Recently, one of my students confessed that she was having a hard time feeling compassion for herself. She practices Loving Kindness meditation, and there have been times in the past when just the thought "May I be happy, may others be happy" was enough to send little thrills of sweetness through her heart. But right now, her meditation feels mechanical, and her affirmation of loving kindness feels hypocritical. I asked her what was going on in her life. She told me she was working hard, worrying about money, and feeling a lot of stress. And she resented having to work so hard, because the leaves were turning and she wanted to be in the woods.
"I know it would help if I could give myself some love," she told me, "but I don't feel loving. I can be nice to other people, and even try to do nice things for myself. But it feels mechanical. I just don't feel very compassionate." How, she wanted to know, can you jump-start compassion? Or love? Or, just a feeling of simple kindness?
She is living proof that spiritual practices are not one-size fits all. So many different factors determine your inner state at this moment—your mood, your state of health, the people around you, the weather, even the time of day. Any practice you do needs to take into account your real-time state of mind and heart and body.
And the truth is that when you're emotionally overwhelmed, stressed, or simply fielding a lot of negative thoughts, it's hard to feel higher emotions like compassion or loving kindness, much less unconditional love. Trying to force yourself into a beautiful state simply adds to your stress. At such a moment, a positive affirmation like "Everything is working out for the greater good," or "May I be happy, may my loved ones be happy, may all beings be happy," doesn't feel real. At best, it's a nice thought. At worst, it triggers your doubt or skepticism.
This, it turns out, has to do with the circuitry in your brain. When you're stressed or depressed, your neurons—the signal cells that send information through your brain and nervous system—are sending out stress signals and activating stress chemicals. They form clusters with other similar neurons, like negative feedback loops. For survival reasons, negative wiring (which insures that we fight or flee in response to perceived danger) tends to be older and stronger than the positive kind. Because the brain is Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones, it takes more work to lock in positive circuits. When you're in your stress zone, the power of the negative circuit easily overwhelms the more fragile positive one. Judging your negative state or trying to fight your way out of it only increases the stress.
So, when you want to generate a positive state, you don't start by forcing yourself to feel better. Instead, you bring your higher brain functions on-line by engaging the capacity for self-reflection. In yogic language, you turn attention inward to recognize the feelings you're having.
According to brain scientists, the power of deliberate attention is the special province of the pre-frontal cortex, the so-called higher or rational brain. The pre-frontal cortex is not only the seat of rational thought, it is also the part of the brain that lets us connect up all the other parts of the brain—the emotional or limbic brain, where memory resides, and even the more unconscious lower brain, which regulates our instinctive reactions. Because the cortex works more slowly than the instinctive and emotional brains, a stress state will often knock it off line. That's when we feel disconnected and inauthentic, and our unrecognized emotions can ride us into a ditch.
Reflect on Your State
The capacity for self-reflection may be the highest skill of the human cortex. In Kashmir Shaivism, we say that self-reflection is a divine capacity that is available to us at every level of consciousness. In other words, the same quality of attention that in an expanded state lets consciousness reflect on its own joy, will also—when you're in a painful state—let consciousness notice and reflect on the specific feelings that bring pain. It's by that act of self-reflection that we claim our experience. More than that, we activate the mysterious transformative power within awareness itself. Awareness can transform your inner state—shift you to a higher level of consciousness—simply by this act of self-noticing. When you notice a reactive emotion, you automatically transcend it, since self-awareness is a more evolved brain-function than reactivity. At the same time, your act of noticing integrates the feeling into your current experience of yourself.
The following process, part of a technique called Emotional Brain Training, uses these insights to help you work your way out of stress into a more positive state.
Speak your feelings. Once you've recognized that you're feeling reactive, or stressed, or depressed, use that as a signal to pay attention to the feelings themselves, perhaps by noticing them in your body—say, in your shoulders or throat or belly.