Loving kindness even in times of difficulty: A guided practice

Today I’m sharing a practice to support you in practicing loving kindness toward yourself and others even in times of difficulty. Couldn’t we all use that right now?

It’s natural for us to get caught in our threat/defense system during difficult times; whenever we perceive a threat, we humans are physiologically wired to fight, flee, or freeze. We are wired for survival, not for working skillfully with disagreement and difficulty. That can often get in the way of happiness, especially when it comes to our relationships.

Don’t get me wrong, there is great value in being wired for survival, especially when our lives are at risk. Our threat/defense system is important when used in the right context. Like if we were being chased by a hungry lion, for example. Unfortunately this threat/defense system also tends to get activated when we experience emotional difficulties, such as threats to our identity or sense of self, or threats to our sense of being safely connected in our relationships. 

When our partner complains about something we’ve done, for example, we may feel their unhappiness and sense a threat to the relationship. We can even find ourselves wondering why it seems our partner is “always” unhappy with us. We might begin to wonder what is wrong with us and why we aren’t as loved and accepted as we think we should be. We may find ourselves blaming our loved one as a way of protesting the threat to our sense of self as lovable (fighting), leaving the room, the conversation, or the relationship (fleeing), or placating them by agreeing in an effort to show we are not a threat (freezing).

Each of these strategies, while common, are harmful to our loved one and to the relationship. No one wants to be blamed, abandoned or placated.

And, we’re likely to activate our loved one’s threat/defense system or to “kick it up a notch” if it is already activated. Then we’ll often find ourselves on the receiving end of our loved one’s threat/defense strategies. 

Yikes! That’s a painful dynamic. I call it the downward spiral. But there is hope…

Rather than closing the heart and launching attacks when we feel emotional threats, what we truly need is a way to hold the difficulty in the context of the care we have for that person.

When we can hold it that way, it puts the person and the difficulty in perspective. Rather than activating our threat/defense system with its off-putting defensive strategies, it activates the care system. When we feel safely connected to others we begin to feel content, safe and connected. In the care system we are resourced rather than reactive.

Why do we need to practice shifting out of our threat/defense system and into our care system to have healthy, well-connected relationships? The thing is, what we practice grows stronger. As we continue to default to the threat/defense system, our defensive strategies grow stronger and our capacity to be caring and connect, to feel safe and soothed, is further neglected.

It takes only a quick look at the people around us, or a quick look inside at our own habits to see that the care system has been underdeveloped and underutilized. We have fallen into a kind of negativity bias. As Rick Hanson notes, “we are Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.” That negativity bias reinforces the threat/defense habit.

John Gottman, renowned couples researcher, notes that we need a ratio of at least five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. So how do we move from the negativity bias to the 5:1 ratio? From the threat/defense system to the care system? 

We stack the deck in favor of the care system and its positive outcomes by intentionally cultivating kindness, even in times of difficulty. 

In traditional loving-kindness practice, this is done by picturing a sequence of people (benefactor, self, loved-one, neutral person and difficult person) and offering each person wishes designed to increase their happiness and decrease their suffering. In the Compassion for Couples program we use this basic framework to increase our capacity to be in the care system and show up with kindness whether we are happy with our partner in this moment or unhappy in this moment.

When we are happy with our partner we often don’t see that they also have qualities that are difficult for us. When we are unhappy with them, we often don’t remember that they have qualities that we really love. And sometimes, in the busyness of our lives, we forget to notice them and wish them well entirely. 

To help us remember, accept and love them as they truly are — keeping our hearts open rather than closing them down and activating our defensive strategies — I’ve created a practice. You can use it to strengthen the care habit. 

(While I designed the practice to be used when considering your partner, you can use this practice with any loved one.)

It is helpful to start with some kind phrases ready. In the Compassion for Couples program, we spend some time creating customized loving-kindness phrases. If you have those, please feel free to use them. If not, you can work with standard phrases such as:

  • May you be happy
  • May you be peaceful
  • May you be healthy
  • May you live with ease

Take a moment to decide on which phrases you would like to use. (It’s wise to limit them to a few simple phrases). 

Here are the steps to the practice:

  • Please find a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. Letting your eyes close, fully or partially. Taking a few deep breaths to settle into your body and into the present moment.
  • Putting your hand over your heart, or wherever it is comforting and soothing, as a reminder to bring not only awareness, but loving awareness, to your experience and to yourself.
  • After a while, feeling your breath where you notice it most easily. Feeling your body breathe in and out, and when your attention wanders, noticing the gentle movement of your breath once again.
  • Then gently releasing your focus on the breath and finding yourself here in the room. You might visualize yourself sitting here, or just call up a felt sense. 
  • When you’re ready, begin offering yourself the phrases that are most meaningful to you. Opening your heart to these words, whispering them gently into your own ear, again and again.
  • Allowing the words in, allowing them to fill your being, allowing them to be true, at least for this one moment.
  • Now releasing the image of yourself, and in your mind’s eye, focusing your attention on your partner. Recalling what you love about them. Recalling a time when you felt tenderness toward your partner. (pause)
  • Offering your kind and compassionate wishes for them. Offering them to your partner like little love notes, as if you were whispering them gently into their ear… Letting yourself know how much you wish them to be true.
  • Now letting go of that image of your partner and recalling a time when you felt fairly neutral toward them. Maybe you hardly noticed them as they stood at the kitchen sink washing the dishes, or as they headed outside to work in the yard. Notice them now. Wishing your kind wishes for this person. The one you sometimes fail to notice.
  • Whenever you notice that your mind has wandered, refreshing your aim by feeling the sensations in your body. Coming home to your own body. And then feeling the importance of your words. Coming home to kindness.
  • Now calling to mind a time when you were not happy with your partner. Start small, not the most horrible time, but a time of mild to moderate distress. Maybe they left their socks on the floor again. Maybe they were late coming home again…and wishing your kind wishes for this person, the one that sometimes disappoints you or irritates you. Even then, to the best of your ability, wishing for them, may you…
  • Going slowly and taking your time with this. Returning to the sensation of the breath or to wishing your wishes for yourself whenever you need. Perhaps bringing a soothing hand to your heart as you care for both yourself and the partner who sometimes upsets you.
  • Now picturing or calling up a felt sense of each incarnation of your partner. The times when love flows easily, the times you fail to notice them, and the times you are irritated with them. They are all aspects of this person you love. 
  • See if you can extend your kind wishes to each aspect. Perhaps imagining them in a circle that includes you, and then offering your wishes to this circle, wrapping each aspect of your partner and yourself in the warmth of your good intention… May we….
  • Finally, releasing the phrases and resting quietly in your own body.
  • Gently opening your eyes.

When we practice offering kindness to our loved ones it strengthens our intention to treat them well, and it strengthens our capacity to show up with kindness rather than defensive strategies. With enough practice, responding with kindness becomes the new habit. 

Notice how it feels when you’re in a state of kindness rather than a threat/defense state. What a difference it could make in our own lives to spend more time in kindness and less time in threat/defense! And, of course, our loved ones and our relationships benefit too. 

Compassion for Couples: Building the Skills of Loving Kindness Begins May 20

If you and your partner would like to explore more ways to create a satisfying and loving relationship by learning the skills that support compassion rather than distress, the Compassion for Couples program is a wonderful opportunity to do just that.

Join Compassion for Couples: Building the Skills of Loving Kindness. Utilizing the skills of mindfulness and compassion, this program teaches couples how to build a strong and healthy foundation for your relationship, and provides couples the skills to help navigate the difficulties that arise within us and between us.

It starts Thursday, May 20th.

“I trusted this class would be great, but I had no idea how much of an instant change I would feel in my marriage. The nature of my relationship feels vastly different already. There is a renewed sense of warmth, friendship, gratitude and safety that I continue to appreciate daily.”

Enroll or Learn More

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