with our attention grows: cultivating friendliness, compassion and happiness through meditation

Have you ever sat quietly long enough to observe your thoughts, perhaps to meditate, and noticed that many of them are negative?  Or maybe when you’ve come to be still for long enough you’ve noticed an inner monologue which might be distinctly unfriendly towards you, perhaps judgemental or critical?  Knowing that we might encounter negative thoughts or a less than kind inner voice can be why we often avoid the quiet, why we try to avoid being present, and instead look to constantly distract ourselves (hello smartphone, conveniently always there to assist with this …).  These uncomfortable thoughts are also why Ruby Wax has likened doing a silent retreat to being like ‘iron man for your brain’ and I can almost visualise it as some sort of mental ‘tough mudder’ as your brain slings mud at you whilst you make your way through the silence. (Thanks brain)!  Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes that we can think of ourselves as the sky, and everything else, such as these difficult thoughts, as just the weather, although as actor Andrew Scott put it in an interview, some days it is positively ‘storming down on you’ – something I know I can relate to.

So this would appear to be very much a normal part of the human experience, but why?  As neuroscientist Rick Hanson explains, our brains have developed to look for, react to, store and recall negative information over positive information, in order to help us to survive.  For our ancestors, a threat was more important to pay attention to than something rewarding, because if they were to miss out on something good, there is another chance to pursue it another day, whereas if a threat were to go unnoticed, they may not get a chance to be around tomorrow.  Therefore, it was beneficial to preferentially pay attention to ‘negative’ information, so you could live to pass on your genes.  And it is this inherited negativity bias that makes it easy for us to focus on what we don’t have, what we don’t like, what we didn’t do … you get the idea.  As Hanson puts it, we are wired in such a way that ‘the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.’

Thankfully, something else we now also know from neuroscience is that we can actually change our brains, by changing how we think.  As Ruby Wax explains in her fantastic book Sane New World, ‘every thought, feeling and perception you have, changes your brain.’  Essentially, like everything, we get better at what we practice, so if we repeat a mode of thinking or behaving, that pattern becomes strengthened.  This means if, for example, we regularly practice placing the mind on what we are grateful for, we become more rooted in gratitude.  (Another reason why gratitude journaling is such a fab habit – see more in my blog here).  Amazingly, it’s this same principle that Patanjali alluded to, all those years ago when he wrote in the Yoga Sutras (Chapter 3, sutra 23), that when we place our awareness on friendliness, compassion and happiness, these qualities blossom.

What we water with our attention grows, just like the flowers in our gardens.

So how do we get better at doing this?  One way is through mindfulness meditation practices.  One definition of mindfulness is placing the mind.  Whether we are necessarily aware of it or not, we’re always placing the mind on something and unfortunately, as we’ve seen, it’s often a negative something.  But when we practice mindfulness meditation, we strengthen our ability to consciously place the mind on something of our choosing.

Perhaps most often, we work with placing our awareness on the breath, which is a really wonderful home base for attention, because our breath is readily available at any moment – always with us and always in the present.  An alternative practice to using the breath however, and one which can help us to actively grow positive thoughts, is to practice placing our awareness on feelings of compassion and kindness.  And it’s this that forms the basis for a traditional Buddhist contemplative meditation called Maitri.

Maitri means loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness.  As Cyndi Lee explains, these are natural qualities we all possess, which the practice of Maitri helps us to access:

‘Our hearts are always fundamentally open.  They’re just covered up sometimes by doubt, hesitation, fear, anxiety, and all kinds of self-protective patterns.  The practice of opening the heart is based on exploring and reversing some of these patterns.  We cultivate openness while noting and dissolving the habits that obscure our natural sympathy and compassion for others.’

There are many different variations of Maitri practice that you may come across. At the core of the practice is contemplation on the following wishes, for ourselves, for those we love, for those we have a difficult relationship with, and for those we have never met.

May you be happy

May you be healthy

May you be safe

May you live with ease

I was first introduced to this practice by the beautiful Lisa Linsdell when I took her mindfulness based stress reduction course some years ago now.  Since then, I have always found myself drawn back to it in my meditation practice.  it is not always easy, it is not always comfortable, but by the end I always feel a deep sense of peace; the turbulent internal weather quietening, the clouds parting to reveal the sky that always exists beyond them.  Just as Patanjali also wrote, in Chapter 1, sutra 33 – ‘the mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated.’  And what joy and what solace it is to realise, that through practice we have the power to choose what we cultivate in the garden of our mind.

Inspired to practice?

If you’d like to explore this contemplative meditation, further explanation of the practice, including instructions for a Maitri self-practice, written by Cyndi Lee, can be found here.

As with any meditation practice, it can also be really helpful to work with a teacher trained in meditation.  Join my mailing list to receive details of my meditation offerings starting in 2022.

© Catherine Rolfe Hatha Yoga Teacher 2021

N.B.  The translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali I quote from here is by Alistair Shearer.

Have questions about your meditation practice, including how to get started?  Please ask and I’ll be happy to help – use my contact form here.