I’ve been thinking a lot lately about simple kindness. Mostly because these days I don’t feel very kind. The other day I was in line at a store and I sneezed from some dust in the air (into my elbow thank you very much). A woman near me cowered away in fear (Coronavirus angst) and muttered something under her breath. I literally yelled at this poor woman, “give me a break, I sneezed into my elbow!!!”. She was on the unfortunate receiving end of a raw emotional state days in the making deriving from too much work, not enough rest, and healing work that is making me feel raw and brittle. Everyone around me went silent and looked away awkwardly. Even though a small part of me felt righteous, for the most part I felt horrible and sad. Whoever that poor woman was, I’m sorry.
It’s unfortunate (and I hope you can relate) that when the pressures of life and emotional healing are on, I often revert to a default mode of stress and aggression. I yell at people in traffic, I curse (mostly silently) to the customer service representative on the other end of the line, I get irritable and short with co-workers, and worst of all, I react and get angry with the people I love the most. Why the worst sides of ourselves can come out at the people we love the most is an unfortunate truth of human existence.
I realize this behavior is a stress response to life’s challenges and a habitual pattern of survival that served me well for many years of my life (get out of my way motherfucker!), but as someone who truly desires to make the world a more kind and forgiving place and who wants to teach my son how to treat people with kindness and respect, I need to do better. On a simple level being kind to ourselves and others feels better and is the right thing to do.
And yet it is false to think that being kind means rejecting our anger and stress and somehow bypassing into pious and solemn ‘do-gooders’ who are nice to everyone. That’s not quite it. There’s nothing more aggravating to me than people who are “fake kind” (well there’s plenty that’s more aggravating but that’s near the top). They smile politely but under their breath they are seething with insults. They avoid conflict at all costs. To be kind does not mean we don’t feel the wide spectrum of painful human emotions: anger, fear, criticism, judgement, bitterness…. It’s how we hold these emotions in an atmosphere of complete acceptance and forgiveness that’s the practice of kindness and what makes us kind people to ourselves and others. Easier said than done.
Like everything, it begins in childhood. How were our emotions regarded? Were we taught, with loving-kindness and patience to be with whatever painful or benign experience we were having? Most likely only sometimes. Or were we told to “go to our room”, “deal with it”, or perhaps there was just no one around to help us navigate the stormy seas of human emotional experience. Whatever our experience, we’re taught from an early age how to handle our emotions and difficult situations and then that modeling then becomes our “internal parent”. If our internal parent is rejecting (we can take the unavailability of a loving presence as rejection) then we will reject and judge our emotional states which leads to anger and aggression. We can learn how to hold our anger in the “cradle of loving kindness” and neither reject it, nor act out.
For myself, it’s been a journey of learning to hold a loving presence with my strong feelings of aggression and soothe my experience with the medicine of kindness. My inner teenager wants to rage and scream (along with my inner child) and yet if I can give myself the space to take a few deep breaths, be with the intensity of the emotion in my body, and hold a larger space of loving kindness; I can start to turn around my default mode of yelling and reacting into one of grounded and chosen response. This takes time and patience and lots of self-forgiveness.
Kindness is not “niceness”, it’s not weak or meek. Kindness is the most powerful and mature response to a world that is filled with aggression and blame. And here is the true secret: kindness is actually our nature. The anger, stress, blame and all the other stuff- those are just temporary waves on top of an ocean of loving kindness. If we can learn to let go and feel the larger ocean of kindness, it will become an inexhaustible source of patience, forgiveness, and love in our daily lives. Kindness becomes medicine.
I leave you with a prayer written by my teacher.
May kindness stream forth from every pore of my being. May the river of kindness irrigate the barren field of disbelief. May the tears of my kindness soothe the wounds of all who suffer in this age of great despair. May the power of ordinary kindness create a great harvest of wonderment and delight. May all taste the nectar of ordinary kindness.