I recently read an article about leadership that got me thinking about kindness. Kindness seems so fundamental, and probably most of us think of ourselves as kind people, most of the time. But I was intrigued by the possibility of a more mindful and focused attention on the concept, especially as a theme for the holidays. What does kindness look like? Where am I practicing kindness, or being unkind? How can I stay more connected to kindness?
The Buddhist teacher Judy Lief writes that even in difficult times, "[i]f you think about it, the degree to which our world is stitched together with loving-kindness is extraordinary. To a surprising extent, accomplishing the simplest daily tasks requires that most people we encounter will be relatively decent, even kind. This network of decency is so close at hand, so mundane and ordinary, that it is mostly invisible to us." Reading this, I was inspired to begin noticing these ordinary and invisible things. Someone holds the door open for me. I do something clumsy, and a stranger says "Happens to me all the time." I am waiting to turn into a stream of traffic at a light, and someone lets me in. There are, of course, more grand examples, too. The oncology nurses at Rady's Children's Hospital, where I volunteer, are pretty heroically kind. They are always cheerful and smiling, even on the night shift, even facing serious illness and stress of the littlest kids, like the little bald boy whose only word on this particular day seems to be a screaming "No!"
We do not need to be in a position to save a life in order to practice kindness steadily. The journalist Krista Tippett refers to kindness as a "most edifying form of instant gratification" - I would not mind a bit more of that in life! Kindness is often just another form of mindfulness, coupled with compassion; on the flip side, many acts that seem unkind might stem from a lack of awareness. We are all busy, especially around the holidays, and this busy state may keep us preoccupied in our own world and thoughts, which in turn may lead us to be unaware of those around us, or possibly unintentionally unkind on occasion. I have definitely caught myself, when being interrupted in a train of thought, responding in a preoccupied or cursory way to someone, which may have felt unkind to them.
If, like me, you would like to set an intention of a more mindful presence to kindness, to counter some of this frantic rushing around, holidays or not, join me in beginning to notice small kindnesses. Notice how many times in the course of a day you spot kindness around you, and mark those moments with gratitude. Notice opportunities to be kind and non-judgmental to yourself, including forgiving yourself for when negative reactions arise in your mind. Think of a small act of kindness that you could do today: for instance, making eye contact with the janitor and asking her about her day. Perhaps, try kindness toward someone who upsets you. Maybe a stranger is rude to you: could you in your mind think of her with compassion, that perhaps she is having a tough day?
And of course, the hardest thing of all is to practice kindness toward someone we know, with whom we have a conflict or a challenge. Is there someone with whom you find yourself in a difficult situation or relationship? Resolve to do one thing that might soften that difficulty. Maybe, begin just by letting go of a small piece of your own internal negative reaction to that person, or perhaps take a small kind step toward them in your next interaction, whether it be a smile, a hug, or a non-reaction.
Finally, if you would like to add a kindness practice to your meditation this month, or start up a new meditation practice, here is one that I love. It is a variation on the Buddhist metta bhavana ("cultivation of love", or "loving-kindness") meditation. First, taking a deep breath, mentally repeat in the space between the in-breath and the out-breath: "May I be free of suffering". After exhaling, take at least one full slow breath and tune into the feeling of this mantra. Next, think of a loved one or a friend, and with the next breath, mentally repeat: "May you be free of suffering". Again, allow at least one full breath in between and tune into the feeling of this mantra. Next, think of someone who is challenging you right now or has challenged you in the past. On a breath, mentally repeat: "May you be free of suffering." With the next few breaths, tune in; with time, you may begin to feel the edges of the conflict soften. Finally, take into your mind the whole world and all beings in it, and on the next breath, repeat: "May we be free of suffering." Sit with your breath, tuning into any feelings that may come.
May your Thanksgiving be filled with kindness, abundant blessings, and of course, gratitude!