Choosing Kindness

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all this is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

~ Dr. Howard Zinn quoted in Joan Halifax’s “Standing at the Edge.”

Are you noticing the kindness that surrounds you right in this moment? Even though the mind may be stressed, distracted, or frustrated, what about the kindness of the air that fills our lungs? The kindness of someone cooking dinner? The kindness of birdsong marking the start of spring? It is this kindness of “the 10,000 things” that is sustaining our very existence. We do not usually see the world in this way, but when we take up meditation, it becomes very clear that we are profoundly interdependent with one another, and that kindness that emerges from gratitude is the basic functioning of this interdependence. How can something so simple be an act of defiance?

Kindness (metta) is the activity of benefitting the well-being of another without an agenda for self gain. Compassion (karuna) is a particular form of kindness in how we meet suffering (for self and other) with an intention to serve, to relieve that distress. In Buddhism, kindness is a central practice that is both deliberately cultivated and also one that points to our most fundamental nature, helping us gain insight into what’s most true about the way we exist. Kindness and compassion are considered one of the four “heavenly abodes” (Brahma Viharas), that, along with joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekka) embody the mind of awakening. To live life from these mind states transforms our suffering and the pain of others into insight and interconnectedness.  

Ideally, we engage in kindness and compassion from our most centered still mind, one that is embedded in the mutuality of our existence. This mind relies upon open ready presence over intellectual knowing. This mind is not attached to outcome. When we move from this place, it is hard to say who started this kindness or which direction it is flowing as it benefits not only the one offering and the one receiving, but even those who witness kindness – something we call “the emptiness of giver, receiver and gift.” This is a marvelous way to live, sort of like the moment when you learn to ride a bike without hands.   

While we don’t often call attention to our kind acts for kudos in Zen, there is something happening in our community that we feel called upon as a sangha to support in this very way. This movement called “Spreading Kindness” makes this act of sharing stories also kindness in and of itself. By turning attention to kindness, spreading the message of its value, everyone’s potential to live in a more and more awakened way is enlivened. In short, it’s catchy! This activity has already changed the cultures in schools and businesses, government and religious organizations.

Kindness does not belong to a religion – it is a universally recognized human value. In Zen we say, it is our inherent buddhanature at work when we align with our deeper mind – but others have different ways of expressing it, which is marvelous. What would happen if care and kindness were central values in all our institutions?

But don’t take my word for it that the mind of kindness is itself liberation. Try it out in your practice and see what happens. All of Zen is an experiment, so notice what surprises arrive if you make kindness a daily meditation. While we fear it might be “just one more thing I have to do,” but another possibility is that the practice of kindness enlivens our experience of life, and we actually begin to let go of the stress and reactivity that makes living much harder.

Steps to Realizing Kindness and Compassion

Step One –  Notice

Don’t change anything. Don’t effort. For a week, just notice all the kindness around you. What stranger at the grocery store opened the door for another? What barista honestly asked about your day? What beautiful spring tulip got you out of your head for a moment? Who did you touch? Just notice. Try putting a few sticky notes in prominent places that say “Notice Kindness.”

Step Two – Choose

This step has its own magic. Choose kindness and compassion when it might be hard to choose. We are always interacting with others, people, plants, animals, and the so called “inanimate” world. Notice when the mind is being reactive, irritated, bored or judgmental, and choose to do something kind for another. Don’t think this needs to be elaborate – a kind word or gesture will do. A lovingly handled teacup is kindness. Offering another undivided attention is kindness. Take a breath and see what is needed. What might bring well-being to another? What alleviates suffering? Be creative. Let go of “shoulds” and the evaluating mind. Let it come from the heart.

Step Three – Share

Take a moment to share stories from either of the above activities here online, or if you are pressed for time, tell Kensan and he will post them for you. Make this an offering to the community beyond the zendo walls. It is a radical act to share these stories that challenge our media’s fixation on our worst human qualities. We can share our stories without being attached to being seen in any way — but instead, share because it’s marvelous to participate in life when practicing kindness.

The future is an infinite succession of presence. Arrive in kindness.

With palms together,


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