8. How to be Kind
"Love" has so many different meanings; and "compassion" can feel lofty and remote.. But about "kindness" has a heartfelt warmth and spontaneity about it. "Kindness is my religion", proclaimed the Dalai Lama, so let us upgrade it from its modest and personal connotations. Metta, translated as "loving kindness", is after all one of the four Brahma Viharas or "blessed abodes", up there with compassion, equanimity and empathetic joy.
Who is it that wants to be Kind?
Before hastening to discover how we can acquire this precious quality of kindness it will be helpful to reflect a little on "Why do I want to be kind?
Adrift on impermanence and insubstantiality, this fearful self struggles to establish an approved and affirming identity, above all in righteousness - the being good and right -- and in being kind. As David Loy has observed of the stories we like to tell ourselves (1). "Our identities are constructed from what we detest as well as what we love ... We prefer the orientation of a moral code, even if we don't follow it, to the disorientation of life without one." For example, helping others can make us feel good (and also superior to them), and win the social approval and self-esteem so much craved in maintaining a strong self-identity. In fact, such self-serving motivation tends to make us less serviceable to the helped who may, correspondingly, feel that they are being robbed of their self-esteem. To paraphrase Chekhov: "If you see someone coming towards you with the determination to be kind, make off in all haste in the opposite direction!"
This, however, is not the whole story. To stop there would be a misanthropic caricature of humanity. We commonly call the above sense of self a "small" self, a deluded expression of an authentic self. This latter is termed our "buddha nature" or, in Zen jargon, "Big Mind". (We can leave aside here the question of the nature of the self, which is treated in Talk Seven: "Using the Self to Transcend the Self"). Our authentic selfless self is moved by a natural and spontaneous kindness wholly responding to and at one with the needs of others.
Adequately to distinguish these two underlying kinds of motivation requires the cultivation of considerable insight, to see through the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Here, as elsewhere in these tricky realms, a logical, and earnest sensibility cannot take us far... It were better to accept our limitations, love ourselves and do our best.
Kindness, Intentionality and the Will
Traditionally Buddhism proceeds through three stages of training. Before clear seeing (samadhi) and insightful wisdom (vipassana) there is work to be done on sila, or moral observance. This involves restraint, aided by cognitive knowledge and personal reflection: "To study Buddhism is to study the self" is the first step (and an enduring practice) emphasised by the Buddha and all successive teachers. Thus we learn to recognise the existential pressures which move us to unkindness, reflect upon their consequences for ourselves and others, and endeavour to exercise the prudent and skilful restraint of which the moral precepts remind us. For example. where possible, we should avoid people and situations which arouse in us feelings of enmity so strong that we are not yet able to handle them positively. In other words, don't water the weeds. Some Westerners, hot in pursuit of insight and enlightenment, may be inclined to deny these so-called preliminaries the attention they deserve. Moreover cognitive understanding and conceptual reflection -- the realm of belief --are not so sharply divided from insight as may be supposed, in the often slow but steady growth of the one into the other.
The other side of restraint is aspiration. What is sometimes termed "basic Buddhism", is replete with virtues like the five ethical precepts, the perfections -- the paramitas -- and the four great vows of Chan practice.
The foregoing is the practice of intentionality, which is there to remind and inspire us as to what we are truly endeavouring to do. To frame some half dozen personal intentions, reflecting our knowledge of our self and its failings, is a useful reminder to have before us. However, although "May I be kind in all my dealings", for example, may provide a helpful reminder they do not specifically tell us how to go about the cultivation of kindness. The self all too readily resorts to the exercise of the will. The will is, after all, the major resource available to the deluded self for powerfully achieving and acquiring whatever it aspires to, and is much encouraged for "getting on" in all walks of life. However, we do not need Dr Freud to remind us of the dangers of top dog trying to kick bottom dog into a state of grace - "You will be kinder next time!" The driven and desiccated moralist is to be found in all religious traditions has wrought much damage..
Simone Weil, one of the most insightful mystics of our time, has proposed two legitimate uses for the will in spiritual practice (2). The first is the ethical one of the emergency stop. "STOP! Just don't do it ! You know what will happen if you do...". It is only for emergency use, until we have grown ethical personalities, beyond ethical behaviours. The second use of the will is to sustain spiritual practice, which entails for most of us travelling a long and often hard road. However, even here let us be mindful of the middle way and the Buddha's rejection of extreme ascetic practices. The gateless gate in fact lies open, and virya (forceful energy) must be balanced by the easeful patience of ksanti (patience).
We are now ready to consider the next level in the cultivation of kindness.
In most Buddhist traditions the metta-bhavana practice of loving-kindness meditation is the best known response to the question of how can I be kind? Basically the meditator wishes happiness, well-being and freedom from pain and suffering (or something similar) firstly to his or her self, secondly to a loved one, thirdly to someone for whom their feelings are neutral, and fourthly towards a person for whom they experience enmity. For "wish" the words "may be" or similar expressions are found; the choice is important, to avoid connotations which might encourage the willing of feelings of kindness. Many contemporary versions of this meditation are on offer. One of the more sophisticated is that offered by Ezra Bayda, and not the least interesting in that he is a foremost advocate of the increasingly popular practice of emotional awareness (3). It is significant that Bayda eases the meditator's way in that the fourth and final round is directed not specifically to individuals who are disliked but, more generally, "towards all beings." To make this meditation more accessible "empathy" may be substituted for "kindness". For it is possible to experience empathy toward someone for whom we cannot feel kindness.
In my experience most practitioners do find that this meditation serves to open their hearts and arouse kind feelings and even behaviour towards those with whom they would experience difficulty and resistance. However, I believe a significant minority find resistance to the meditation itself, where it comes to wishing love and kindness to those they dislike - including themselves. And some claim an aversion to what they see as a roundabout willing of inauthentic emotions,such as Cordelia experienced when urged to voice her love for her father. A skilful teacher can turn this to advantage by encouraging the student to go more deeply into this resistance, in other words, to turn the metta meditation from a via positiva into the more profound via negativa which is surely the foundation of Dharma practice. Thus, as I shall argue below, our unkindnesses become our most precious resource in the cultivation of a truly kind personality. The relationship, in this practice context, of via negativa and via positiva in Buddhism is a fascinating one which merits fuller exploration.
We know from neuroscience and related therapies that the repetition of specific feelings can strengthen the neural pathways and lead to those emotions becoming sufficiently embedded as to change behaviour. At this level loving-kindness meditations undoubtedly "work". They are welcome and valuable in that they offer manypeople a ready practice enabling them to behave with greater kindness in their lives - which is no small achievement. I would, however, offer two reservations.
First, in view of the desire to be kind of this needy self, there is surely a strong temptation to call up some degree of will in wishing loving kindness. And, as we have seen, the exercise of the will in spiritual practice is to be treated with great circumspection.
Secondly - and more important - there is the danger of spiritual by-passing. That is to say, satisfied with the behavioural effects of loving-kindness meditation, we may fail to pursue more deeply our enquiry into the origins of our inclination to unkindness.
Going Deeper: Wise Kindness
We become profoundly kind not through some impatient, ready-fix grafting of kind behaviour onto our existing personality. A kindness for all seasons is only possible through the patient cultivation of a kind personality. It is the spontaneous kindness of that authentic self to which I briefly referred earlier in this paper.
Wise kindness is distinguished not least by its discriminating clarity. So often we find ourselves involved in situations which move us to speak out or act with what we suppose to be kindness. However we may, unaware, be moved primarily out of a needy anxiety to be kind and to be seen to be kind. Our self-centred view of the situation may blind us to a more realistic appreciation of it. In Zen this is called grandmotherly kindness. Contrariwise, to the extent we have been freed from a self-serving perception, we may discover that we may have to be what appears to be harsh in order in fact to be truly compassionate and helpful. As that Chan classic, the "Xinxinming" has it, "When you are not attached to anything, all things are seen as they are".
I shall never forget the graphic accounts given by my first teacher, Ven. Myokyo-ni (then Irmgard Schloegl) of her experiences as a youthful alpinist. Once, on a narrow icy ridge one of the roped up party panicked and threatened to drag all of them to their deaths. "Cruel to be kind", the guide had the presence of mind to bring him to his senses by striking him across the face and screaming at him. Less dramatic incidents challenge all of us, when a friend trapped in a difficult personal situation seeks our advice. Fearful of losing a friendship and anxious to display our kindness, do we consolingly support him or her, and even aid and abet what they propose to do, however foolish it privately seems to us. ? Or, as a true friend, do we tell them some unwelcome home truths, and as a more detached observer, suggest an alternative course of action ? It seems to me that where our cultivation of kindness has stopped at the behavioural level we may lack the discriminating wisdom to be truly kind. Moreover if we have cultivated sufficient wisdom, and the equanimity which goes with it, we shall not be afraid of misunderstanding the situation and intervening in a way which turns out to be unhelpful and misleading.
In cultivating, through a deepening emotional awareness, a wise and compassionate personality which can be no other than kind, we shall need wholeheartedly to accept the involuntary unkindnesses to which we fall prey. Like the other discomfitures (and worse) which life inflicts upon the self, we must learn to open ourselves positively, intimately and physically to our unkindness. And no less to the guilt, self-blame which being unkind makes us feel. "May all sorrows ripen in me", proclaims Shanti Deva. In a well-known poem the Sufi sage Rumi urges us to welcome even the ugly and unwelcome guests who turn up on our doorstep, of which our various unkindnesses are surely among the nastiest (For the poem, see "Talk Seven" in this series).
This hugely challenging via negativa is central to all Buddhist and other spiritual traditions, and I have described it more fully in "Talk Seven: The Practice of Emotional Awareness". Below I offer a reminder and checklist of the different facets of this practice. It is an adaptation of the acronym RAIN. favoured by some mindfulness teachers.
RECOGNITION: Blinded by the strong emotions evoked by some discomfiture of our self we need to recognise explicitly how we feel, even so far as labelling, e.g. "hurt".
ACCEPTANCE: This refers to the heartfelt and positive acceptance of the discomfitures, great and small, which life inflicts upon the self. This is opposite to how we customarily react, and requires a radical turnabout in our attitudes. Acceptance of how things are - their suchness - is fundamental to Buddhist practice, and ultimately an empowerment. It liberates us from the endless conflict between wanting this and rejecting that, which causes so much suffering in our lives.
INVESTIGATION is something of a misnomer. What is required is a profound, intimate and embodied emotional awareness of the painful afflictions in our lives as our fundamental practice, on and - especially - off the cushion. See the papers referred to above.
NON-IDENTIFICATION: This means not taking your feelings so personally; leaving some space around them. That is to say, do not believe all the stories you tell yourself about yourself. Recall the life-long and unwinnable lawsuit which the self conducts against the impermanence and insubstantiality of reality. This creates a distorted and deluded sense of "self". Can we truly believe that is our authentic self?
Gold out of Straw: How to Spin Kindness out of Enmity
Enmity encompasses not only unkindness but ill will, rancour, hostility, envy, bitterness, resentment, animosity and much other mind-disturbing, guilt-inducing stuff. We may feel it in ourselves, or may be on the receiving end of it, or both. We may feel it towards a parent, child or spouse, towards a co-worker, or towards a public figure. Enmity can give Buddhists a lot of trouble. In many instances our enmity may make us feel doubt, regret, guilt or even pain, especially when someone close to us is involved. At work it may add a disagreeable complication to the everyday demands of the job. And a sense of outrage about the public figures we love to hate does little for our peace of mind. It is also likely to get in the way of a more objective understanding of what they are up to and hence of doing something effective about it.
One response is that we may try to deny our feelings, or feel guilty about them. We may even develop a corrosive enmity against our own selves, because we don't feel as a good self should feel.
The difficulty with enmity is that in many cases there may be very evident grounds for it, whether it be felt by oneself or directed at another. We may be trapped in strong feelings of the injustice done to us, of the unreasonableness of another person. Surely we have some right to feel enmity towards them ? Why not give them what they deserve, in a bloody good row, a thorough humiliation, a well-merited sacking, or even a bloody good revolution ? And sometimes the sheer force of righteous outrage may appear to flatten the other party and resolve the problem.
Nonetheless, badly hurting with our violence of word or deed a person, or a social class or movement, or a nation, or the natural environment, commonly has a price, paid over the years, poisoning perpetrator and victim alike. There is more than pious homily in the warning in the Dhammapada that "Hate is not conquered by hate; hate is conquered by love. This is the eternal law." The twentieth century has the appalling example of the so-called 1914-1945 "war". The Treaty of Versailles that concluded the First World War so humiliated and punished the Germans as to lead directly to the even more destructive Second World War. Usually, whether on the public or personal level, there is no outright victor and only a deepening polarisation, as in the long running enmities of Northern Ireland. And, on the personal level, the unforgiving rancour of divorcing parents can blight several childhoods late into life.
There is a third response to enmity, beyond either denial, guilt or letting it rip. For Buddhists the golden rule is always first to look within, to be scrupulously self-aware. For the present, forget the other. The feelings we experience are our feelings, not theirs. It is our problem (whoever else's it also is), something that we are carrying around with us and which is disturbing us. Just to get to this point of turning the question round may itself bring some relief.
We do not respond to others as if we were dispassionate reflecting mirrors. We respond as precarious, needy beings, struggling in the world to affirm some reassuring sense of self-identity. It is this that characteristically drives our feelings, perceptions and behaviours, and, largely unbeknown, distorts our mirror view of others.
In this connection the Buddha likened our discomfiture to being struck by two arrows when we felt we had been struck by only one. The first arrow is the objective ground for our enmity - the incident, the alleged injury or whatever. The second is how we experience the blow - what it feels like for us. To be aware of this distinction is a vital step in the development of the practice of emotional awareness (4)
Sometimes enmity may arise on the merest pretext. Probably most of us carry around with us in one pocket or another at least a bit of enmity ready for use. After all, surely someone or something must somehow be responsible for the mess ? The perpetrators of endemic, low level enmity may be largely unaware of their acerbic manner, their abrasive style, their waspishness. Some books do have a quarrelsome smell about them. I recall a letter to the editor of one of the more fundamentalist ecological magazines. The reader complained that "though in complete agreement with the substance of what you say, there is a spirit of aggression emanating from the pages that makes me recoil from it. I can understand this - there is good reason for anger; the anger appears to have curdled, however, and become vengeful and spite ridden."
The most difficult and important stage in dissolving the experience of enmity lies in cultivating a level of awareness in which we are able to open ourselves clearly, intimately and profoundly into the bare acceptance of that experience. Such emotional honesty can appear hurtful and threatening to our self-esteem, to our very sense of self. We therefore need to be no less aware of our characteristic evasions - fixating on the injury done to us, projecting our indignation on the perpetrator, trying to rationalise our emotional discomfort away (or just denying it altogether), beating ourselves up with guilt, and so on.
As we learn to become intimate and accepting of our own feelings of enmity they begin to release their grip on us. We begin to view the objects of our enmity in their own light, as it were, rather than in ours. George Orwell warned that "one cannot get away from one's subjective feelings, but at least one can get to know what they are and make allowances for them," so as to avoid falling into "a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matters" (5).
At this point it will be helpful to reflect as calmly as possible on what actually may have happened. We may then perceive that, for example, a criticism someone made of us was in fact reasonable and well founded. But that it was made by someone whom we believe dislikes us, and was delivered in a disagreeable manner. So we may then dismiss the criticism as "mere carping" coming from someone whom we could not expect to treat us fairly. We may feel belittled by them. Or even treated unjustly. In short, we then experience some enmity towards that person.
Accepting our feelings just as they are, we not only start to accept the other (with their enmity) just as they are, but also start to see more clearly the overall situation in which the mutual enmity occurs. The problem then appears more as a situation to be resolved than another person or group to be corrected or punished or defeated. This revelation is commonly accompanied by a release of tension. Once we get the knack of this practice a new lightness of being is possible. For example, the divorcee may abandons with some relief his or her stressful and futile hectoring that the former spouse should change (and perhaps gives up for the present even trying to forgive them) . He or she is freed to getting down to negotiating a working partnership in the interests of the children.
Whether at the public or personal levels, none of the foregoing implies any endorsement or acceptance of wrongdoing or injustice. Instead it is about a shift in perception which empowers us to respond to the situation with a new clarity. Freed of what Orwell called "subjective contamination" we are in a much better position to achieve a satisfactory resolution. Mahatma Gandhi, in his use of creative non-violence, was very clear about this. He was always adamant that there should be no compromise on fundamental, reasonable and minimum demands for redress. To the extent that the adversary refused to meet such demands the struggle should resolutely be sustained. But it should no less be a struggle to deepen the adversary's awareness of the suffering and injustice that is being perpetuated, and to do so through mutual respect, genuine communication, and some recognition of common interest.
A willingness to enter into authentic dialogue and a tireless search for an optimal resolution of the problem is the mark of the dissolution of enmity, in at least one party. Where there is a raging confrontation the prospect of constructive dialogue is unwelcome, as a threat to the seamless righteousness with which one or both sides identify. Through such dialogue a constructive and mutually beneficial reconciliation is possible, as in the historic achievement of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk in South Africa, underpinned by the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation confessionals.
Thus, through awareness and acceptance enmity can be dissolved and reconciliation achieved. Beaming loving-kindness (metta) to the next crooked politician we hear posturing on the Today Programme may take longer. However, reconciliation does provide favourable conditions for the arising of loving-kindness and compassion, though best at first to people we can get to know well. And when our awareness practice makes us familiar and accepting of our own frailties, and we come to love ourselves, our hearts are opened more readily to accepting in fellow-feeling the frailties of others.
However, I believe the two most important breakthroughs are when we can distinguish the arrow of affliction from the arrow of experiencing that affliction, and when we can take full responsibility ourselves for the way in which we experience enmity, regardless of the alleged culpability of whoever we may hold responsible. This is nicely illustrated by a parable of the Daoist sage Chuang-Tzu. Rowing across a river our passage may be impeded by empty boats that have got adrift. These we push aside without concern. However, if there are people in the boats, although the problem is the same, we get angry and shout at them for wilfully obstructing us (6).
The above is primarily about the inner work of dissolving personal enmity. In group situations it can be combined with one or more of the many conflict resolution and interpersonal skills strategies and methods that are available. One which works well with what is proposed here is Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication (www.cnvc.org).
A postscript on Societal Kindness
For routine public unkindness we need look no further than much of the UK press. It exploits not only greed but also the existential rancour, resentment and negativity exploited by many politicians as in, for example, their populist scapegoating of asylum seekers, "scroungers" and the like. ("After all, someone must be to blame for my unhappiness!") Unkindness does seem to be rife in many areas of public life. (including the heedlessly speedy interactive web). True, a certain "kindness" (often edged with a crowd-catching sentimentality) may be found in the pronouncements of many of the high and mighty. Chekhov was rightly suspicious of such wholesale trade in benevolence, and preferred the retail sort, where hypocrisy is easier detected.
These many kinds of nastiness out in the public realm have the same gutsy, gratifying feel which most of us find all too familiar in our own outbursts and resentments. The same "fires" of rancour and greed which the Buddha identified in individual lives can be identified and sensationally supercharged in the driven follies of institutions and nations, movements and ideologies on the "butcher's block of history", as Hegel called it. However we define "unkindness" it can hardly be extended to fit, say, the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of people. We are here moving beyond the scope of this paper and into the discourse of a socially engaged Buddhism which has now become an accepted facet of Dharma. In my book "The New Social Face of Buddhism" (Wisdom, 2003) I have tried to get to the heart of it, and David Loy (among many others) has written wisely and extensively on the same subject, most notably in his "Money, Sex, War and Karma" (Wisdom, 2008). And for the inner work, the personal practice, I would particularly commend Donald Rothberg's "The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming the World" (Beacon Press, 2007).
Nonetheless, if we keep the use of the word within bounds, how to be kind at the public level is as legitimate a call upon us as in our face-to-face lives. And if those closer to us - in need of our help voluntarily or professionally - call more urgently for our time and energy, then so be it, without guilt or blame. The inner work of emotional awareness remains the same, where, in both our kindness and unkindness, we are ripened to become deeply kind people working unreservedly for a kinder world.
(1) David R. Loy, The World is Made of Stories Wisdom, 2010, pp64-65.
(2) Simone Weil Waiting on God Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.
(3) Ezra Bayda BeingZen: Bringing Meditation to Life Shambhala, 2003, pp123-128.
(4) The parable of the two arrows will be found in the Samyutta-nikaya, xxxvi.6 (the Sallatha Sutta).
(5) George Orwell The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus) Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich, 1968. v3. pp293-299.
(6) Thomas Merton quotes the river crossing parable in his Way of Chuang-Tzu, Unwin Books, 1970, p114.