Stretching out

Note: This is an unusually long blog post, but it's actually part of the upcoming book,  Beautiful Practice. Please enjoy.


You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; in just the same way, you learn to love by loving.

Anatole France

That which is used develops. That which is not used wastes away.



We begin with the body and the physical. As children and young adults, play and sweat, run and jump, bike and swim. It’s all so wonderful, this love affair with our primal nature, but as we dig deeper into our experience, we begin to see possibilities that extend far beyond our original imagining. In fact, it turns out that the physical is just a beginning; our potential is a lot more expansive than we thought.

If we’ve learned anything from the breathtaking advances in health and exercise sciences over the last 50 years, it’s that the body is a verb. Physiology is extremely dynamic and plasticity is the buzzword of the day. All systems in the mind-body adapt according to how they’re used, every cell and tissue constantly regenerating itself to meet the challenges of life. The nervous system is the most conspicuous example of our plasticity, but it’s now possible to generalize this principle to the entire range of human capability.

To begin, consider coach Vern Gambetta’s description of the body’s “work capacity.” According to Gambetta,

Work Capacity is the ability to tolerate a high workload and to recover sufficiently for the next workout or competition. Raising work capacity will improve the athlete’s capacity to resist fatigue. It involves the functional efficiency and coordination of the cardiovascular, metabolic, and nervous system.

If we’re going to be good athletes, we need to develop the ability to train for long periods of time; success depends on our ability to perform thousands of high quality repetitions. And of course, we develop our body’s work capacity by, well, working. We train longer and harder, gradually increasing the depth and breadth of our physicality. Over the course of weeks and months, our capability grows, setting us up for increased skill development.

But it doesn’t stop there. What’s true for work capacity is true for any aptitude we might wish to develop. We can increase our attentional capacity, our sensory capacity, our creative capacity and even our humor capacity, the ability to appreciate the absurdities of life and human experience. Even better, we also have a very real love capacity, a plastic, trainable ability to extend, receive and experience love in our lives. This capacity is like every other human aptitude, physical or otherwise; we can increase its depth and breadth through effort, practice and experience.

This modern notion of love capacity has been described most recently by Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Fredrickson highlights the role of the vagus nerve, otherwise known as the tenth cranial nerve. The vagus is a powerful player in our health and experience because it links the brain-mind with the heart, lungs and other major organs. It is a primary driver of the “rest and digest” response, otherwise known as “feed and breed.” The vagus slows heart rate, enhances digestion, increases insulin production and decreases inflammation. It stimulates healing, recovery and anabolic processes that are essential to all the good things we want to do.

Researchers measure the activity of the vagus by tracking heart rate in conjunction with breathing; the result is a measure of “vagal tone.” Studies have shown that people with high levels of vagal tone tend to exhibit greater psychophysical health, higher mental and motor functioning, and more adaptive behavioral and social performance than those with lower vagal activity. In other words, high vagal tone is a very good thing for body, mind and relationships. In fact, building our vagal tone and love capacity may even contribute to our work capacity; calm and healing bodies are capable of greater physicality.

The really good news is that the vagus is plastic and trainable, just like muscle. By working with sets and reps of loving thought and imagery, we can enhance its power. Fredrickson’s research focused on loving-kindness meditation commonly practiced by Buddhist monks; study participants were assigned at random to participate in a modest amount of meditation each week. “Within a matter of months, their vagus nerves began to respond more readily to the rhythms of their breathing, emitting more of that healthy arrhythmia that is the fingerprint of high vagal tone. Breath by breath — moment by moment — their capacity for positivity resonance matured.”

This ability to increase our love capacity may well come as a surprise. After all, most of us are used to believing that love is an exceptional bolt of lighting that strikes us out of the blue; we think of love as a random, special event, not a skill or capability. But we’re wrong. Developing a healthy, loving relationship with the world is something that we can learn. It is a practice.

Of course, human capability is not all upside. Just as we have a love capacity, we also have a “hate capacity” that is equally plastic and trainable. We develop this capability with sets and reps of bile, contempt and negative judgment. Over the course of years and decades, we can even become “hate athletes.”

But hate is bad for our health, both personally and socially. Hostile thoughts and images sustain our stress response and over time, poison our tissue and our relationships. Hatred also primes our brains for increased vigilance and hostility. As the amygdala becomes sensitized to stress hormones, we become increasingly defensive, anxious and isolated, which in turn breeds increasing stress and fear. In this way, hatred ultimately turns upon its author and becomes an act of self-destruction.

Unfortunately, this is an easy trap to fall into. Our world is rich with evidence for any judgments we might care to adopt and we can make a case for almost anything. Not only that, the human mind appears to have an inherent bias towards negativity. Our bodies and our brains evolved in a highly exposed, often dangerous environment and we are naturally attentive to danger. In fact, numerous studies have shown that when it comes to capturing our attention, “the bad is stronger than the good.” Nevertheless, negativity and hatred are not inevitable; all we have to do is change the nature of our practice.

So how do we build our love capacity and become more proficient love athletes? The key is embodiment, the active living of the capability we wish to develop. As William James famously put it, “If you want a quality, act as if you have that quality.” In other words, lead with action and an authentic doing. If we challenge the body to develop a particular characteristic, our tissue will do its best to follow along with precise adaptations. If we challenge the mind-body-spirit to love the world more completely, it will figure out a way to do so.

Just as with our physical and athletic training, the practice consists of high quality sets and reps. We practice loving kindness by repeatedly wishing good fortune, healing, prosperity and happiness on other people. They may be people that we know and care about, or they can be people chosen at random; the specifics aren’t particularly important. In meditation, we might concentrate our attention on “love targets” or on the experience of loving kindness in general. Of course, this experience has nothing to do with desire, lust, attachment or the receiving of love. Rather, it is about embrace and merger, of dissolving the separateness and duality between ourselves and the world.

Outside of meditation, we practice and build our love capacity with observations and conversations about gratitude, beauty, appreciation and the wonders of our lives. We list the things that we enjoy and appreciate about others, about events and about relationship. This is the polar opposite of complaining; it’s a celebration of the beauties of life and the people around us.

In addition to meditations on loving kindness, it’s also important to track our attention through the day. What kind of sets and reps are we doing from moment-to-moment? Are we building our hate capacity with endless complaining, drive-by hostility and negative judgment? Or are we building our love capacity with kindness and well-wishing? At every moment in our life, it’s a choice. With practice, we can overcome our negativity bias and even turn paranoia into what Rob Brezsny calls “pronoia.”

Of course, it’s easy to focus on love and kindness when conditions are good. When the people around us are friendly and the weather is mild, it’s easy to concentrate our attention on the beauty and wonders of the human experience. But that’s not enough. To make real changes in our mind-body-spirit, we need to practice when times are tough. Just as the truly committed athlete does his laps in the rain or heads to the dojo at the end of a hard day, so too will the love athlete practice his meditations under the duress of social chaos and despair. Even when challenged by trying circumstance, annoying people, unrelenting stress and overt hostility, he returns his focus to love, kindness and the beauty of the world. Just as with physical training, the payoff comes when we persevere in the face of adversity.

In the end, we begin to see that there’s a lot more to love than just getting lucky. What’s true for physical athletics is also true for building an extended sense of loving kindness; we can be sure that no athlete ever lucked his or her way into greater stamina, strength or work capacity. In both cases, the process requires sustained effort and high-quality reps over the course of weeks and months and years. A Native American parable puts it perfectly:

A boy was talking with his grandfather. “What do you think about the world situation?” he asked. His grandfather replied, “I feel like wolves are fighting in my heart. One is full of anger and hatred; the other is full of love, forgiveness, and peace.” “Which one will win?” asked the boy. To which the grandfather replied, “The one I feed.”

Feed the right wolf.