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Compassion: the heart

To cultivate kindness, you really need to involve the body, and more specifically, the heart. Because that really does seem to be where we feel our emotions, or at least it's a convenient place to learn to feel them.

As I'll get into in a future post, there is good reason to see emotions not only as mental events. Rather, they seem to be a combination of body sensations ("affect") and thoughts. So if you really want to work with emotions in meditation, you're going to have to work with the body.

And where in the body, exactly? Well, of course, the heart! It's right there in our language: when we feel deeply, we speak heartfelt words; we might suffer heartbreak, and we might need a heart-to-heart with someone close to us. And the heart is implicated in our emotions in some fairly obvious ways: our hearts pound with excitement, fear, or anger. The breath in our chests quickens, too.

But before you begin cultivating kindness, you have to prepare the soil. And in this case, that is going to mean learning to feel your emotions in your body - in the area of your heart. Of course, everyone's different, and for you emotions might show up more powerfully somewhere else. But for most people, the heart area is a good bet.

To do this, what you are going to need is improved interoception - the ability to feel sensations in the interior of your body. Because of the role of bodily affect in emotion, interoception has been linked to a whole load of mental health outcomes, and, as with most things, people have varying amounts of it. But most of us don't have as much as we could, because we simply don't spend much time paying attention to what we can feel on the inside of our bodies. But that can change. Focus on the inside of your body more, and you will learn to feel it with more vividness and in more detail. Including the sensations that make up affect.

So here's what to do: sit to meditate, and focus your attention in the area of the heart, feeling inside that area of the body. You might want to focus on the breath there, as.a way of guiding your attention inside the body. Just keep on feeling it. And notice, in particular, if there are any emotional sensations showing up in that area. Any sensations that reflect your mood. Perhaps you can feel a quickened heartbeat, or shallow, rough breathing. Or perhaps there's something subtler: an emotional flavour to this area of the body. Perhaps the sinking feelings of sadness or shame, or the spreading effervescence of joy.

Or perhaps there's nothing much at all - that's going to be the case most of the time. And that's no problem. Just keep on feeling this area of the body, with a special attentiveness to any sensations that have an emotional quality to them. It's like you're listening; like you have an ear cocked to pick up the faint notes of emotion in the body.

And continue in that way, day after day, week after week. As you slowly build up your sensitivity to the sensations of the heart, and the ways that emotions manifest there. While you're doing it, you'll also be building your focus and your mindfulness, so it would be a useful practice even apart from building awareness of emotions in the body.


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