When we have learnt how to be kinder to ourselves, we can begin exploring what it really means to be kind to others.
I used to believe that being kind was doing something thoughtful for someone else, required some effort on our part – the ‘I’ve made you your favourite meal’ syndrome. And of course this is a form of kindness, yet it has a sting in its tail – it expects some appreciation of your kindness. Have you ever made this sort of effort, and had a lack of appreciation? I know that my reaction tends to be: ‘I don’t know why I bothered!’
Slowly I began to realise that this effortful kindness is actually driven by a desire to be liked, appreciated, valued – the payback is part of the deal. And that’s a recipe for disappointment!
The Dalai Lama was the first person who gave me a different point of view on kindness. He describes it as a state of mind, rather than an act. He also makes it clear that it is a health-giving state of mind, that is good for us. To me, this makes more sense: if it is a state of mind, then we apply it to ourselves first, then others and the world around us.
I would now describe kindness as being open to the possibility of the good aspects of ourselves, of other people, of our world. So how does this work in practice? We see another person and give them a chance to be lovely, rather than making a snap judgement. If they aren’t lovely, we wonder what might be stopping them from showing that part of themselves, and feel a sympathy for them. Out of these reactions may arise spontaneously a kind act, but it is not a requirement.
We all know this at some level don’t we? When you’re feeling a bit ‘off’, sometimes the best thing that happens is a stranger’s gentle smile as they catch your eye for a moment – it soothes the soul a little, and the world seems a better place. You don’t have to be grateful or show appreciation; you just receive that brief gift of kindness.
This form of kindness is innate for us – babies give these gifts to us all the time – the bright eyes, the shy smile, the chuckle, making us melt for a moment and forget our cares. And then we learn to discriminate and to make judgements about others, based on all sorts of cultural norms. We also learn that, whilst being kind is a good thing, it does need to be applied in that rather effortful way, and not to just any old person!!
So we need ways to remember our natural kindness, and allow it to become more of a habit again. So here are a few suggestions:
1. Notice how you feel when someone offers you a kind smile, a warm greeting, a thank you.
2. When we are spontaneously kind towards another – a smile, a cheerful hello, a sympathetic look at the young mum struggling with a crying baby – notice how that feels too, to give kindness without any need for reciprocity.
3. When you look at strangers, just imagine they are a friend of yours.
4. Allow yourself to think and act kindly in this way, when you’re in the mood. Don’t force it – it is no longer genuine if you do.
And of course, you will sometimes be judgemental – it’s OK, don’t then judge yourself for it as well: that would be two unkind acts instead of one!
And sometimes you will do something kind and be disappointed that it wasn’t appreciated – that’s OK too!
By gradually cultivating a kind way of being in the world, you will begin to notice that you feel better for it, and that there are a lot of other kind people in the world!