Yeah, I know: The ads for candlelight dinners, the roses on coworkers' desks, the pulsating hearts in every shop window - Valentine`s Day is hard to survive when you`re single. After I found out that my husband was cheating on me while I was bedridden, I didn't "celebrate" the day of love for five years. I avoided any tinge of romance like the plague. When I met someone new, I led with the line, 'I`m not interested in dating. I will NEVER date again.'
Then I discovered loving kindness meditation. Now I believe that more essential than finding someone who loves me is connecting with my own capacity to love. Without loving ourselves, we cannot find love, at least not the true kind of love where we don't just use others to fulfill our needs. We cannot truly be there for others if we don't take care of ourselves, yet very often we neglect the person we rely on the most: ourselves.
By loving ourselves, I don't mean cherishing I, me, and mine. I am talking about making friends with ourselves--a true, honest, warm friendship. Loving ourselves begins with taking care of ourselves: Getting sleep, physical exercise, and eating healthily are basic steps toward fulfilment.
As obvious as this sounds, I have plenty of stressed out clients who don't take care of the basics. Often we're too heartbroken, but even more often, there is a reason we don't prioritize ourselves: underneath, we don't feel worthy or deserving. Maybe we made a terrible mistake, or think we're "just not good enough."
In our modern culture, we hype the ego, yet we neglect our true selves. We place enormous emphasis on our means, and less on our life's meaning. What we look like is considered more important than what we are like. Self-respect and self-infatuation are two very different traits. They are, in fact, opposites. Accepting ourselves does not mean denying negative feelings or habits we need to work on; but only by not judging ourselves can we work to change them.
What to do
Prioritize yourself by taking just a few minutes a day to focus on your own joy. Try a simple loving kindness meditation for starters: Find a quiet, soothing place with no smartphones or other interruptions. Light a candle if you want. Sit in a comfortable posture, relaxed and upright. Take a few minutes to settle by paying attention to your breath and the present moment. Then focus on your heart region and think about a person for whom you have very warm, positive feelings. It could be someone you are very grateful to, someone who got you out of a jam. It is best to begin with someone who is alive and with whom you have an uncomplicated, easy relationship, perhaps a child. Allow the warm feeling of gratitude and love flush over you.
Then replace the focus on the breath with these thoughts:
"May you enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness."
"May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."
You can place the thought on the inbreath and outbreath.
Breathing in, "May you enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness."
Breathing out, "May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."
Keep repeating the wish for happiness, sending this person warm feelings, maybe in the form of light or love. What does this person look like when she or he is happy?
Next, extend this warm feeling to yourself.
"May I enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness.
May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."
Spend several minutes sending yourself feelings of happiness and kindness, healing and love, whatever you need. Picture yourself happy. Don't overthink things. You can put your palm on your heart region to help you connect with your innate goodness. Stay with the feeling of warmth and kindness. If your thoughts ramble or the snarling comment of your ex pops up from outer space, simply redirect your attention to the breath and the wish to be happy.
Why it works
Loving kindness (called metta in the ancient language of Pali) has been practiced for thousands for years, and the phrases I am suggesting are taken from some of the oldest Buddhist (and Hindu) scriptures. They have a 2,000-year-old proven track record, but this simple, secular version can be enjoyed by all. I find it assuring that modern science has evidenced the benefits of the practice. In a landmark study, Barbara Frederickson and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina showed that "practicing seven weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement, and awe."
University of Texas psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff has studied self-compassion for more than a decade and has found studies that show it not only helps trauma survivors to deal better with upsetting events, but it makes it easier for us to forgive. She recognizes three components of self-compassion: kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness. "An ever-increasing body of research suggests that self-compassion enables people to suffer less while also helping them to thrive," she says. "One of the most consistent findings in the research literature is that greater self-compassion is linked to less anxiety and depression."[i] While harsh self-criticism elevates our stress hormone levels, a brief exercise in loving kindness for ourselves can lower them.
By practicing loving kindness for ourselves, we enhance our ability to generate positive emotions, even when we face a distressing situation.
Take it further
One of the things I enjoy most about this practice is that we can do it in formal meditation first, but then we can carry it into daily life. When self-destructive thoughts arise, remember to return to your breath and send loving kindness to yourself. When you pass that romantically decorated shopping window or the lovebirds in the restaurant on Valentine`s Day, put your palm on your heart region and send yourself some kindness. I`ve included a step-by-step guide in Bouncing Forward, and I recommend Sharon Salzberg's classic Lovingkindness for in-depth guidance.
And then eventually, after several weeks of daily practice, you could widen the circle to include "difficult" people in your life. Don't start with your ex or your biggest enemy--just begin to include people you have some difficulties with. Don't expect or force yourself to feel a certain way. It's called "practice," not "perfect."
One day you`ll be able to include your ex.