In order for mindfulness to take root in our lives and to receive its full range of benefits, it needs to be infused with whole-heartedness – what we call “heartfulness” here at Mindful Schools. The qualities that comprise heartfulness – like kindness, gratitude, and generosity – are both beneficial states in and of themselves, leading to greater well-being and happiness, as well as essential supports for mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness can sound pretty heady. For most Westerners, that word “mind” takes us right up into our head. But the quality of mindfulness itself is as much an embodied awareness as anything mental. And an integral part of this awareness is the affective center of human life – the heart-sense.
To be heartful while being mindful means that our attention is not relegated to a cold, observing distance – but rather includes a warm, heartfelt relationship with whatever is happening in our experience, internal or external. It means that we are developing the capacity to regard life with a sense of empathy and kindness.
Instead of being driven by the pleasure/pain principle, both mindfulness and heartfulness practice teach us how to relate to the inevitable discomforts, pains, and losses of life with more balance, steadiness and compassion.
We can practice heartfulness in two ways: first, by bringing a quality of care and empathy to whatever is happening, internally or externally; second, by actively and intentionally strengthening specific qualities of heart. Whether its kindness, gratitude, generosity, compassion, or any number of other positive emotions, their cultivation all contain three components: initiating the quality, sustaining attention, and savoring its effects.
Here, let’s explore cultivating kindness, a key foundation of all heartfulness practice.
To develop the quality of kindness, one often begins by thinking of a dear friend or relative for whom its easy to feel a natural sense of warmth or care. See their image in your mind’s eye, their eyes smiling at you. Take some to feel their love. Then shift your attention to offering your loving care to them, letting it flow freely from your heart to theirs in your imagination.
This initial part of the practice is designed to elicit the quality of kindness or – when that’s not accessible – the intention towards that quality. For this phase, it’s helpful to be as clear and specific as possible about the person (choose just one living person).
The next part of the practice involves sustaining our attention on the quality of warmth, care, kindness. Some people find that they can simply dwell in that heartfelt warmth directly, letting it grow and expand. For most, a few simple phrases are repeated silently that express the genuine wish for another’s well-being. (“May you be safe and happy. May you be healthy and at ease.”) As you repeat the phrases, tune in to the genuine intention in your heart for that person’s well-being.
The aim here is not to magically improve their state, but to actively and directly strengthen the quality of care and love in our own heart and mind. The more loving and kind we are, the more others around us will benefit.
To reinforce the changes that are happening in our brain while we practice, the last component is to actively savor the feeling and any effects on the mind-body. As you repeat the phrases, or dwell with the quality, notice any sensations of warmth, openness, softening, relaxation that occur in the body. Allow yourself to fully and completely receive them.
The Benefits of Heartfulness
Research has shown that kindness meditation produces an increase in positive emotions, which leads to a wide range of benefits, from increased sense of purpose and satisfaction in life, to reduction in depression and illness symptoms.1 However, one doesn’t need a scientific study to know that it feels good to give and receive kindness! Just think of the last time you smiled at a friend, or were received with genuine warmth. How did that feel? Kindness brings happiness and well-being directly to our lives.
Initially, the quality of kindness is an occurrence (or state) in our lives – something that happens occasionally depending on certain conditions. With repeated and steady practice, kindness can develop more into an attitude or orientation to life (a trait) – something that characterizes the very way we experience and relate to ourselves and the world around us.
 Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95(5), 1045.