Choose Loving Kindness

I am so excited to welcome Marcello Spinella, Ph.D. as a guest blogger on The Psychology of Wellbeing.  He is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.   I have come to know, admire and respect him for his incredibly knowledgeable and insightful postings on the “Friends of Positive Psychology” listserv.  He has become my “go to” person for any questions in the areas of mindfulness and meditation, which is why I invited him to write this article.  I hope you enjoy learning from him as much as I have.  –Jeremy 

Maybe one of the greatest discoveries by humans or about humans, is that our choices shape us. They shape indirectly, because how we interact with people and our environments, in turn, have effects back on us. People who are more generous, for example, will build better relationships and experience greater generosity in return.

What is less appreciated is that our choices also shape us directly. By no means is this idea new or revolutionary. Epictetus said “As you think, so you become.” Mary Anne Evans (under the pen name George Eliot) wrote that “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice,” and Thomas Jefferson wrote that “dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise.” We’ve heard this message a thousand times, from all different cultures and times. For years now neuroscience has been showing us that these changes in the mind parallel changes in brain plasticity, the connections between neurons. The more a neural pathway is exercised, the stronger it becomes and the easier it is to activate it in the future.

While this is fairly well understood, to what degree do we recognize the implications of this and use it to its fullest potential? If our intentional choices shape what we become, then greater awareness of the choices we are making gives us more freedom in this process of becoming. Awareness is a critical factor.

Meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal noted that “people who do not see their choices do not believe they have choices.” It’s not a matter of whether or not the choices exist. There are multiple possible choices, both external and internal, in every situation. This is one of the messages of mindfulness: in order to live in a healthier and more satisfying way, it’s important to become aware of what is already going on inside us. Living on autopilot, sooner or later, gets us into some very uncomfortable holding patterns. In having mindful awareness, we may recognize how some of the choices we make contribute to suffering, for ourselves and others, while other choices lead to alleviation of suffering and greater happiness. So the strategy is rather simple–not easy, but simple: Do more of the things that contribute to well-being and less of the things that detract from it.

A theme in Buddhism, as well as many other religions and secular philosophies, involves how we perceive ourselves. The more we interpret ourselves to be separate from others and the world around us, the more likely we are to act in self-centered ways. Conversely, the more we see ourselves as interconnected and intertwined with others, as part of a whole, the more inclined we are to act in a way that is beneficial to all. Everyone wants to be happy and free from suffering. Some have wiser strategies than others, and some are using downright tragic strategies, but we all have that fundamental similarity.

So how do we develop healthier strategies for happiness? If you want to play the piano more skillfully, then you practice playing the piano. If you want to develop greater interconnectedness, then you mentally rehearse it. This can be done in formal meditation and in everyday life. Buddhist psychology distinguishes four Brahma-viharas, which translates as “divine abodes” or “sublime states.” “Sublime” indicates that these states are intrinsically enjoyable and enriching, especially when they are not confused with similar but less desirable states. “Abode” here refers to the fact that these can become enduring characteristics states of one’s mind, not just temporary and fleeting feelings.

The first of these is loving-kindness, which is a general attitude of benevolence, caring, good will toward oneself and others. When an attitude of loving-kindness encounters happiness or good fortune,  appreciative joy naturally arises. As William Shakespeare put it, “joy delights in joy,” whether it’s in response to one’s own happiness or another’s. When an attitude of loving-kindness encounters difficulty or suffering, then compassion naturally arises, the wish for suffering to end. 

All of this care for others, however, can be a bit unnerving. We have enough on our plates as it is, and being very sensitive to others’ ups and downs would seem to make life even more of a roller coaster ride. For this reason, the final sublime state, equanimity, is needed. Equanimity means an even-keeled emotional stability and composure that comes from facing our experiences, pleasant and unpleasant with impartiality, with non-judgmental acceptance. Rather than struggle against what we feel, exercising equanimity allows our emotions to move through us more fluidly. We most certainly feel them, but we don’t complicate, exaggerate, or exacerbate them. It takes practice, but even the most intense emotions are much more manageable than we think, if only we can get out of the way and let them flow more smoothly.

Equanimity balances out the other sublime states.  If appreciative joy is unchecked, it can lead to an over-exuberance that puts us out of touch with others and even ourselves. Compassion without equanimity causes stress and overwhelm. However equanimity without compassion is marked by apathy and indifference. When both are developed and carefully balanced, we develop an enormous capacity to empathize and act altruistically, but in a way that is of mutual benefit rather than a drain.

The happier, healthier and more balanced we are, the more we can be of benefit to others. Self-neglecting martyrdom generally is not a good long-term strategy: it only wears us out, preventing us from helping others and enjoying the benefits of altruism. Our happiness is highly dependent on our sense of connection to the world around us. Choosing loving-kindness, and its cousins joy, compassion and equanimity, in meditation and/or in daily life, creates “upward spirals” that can bring you to a life well lived.

References and Recommended Reading:

Fronsdal, G. (2005) The Issue At Hand: Essays On Buddhist Mindfulness PracticeThe Issue At Hand: Essays On Buddhist Mindfulness Practice, 3rd ed. Redwood City, CA: Insight Meditation Center.

Eliot, G. [Mary Anne Evans] (1876). Daniel Deronda. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Epictetus (1995). The Art of Living : The classic manual on virtue, happiness, and effectiveness. (Sharon Lebell, ed.). New York: HarperOne. (Original work from 1st century C.E.)

Jefferson, T. (1975). Letter to Robert Skipwith, in The Portable Thomas JeffersonThe Portable Thomas JeffersonThe Portable Thomas Jefferson. (M.D. Peterson (Ed.) New York: Penguin. pp. 349-51. (Original work from 1771).

Salzerg, S. (2010). The Force of Kindness: Change Your Life with Love and Compassion. Sounds True, Inc.

Shakespeare, W. (1916). Sonnet #8, in The sonnets of Shakespeare from the quarto of 1609, with variorum readings and commentary. (R. Alden, ed.) Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. (Original work from 1609).


16 Responses to Choose Loving Kindness

  1. Ann April 22, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    Dr Spinella,
    Really enjoyed your article!!! Your one sentence pretty well sums it up for me, “The happier, healthier and more balanced we are, the more we can be of benefit to others.”
    Thanks for reminding me and being a guest blogger!
    Ann Brown

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar April 22, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    I agree with Ann above! This is also what resonated with me most! So true…

  3. Jeremy McCarthy April 22, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    I’ve always said that there are two fundamental beliefs we must have to create peace on Earth. One is to understand that we are all different. Two is to understand that we are all the same. What I like about this approach is how it blurs the boundaries between the individual and everyone else. A lot of times people think they can pursue wellbeing in isolation as an individual pursuit, but it doesn’t really work that way.

    Loving kindness is actually somewhat non-intuitive because it goes against our genetically programmed urges to look out for #1. But that is what makes it so revelatory when someone like Marcello brings it to our attention and gives us some language to start playing with these concepts.

    With appreciative joy for this article, Jeremy

  4. Marcello Spinella April 22, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    Thank you Ann, Marie-Josee, and Jeremy. A foundation of Buddhism is the idea of interdependence, the fact that everything and everyone exists due to a multitude of causes and conditions. Ironically, this same principle gives rise to Jeremy’s two peace principles. We can tolerate, understand, and even appreciate our diversity because everyone and everything exists the way they do due to complex webs of cause and effect. It would be impossible for us all to be alike because our various histories led us to be how we are right now.

    On the other hand, interdependence shows us that we are all the same in the regard that none of us exist in isolation. Separateness is perceptual illusion. We all exist independence on the air we breathe, water we drink, food we eat, on the people who make our clothes and homes, on the interactions we’ve had throughout our lives. Right now, through our communications, we are influencing each others’ states of mind.

    So awareness of our interdependence on one hand gives us more patience and tolerance, and on the other hand, serves as a logical basis for kindness. It’s so simple and straightforward. Jeremy’s right in that we probably have some genetic predisposition to be self-centered, and we also have probably lots of social conditioning that reinforces that. On the other hand we also have genetic and social conditioning to the contrary, towards altruism. Dacher Keltner points out that rather than “survival of the fittest,” “survival of the kindnest” seems more appropriate.

    It’s often been said that we’re products of our past, not prisoners of it. Fortunately we play an active role in shaping ourselves. So it has been one of the greatest joys of my life to discover that choices like loving-kindness exist and produce results. Ann and Marie-Josee point out, the phrase about being healthier and happier allows us to help others more. This is yet again an example of interdependence. What benefits us, benefits others, and vice-versa. Greater awareness of interdependence helps all of this fall into place, and into practice.

  5. Ann April 22, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    Thank you Marcello! I am so glad you added some additional comments! I hope you will be a guest blogger periodlically and thank you for sharing your insight because, “what benefits us, benefits others, and visa-versa” -helping me to fall into place as we speak!
    Thank you!

  6. Jeremy McCarthy April 22, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    It is so funny that you cited Dacher Keltner as I was just (literally as your comment came in) citing him myself in a blog article that I’m working on to be published a few weeks from now. the article is going to coincide with the week of my son’s first birthday and will be something like “5 facts of human nature you can learn from a baby.” The fifth fact (and where I’m citing Dacher Keltner’s research) is that “people are fundamentally good.” By the way Dacher also wrote a guest article on my blog:

    The survival of the fittest and the survival of the kindest are almost two separate systems that contradict each other and yet both are functioning simultaneously. Individually, we survive by competing on an individual basis which sometimes means being selfish or considering our own needs over others, but then we also evolve through group selection by bonding together. As you indicate, and as Robert Wright and others have argued, the latter is probably becoming more important than the former.

    Loving kindness could be a pathway towards a more conscious evolution for the human species. I just read a great article on the concept of “earth stewardship” as a way to think of managing and preserving earth’s resources for all people (crossing political and economic boundaries.) I’m hoping one of the authors, David Carter, will do a guest blog on the topic in the near future. It ties in nicely with what you are teaching us about Loving Kindness.

  7. Mark A McKenney April 23, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    I enjoyed reading your article and subsequent comments. Well rounded and concise. One point that especially stood out for me was that of choice in our daily thoughts and actions. In my case as soon as I wake up I start to thinking about the same ‘challenges’ (choices) that are in front of me. Perhpas like so many do, I want to make the ‘right’ and ‘positive’ choice so that the outcome will be of benefit to me without harming others. I think I make the ‘right’ choices and hope that it’s correct. Is ‘hope’ the correct word to use? I aknowledge there are so many influences in making my choice that I will not know I have made the right choice till later. I would want to choose to believe that many things (natural and unatural, things I cannot change) affect our choices. Are some of the choices we make part of our fate? I want to believe that I can make the correct choices in a positive way so that I and many others can benefit. Now if I could only acquire/put in/think/sow better thoughts to come up with better choices in my head and take them to fruiton into the here and now! Meditation anyone? Yoga….

    Dallas, TX

  8. Elaine O'Brien, MAPP April 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    Thank you Jeremy for a great blog spot, and Marcello for a brilliant article!!! I truly appreciate the wisdom and kindness around this post. Neuroplasticity and our choices, around the concepts of a sublime abode and equanimity are really powerful and pragmatic. This article really hit home for me. These concepts and the importance of mindful awareness resonates with me, and I’ve already shared your insight with other family members and friends.
    Again, cheers, thanks, and blessings, Elaine

    PS Jeremy, I also enjoyed your recent article about the power of touch, a very important sense and healing modality, that deserves further exploration.

  9. David M. Carter April 25, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    Thanks Jeremy and Marcello for communicating the important messages contained in this blog post and subsequent commentary.

    Loving kindness, with a focus on the natural world that sustains us and allows us to thrive, is essential to our survival as a species. I recognize that this is a strong statement, yet it conforms with the mass of scientific evidence showing how the opposite of loving kindness (i.e. our individual greed) is doing irreparable harm to the environment on which we depend.

    I think it is important that we not lose sight of the fact that our perspectives are steeped in the culture of our times. The idea that we are genetically predisposed to “survivial of the fittest”, in my mind, is over-emphasized within a culture that explicitly and implicitly condones the abuse and over use of our precious natural resources. As Marcello so elegantly states, ” separateness is perceptual illusion”. I think that the idea of the “selfish gene” is also, to a certain extent, a perceptual illusion reinforced by the cultural context in which we find ourselves. Other research in evolutionary theory and science underscores the hive nature of humans, and suggests that our interdependence, not our individual strengths, is the reason for our profound success as a species. This is good news as it demonstrates that we can collectively overcome the dangerous predicament in which we currently find ourselves. As Marcello points out, we have the inner resources (loving kindness, compassion, equanimity, etc.) necessary to create social structures that not only alleviate harmful behaviors, but simultaneously allow for social conditions through which all life on Earth can flourish.

    In my work, which I hope to present in more detail on this blog, I show how positive emotions, such as awe, hope, and love, can inspire behaviors more respectful of our environment. This affective inspiration leads to the pragmatism alluded to in Marcello’s piece. It is through the upward spirals of such inspired action that we have a chance to thrive indefinitely.

  10. Marcello Spinella April 25, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Well said David. Thank you. I look forward to your blog.

  11. Stacy (@TheZenGirl) April 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Wow, what an incredible article and thoughtful comments from everyone! Marcello, what you are saying really resonates. My head was literally nodding while reading.

    What I would like to add is the concept of self-responsibility and love. When we choose to take full responsibility for ourselves – our thoughts, actions, attitudes and beliefs – we are and have a sense of being in control of our own life, rather than being a victim or reactive to what life brings our way. When the awareness of self-responsibility and love kicks in, and we fully accept ourselves and our being-ness, we are able to feel compassion and be more present and be more available to the people, community and environment that surrounds us. In other words, what I believe is that we have to first realize and accept full responsibility and love for ourselves. Only then is it possible to give so deliciously to others and act more consistently with loving kindness. In many cases, this means we have to check our ego at the door.

    I remember my Dad telling me years ago that you can only love another as much as you love yourself. So, it does begin with #1 – ourselves. I can say from experience that the more I feel responsible and love for myself and my choices (and accept them), I am more freely able to give and “be” more freely with others in a way that facilitates love, growth and connectedness.

    Your article is superb and really brings to light some important principles that are easy to forget. We really are what we think about. And if we have the choice as to what we think and do, it allows us to fully embody empowerment, beauty and generosity on the pathway to realizing our potential as human beings. What a fulfilling way to live!

    Thank you so much for sharing, and keep up the great work.

    Best wishes, Stacy

  12. Mari Carmen Silva-Baker April 26, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    MarcelIo, in the search for wellbeing I really enjoy your article. It has really good information
    that it is easy to understand. Thank you.

  13. oz April 29, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

    Hey Marcello – I was just thinking of you. Are you still playing with HRV

  14. Cheap Supplies February 2, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    Hi there, I found your website by the use of Google even as searching for a comparable topic, your website got here up, it seems great. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.


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