20 September 2008

Constellations of Kindness

I am very aware when I am not feeling kind or I am having uncharitable thoughts. It's a definite physical sensation of hardness or tightness in my heart.

Take a minute and think about where you feel non-kindness. What is a sign that you are not feeling kind?

Awareness and kindness correspond to the two main ideals in Buddhism of Wisdom and Compassion. The Wisdom and Compassion of a Buddha are perfected and unified, meaning that they are an intrinsic part of each other. So that wisdom is not wisdom without compassion, and compassion divorced from wisdom is not compassion, or at any rate it is not a Buddha's compassion.

But thinking more in terms of awareness and kindness can bring things down to a level we can relate to. We may not be perfectly compassionate or perfectly clear or wise, but we can be a little more aware, we can always be a little kinder. This is how we plod along in our practice, with a little more understanding, a little more love. I think that this is the most important thing in the world to do, even when it doesn’t seem important, perhaps especially then.

Because there’s so much pain in the world. This has not changed since the time of the Buddha, and before. People being confused and angry and insecure hasn’t changed. Things are more organized now, the numbers are bigger - and we are probably more alienated from nature and each other, and have more self-loathing that the Buddha ever dreamed people could have. This is why Naomi Shihab Nye's poem tells us that
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

So in our quest for kindness and understanding, we need to get in touch with suffering, especially perhaps in the form of our own sense of separateness, intolerance, or craving. Get to know it. At least, not shrinking away from it. And we retrain our impulses by bringing them into mindfulness. This is an important part of kindness, our attitude about our own impulses. And we realize, eventually, as Ajahn Amaro says, that even a headache has its place in nature...

So we work on being more aware, and opening more to kindness. And not only kindness, but the other wholesome qualities that are closely related to it, the constellation of wholesome mental states, of which kindness is a part. Here is my personal list of qualities that "go with" kindness:

Appreciation/honesty—seeing the good and expressing it. It is much more natural in this culture to complain, to find the thing that's wrong. So many of us think of 'being honest' in rather a blunt way. But in Buddhism honesty is a very positive and skilful mental state. It includes concern for the well-being of the recipient. Its basis is the ability to appreciate people and situations.

Confidence—Confidence in ourselves, that we are basically good, worthy, and can make progress. Many of us undermine ourselves with self-criticism. This makes spiritual progress—indeed, life itself—more complicated, difficult, and painful. However confidence in this sense should not be confused with over-confidence or hubris, which is also unskillful (however, from a health and stress standpoint, probably healthier!)

Giving—Responding in terms of "How can I contribute to this person/place/situation?" rather than "What can I get out of it?" This counters another common thread in our culture which is unchecked consuming of whatever we can get our hands on (and then not being satisfied with it.) An attitude of giving, because there is enough for everyone. Enough money, enough love, enough sex, enough food, enough friendship, enough sex, enough of everything that we need.

Openness and sensitivity—This means being aware of barriers we build that don't actually protect us but rather make us feel isolated, creating more sorrow. It means being unblocked, being open, being freer.

So these are the qualities I can see that operate alongside kindness. What qualities do you think go with kindness?

(image from flickr by screenname donkeyshot)

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