A Practice of Kindness

The 32nd leg of the virtual Camino.

I was listening to a podcast yesterday about the negativity bias. It turns out that – no matter what we say – we prefer to read news articles that frighten us, or anger us. You want more hits on your blog? Tag it with negativity.

Today our guide isn’t encouraging us to meditate on a subject, but to act: to do something kind for ourselves and for someone else.

I think often about kindness. And while, I know it’s not the same thing as being kind, it is a necessary prerequisite. Kindness isn’t the same thing as indulgence. Being kind doesn’t always mean making something pleasant or even comfortable. And there is also the consideration of perspective and – well – arrogance in choosing a specific act of kindness: I know what is best for you.

Being kind requires practice, because it requires boundaries. I mean, come on, The Giving Tree, might be one of the most horrifying bits of indoctrination ever dreamed up by the want-to-be-pampered. Shel, what were you thinking? Every pregnant woman should read this as a lesson in the difference between indulgence and kindness. And how no matter what she does she’ll get the blame for her children’s egoism and wind up an old stump – and be expected to be happy.

Show me a #%&!! happy stump.

But I digress.

May she dwell in safety.
May she be happy and healthy.
May she be free of afflictions.
May she be at peace.

There are a lot of versions of the loving kindness meditation. Some use the phrase, “May she live with ease.” When I use those words I remember that one of definitions of ease is to move carefully or gradually. I’m not wishing an “easy” life for anyone. And I am not being mean.

I try not to think of kindness as tokens or events. I once saw a kind person buy a coffee for someone sleeping rough in London. When she gave it to the man, he pulled back his bag to show a row of five or so full coffee cups. That last thing he needed was another cup of coffee on this weekday morning. The last thing she needed was to be made to feel stupid for her kind gesture.

Intention matters. I do believe this. But maybe intention isn’t nearly enough.

I’m afraid if I mete out kindness like cups of coffee with good intentions, I’ll limit the good I do in the world. I used to have a routine of checking off “say one kind thing to someone a day”. It was embarrassing to admit to myself that my intentions were all wrong. It was about how I felt about myself: whether I was succeeding at being kind.
I wish I could claim that kindness comes naturally to me – as a habit. But the truth is that my practice is a continual monitoring and censoring. Is this action, are these words intended to hurt? Or do am I genuinely and freely wishing this person well? Am I expecting a reward of some kind?

This morning I had a difficult conversation with a student. Fumbling with boundaries: respecting theirs, maintaining my own. Conscious of perspectives, and how deceptive each can be when considered in isolation. Asking questions, not making accusations, not pointing out “what we both know” as a veiled threat. We both know it, mentioning it is like stepping up on a stool to look down.

There’s so much to take into account when truly wishing someone well and not merely comforting them: teaching them to move with ease up the slope, not to look for the easiest path.

It requires practice. Habit. Thinking all of that through in the moment is impossible. No doubt that’s why I am still making so many mistakes. And why I hope that intention really does matter a bit. Intention fosters habit. Habit reaps results.

A cup of coffee, eye contact and a genuine smile.

I’m going to force myself to lace up my running shoes now. Running is a kindness for my body – and nothing like an indulgence today: 6 degrees Celsius and raining.

Then I’ll write a good friend. Even though that might be a tiny bit of self-indulgence.


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