If virtues are our emotional “superpowers”, how do we cultivate them to support Mindful Self-Discipline?
We can discover and kindle the virtue’s “footprint” in our body, mind, and heart. Virtues are subjectively experienced as bodily sensations, emotional states, and a narrative or self-talk. For example, perseverance might feel physically like firmness or solidity in your spine, or a sense of gathering your energy, or a sense of heat and readiness in your muscles. The narrative behind perseverance could be something like, “This is important to me. I won’t give up. I will see this project to completion, no matter what!” The emotion behind it could be hope, optimism, or confidence.
Whenever a virtue is present in you, you can find these three elements. By deliberately recreating those three “handles”, you can kindle that virtue inside of you, whenever you need it. The process goes both ways.
The next time that you experience a certain virtue or a positive emotion, look for the footprints in your body, mind, and heart. They might be different things for different people, and it does require some practice and self-awareness to notice them.
The first universal method for developing any virtue is a meditation technique of kindling the virtue inside your mind, and then enhancing it by focusing on it. This is the methodology used by the well-known and well-researched Loving-Kindness meditation in Buddhism. It can be used in relation to any feeling or virtue.
The first step is relaxation. You go into a state of deep relaxation and mental calmness by using your favorite meditation technique. You could use a body scan, mindfulness of sensations, breath awareness, mantra—whatever suits you.
The second step is kindling. You re-create the bodily sensations, emotional experiences, and narratives associated with that virtue. You do this by vividly remembering a time in your past when you experienced that virtue, and then paying attention to the three handles. If you haven’t experienced this virtue before, then you can instead imagine how it feels to experience it. In any case, let your remembrance/imagination be vivid, detailed, and real, so that you actually experience those sensations and that emotional state here and now.
The third step is enhancing. This means to feed the virtue inside of you by focusing all your attention on it, moment after moment, via the three handles. The virtue itself becomes the object of your meditation. The more attention you give it, the deeper the neuropathways you will be creating in your brain regarding that mode of being. You can also create an affirmation and repeat it mentally, to enhance the experience.
The more you use this technique, the easier and quicker it will be for you to tap into that virtue in your daily life simply by remembering one or all of the three handles.