How to Make Yourself Nicer

Compassion meditation can rewire the brain for kindness.

ByColumn By Dan Harris
March 04, 2014, 1:24 PM
PHOTO: Compassion meditation can rewire the brain for kindness.
Compassion meditation can rewire the brain for kindness.
Getty Images

March 4, 2014— -- I suspect a lot of people are going to want to share this with their spouses – or arrange to have it emailed anonymously to their bosses.

There is an ancient practice, thousands of years old, designed to boost your compassion. And now, scientific research suggests it actually works – making people more generous, and even rewiring parts of the brain that govern empathy and understanding.

It’s called compassion meditation.

I’m not going to lie to you; at first blush, most rational people find the below off-putting in the extreme. Trust me — or, better, trust the scientists. It’s worth it.Here’s how to do it:

Step 1

This practice involves picturing a series of people and sending them good vibes. Start with yourself. Generate as clear a mental image as possible.

Step 2

Repeat the following phrases: May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you live with ease. Do this slowly. Let the sentiment land. You are not forcing your well-wishes on anyone, you’re just offering them up, just as you would a cool drink. Also, success is not measured by whether you generate any specific emotion.

As my friend, the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg says, you don’t need to feel “a surge of sentimental love accompanied by chirping birds.” The point is to try. Every time you do, you are exercising your compassion muscle. (By the way, if you don’t like the phrases above, you can make up your own.)

Step 3

After you've sent the phrases to yourself, move on to: a benefactor (a teacher, mentor, relative), a close friend (can be a pet, too), a neutral person (someone you see often but don’t really ever notice), a difficult person and, finally, “all beings.”

A few years back, after some initial reluctance (perhaps the word “revulsion” is a better fit), I started doing compassion meditation a couple of times a week on top of my regular mindfulness meditation. It changed my life. It’s not that I’m suddenly a saint (ask my wife). It’s just that it’s helped me make it a priority to be nice, to push myself to take other people’s perspective, and to have fewer arguments and more positive interactions – all of which simply feels good.

I've recently written a book, called 10% Happier, about how a skeptical news anchor became a reluctant meditator. Click here for more information.

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