Heartfulness: Activities to Take Mindfulness to the Next Level

By Bob Schwalb

Today, many people are familiar with mindfulness practices. We find mindfulness instruction online, in community centers, in places of worship, in the workplace, and increasingly it is being taught to young people in schools.

Numerous studies have documented the benefits young people often realize when they learn mindfulness techniques. These include, but are not limited to, improved focus and attention, increased relaxation, improved awareness of one’s inner and outer world, increased positive thoughts, reduced mental rumination, reduced emotional reactivity, and reduced stress. These are significant benefits that help foster a more conducive learning environment in the classroom and also cultivate in students a mind-body state that helps create an internal environment that is also more conducive to learning.

When we take traditional mindfulness practices one step further and incorporate heartfulness techniques, students begin to recognize some other very important benefits, namely increased empathy and compassion. Developing these two skills is arguably among the primary objectives of most humane education programs. Incorporating heartfulness into humane education lessons increases the likelihood that our students’ hearts will be fertile ground as we plant the seeds that we hope will one day blossom into sustained empathy and compassion.

Before we go further, let’s define what we mean by heartfulness—it is the state of bringing sustained attention to the area of our hearts with the intent of generating goodwill toward self and others. Heartfulness is embodied when we are not only present and observing what is, as mindfulness teaches us to do, but present and loving what is.

With mindfulness, we calm and bring awareness to the body and mind; we stay connected to the present moment. Being mindful is a prerequisite for developing heartfulness. Once the body and mind are calm, focused, and rooted in the present moment, we can bring calmness and awareness to the heart. Once the heart is calm and focused, we can introduce activities that generate goodwill toward self and others.

There are various activities designed to develop heartfulness in students. Any activity that opens and softens the heart is appropriate. In the context of incorporating heartfulness into humane education lessons, we should pay particular attention to developing empathy and compassion not just for those close to us, with whom we are familiar, but also for those we haven’t met and don’t know personally. Here are just a few simple activities that will help develop heartfulness.


Goodwill Meditation (5-10 minutes)

  1. Ask students to sit quietly with their eyes closed or with eyes open gazing a few feet in front of them toward the floor.

  2. Ask students to take several deep breaths in and out.

  3. Ask students to breathe normally and notice their breath for about 30 seconds.

  4. Ask students to notice sensations throughout their bodies for about 30 seconds.

  5. Ask students to focus on the area of their hearts for about 30 seconds. Ask them to visualize light spreading throughout their hearts.

  6. Ask the students to remain focused on their heart area and repeat silently after you
    • May I be happy.  May I be healthy.  May I be peaceful.  
      (Repeat this refrain 5 or 6 times.)
  7. Ask the students to think of people or animals in their lives who bring them joy. With them in mind, have the students repeat silently after you:
    • May you be happy.  May you be healthy.  May you be peaceful
      (Repeat 5 or 6 times.)
  8. Ask the students to think of all the people, animals, and parts of nature, especially those they don’t know. With them in mind, have the students repeat silently after you:
    • May you be happy.  May you be healthy.  May you be peaceful
      (Repeat 5 or 6 times.)

Gratitude Journal (5-10 minutes)

Noticing the many things in our lives that give us joy helps us to develop a greater sense of well-being, as well as a more receptive and giving heart.

Ask students to either create their own handmade journal by stapling several sheets of paper together, or ask students to use a notebook.

Set aside at least 5 minutes each day for students to write in their gratitude journal about at least one thing they are grateful for. Ask students to be as specific as possible. For instance, if a student is grateful for one of her friends, ask her to write about what quality her friend has that she is grateful for, how her friend displays that quality, and how it makes her feel when her friend displays that quality. Encourage students to also consider those whom they have never met, like the people who grow and harvest the food we eat, or the insects who pollinate the plants we rely on for food.

Encourage your students to include drawings in their journaling. Art, both creating and appreciating, can help open and soften the heart.


Storybooks on Empathy and Compassion (30 minutes)

There are many terrific storybooks for younger elementary students that focus on empathy and compassion. These books are great way for younger students to use the experience of others (fictional or non-fictional) as a way of getting in touch with their own hearts. Here are some examples: 

  • Listening with My Heart: A Story of Kindness and Self-Compassion is a wonderful book that teaches younger students how to show kindness and compassion not only to others, but just as importantly, to themselves.
  • Why Am I Me? is a very simple book for younger children to understand and appreciate the diversity of humans on the planet.
  • Emma and the Whale is a touching story about a young girl who tries to save a baby whale who has washed ashore. It beautifully illustrates compassion toward animals and the need to protect them.

Cultivating a sense of calm, joy, and goodwill in our students’ hearts helps set the foundation for developing empathy and compassion for all people, animals, and nature. When our students’ hearts are open and receptive, we can teach them about the many problems in the world and know that their hearts are primed to approach solving those problems in a way that seeks to benefit all.

When we calm the mind and body and bring awareness to it, we set the conditions for learning. When we calm the heart and bring awareness to it, we set the conditions for connecting our heart to our actions and to the rest of the world.


Bob has been meditating for more than 30 years. He taught mindfulness meditation to inmates at Wisconsin state prisons from 2016-2019. He is currently enrolled in the Sounds True Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program set to begin in 2021.

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