I’m going to start with two questions today. If you can, take a moment to reflect and just sit with whatever arises.
- When was the last time you were kind to yourself or to someone else?
- How does it make you feel to think about being kind to someone else?
Interesting isn’t it? Being kind either to ourselves or to someone else generally makes us feel good.
There is lots of research now that proves the effects of kindness on happiness and well-being, but it’s something that we as humans have known for a long time. Ancient proverbs and religious texts abound with guidance on kindness.
Maybe this is something we’ve lost along the way. Our focus has become more about success and growth rather than appreciation, and thus our outlook hinges more on what a situation can offer us, than what we can offer to the world. I think this is crucial to our understanding of kindness in our mindfulness practice because the origins of kindness in Buddhism emphasise the quality of kindness in our awareness rather than specific acts of kindness.
The starting point is therefore not “what random acts of kindness can I perform to enhance my well-being” but on wishing loving-kindness to our friends and family (and later to all beings). It is an outward looking perspective that inevitably leads to us acting in a kindly way through our innate compassion. If we pay attention to our friends and family, we will notice when they are in need of help and respond in an altruistic way. This is empathy.
Even before this point however, we have to be kind to ourselves. Until we can be kind to ourselves, we won’t have the energetic resources to be kind to others. Accepting our imperfections and mistakes with kindness and love, frees us up to then direct our compassionate attention outwards to others. In the beginning, it can feel difficult to direct love and kindness towards ourselves. We’re so used to judging and criticising ourselves that kindness feels indulgent and awkward.
If that’s the case for you, you can start by feeling loving kindness for someone you naturally want to care for, like a pet, or a child, or a friend. Getting a feel for that loving-kindness and then seeing if you can start to direct a little towards yourself as well. It can help to think about this in terms of “we” by including yourself alongside this being you find it easy to care for. “May we both be well. May we both be loved. May we both know peace”.
This is an ever-evolving practice with ups and downs. In the periods that I have suffered with anxiety, my attention has been drawn inwards and my focus has had to rest on being kind to myself before I can then start to turn my attention outwards again to others. Think of it like a sea anemone. Curled tightly up and then slowly unfurling to release its arms outwards. If something startles it, it curls up again, but will always restart the process of slowly opening up again.
This unfurling process in us has three stages and it’s OK to travel up and down these stages as much as we need.
If you want to deepen your kindness practice, then here are the best ways to do so.
Practice loving-kindness meditation.
- This strengthens the parts of the brain responsible for kindness and empathy
- You can download my loving-kindness meditation here
Give kindness a go
- Sometimes our kindness muscles need a little practice before we can get to a stage of complete altruistic kindness. There are lots of great resources in this website that will help you to get started with practicing more kindness in your life
Listen with no objective other than to understand deeply what another is telling you
- When you’re with family and friends, give them your full attention
- Empathise with their situation and feelings
- When judgement and criticism arise in your thoughts, explore what the kind alternative would be
Some of my favourite books on compassion.
And a good one for children.