Connecting to Yourself, or How Do You Jumpstart Compassion?

Then, write or speak your feelings, either alone or with a friend who agrees to act as a loving but neutral witness. This is a 'first thought, best thought situation'—you don't want to over-think. Instead, the Emotional Brain Training protocol offers a formula that lets you cycle through the most common negative feelings.

You say, "I'm angry that . . .," "I'm sad that . . .," "I'm scared that . . .," "I'm feeling guilty that . . ." As you speak these feelings, you may notice that there's more than one piece in each category. So you go on speaking or writing until you're done with all the things you're angry about, then move to the things you're sad about, and so on.

Something about that act of truthfully speaking your feelings has a powerful effect on your neurons. It connects your pre-frontal cortex to your limbic brain, which rules emotions. The head-heart separation we often talk about seems to have its roots in the brain. It happens when the emotional brain and the rational brain—which, as we've seen, also holds our capacity for self-reflection and self-transformation—get disconnected. Once the cortex is out of touch with the emotional brain, it will often try to deal with the emotional upheaval by analysis, or simply by disassociating itself or numbing out to emotions. But in the simple act of feeling into, noticing, and speaking our emotions, we restore the connection between the rational brain and the limbic brain. At that point, we have a choice. The cortex can use its capacity for discernment and insight to work with the negative emotions, or it can choose a positive thought that can trigger a positive emotion.

Speak some positive feelings. So, after speaking out your current negative feelings, take a few minutes to do the same process with four positive feelings.

You might say to yourself "I am grateful for . . .," "I am happy about . . .," "I am secure about . . .," "I am proud about . . ." That alone can be enough to shift your state. And if it isn't, the Emotional Brain Training people suggest going through two more steps: asking yourself, "What is my unreasonable expectation in this situation?" and then, "What would be a reasonable expectation?"

Often, the unreasonable expectation that triggers a negative state is very old—like, "I should be able to control the people in my life," or "If I feel sad enough someone will come and rescue me," or "Yelling at someone who's let me down will relieve my disappointment." You may know rationally that these expectations are unlikely to come to pass. But the circuitry in your brain keeps sending you down the same old neural pathways until you notice and interrupt them.

A reasonable expectation would be something that you can actually expect of yourself in present time. One example of a reasonable expectation would be "I can practice letting the people in my life be who they are, and letting myself be who I am," or "I can learn how to rescue myself when I feel sad." Unreasonable expectations put you at the mercy of your negative wiring. Reasonable expectations create space for growth and positive transformation.

Create joy. At the end of this process, which most of us can do in under five minutes, do a short bhavana—an imaginative practice—that helps you feel a moment or even a few seconds of joy or well-being. One that works well for most people is remembering someone you love, or remembering a time or a place when you felt love or joy. It could also be something physical, like a hatha yoga posture, or a few minutes of dancing. Or a spacious thought, like "God is in everything."

When you do these three steps in succession—naming your negative emotions, naming some positive ones, and creating a moment of joy—you shift yourself into a more resourceful brain state. When you notice that there is a surge of pleasure or well being in your body, that is the time to tune into compassion. Feel your way into the pleasurable feeling, tune into the breath, and inhale and exhale with the thought "May I be happy." Then offer the same wish to a friend or relative: "May she be happy." Finally, offer your prayer for happiness to all sentient beings: "May all beings be happy."

See if you can keep connected to the pleasurable feeling while you do this. It will charge your circuits. You know you've helped your brain cycle out of the negatively wired state, and into a more alive, joyful state when you feel energy moving in your body, or a sense of well-being, or simply a sensation of inner pleasure. That's the point when you're ready to practice compassion or kindness. You can generate real-time compassionate feelings for yourself, for a friend, or even for all living beings with real feeling. You can say, "May I be happy, may my friend be happy, may all beings be happy," and mean it. It's not just a nice thought now—it's a true expression of your connected brain, your authentic self.

10/18/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Hindu
  • Meditation for Life
  • Compassion
  • Meditation
  • Hinduism
  • Sally Kempton
    About Sally Kempton
    An internationally known teacher of meditation and spiritual wisdom, Kempton is the author of Meditation for the Love of It and writes a monthly column for Yoga Journal. Follow her on Facebook and visit her website at