The Force of Kindness
In The Force of Kindness: Change Your Life with Love & Compassion, Sharon Salzberg, one of the nation's most respected Buddhist authors and meditation teachers, offers practical instruction on how we can cultivate the essential traits of lovingkindness and compassion within ourselves. Below is an excerpt from Sharon's latest book.
Excerpted from The Force of Kindness: Change Your Life with Love & Compassion by Sharon Salzberg (Sounds True, 2011). © Sharon Salzberg.
Kindness is Compassion in Action
A commitment to kindness can be the thread that twines throughout our various successes, disappointments, delights, and traumas, making our lives seamless, giving us ballast in a world of change, a reservoir of heartfulness to infuse our choices, our relationships, and our reactions.
Many of us long for an underlying sense of meaning, something we can still believe in no matter what happens to us, a navigational force to pull all the disparate pieces of our lives together into some kind of whole. Perhaps we find ourselves feeling helpless when even a little too much of the unexpected occurs. Or we feel defenseless when we find we don’t have control over a situation and can’t fathom what might happen next, unsure of where to turn when we aren’t having the positive effect we want with a troubled family member or a friend. In any of these circumstances, and in so many more, we shut down. Then we go through the motions of our day, day after day, without much dynamism or spirit.
Many of us experience ourselves as fragmented, perhaps as confident and expressive when we are with our families but a completely different person when we are at work, frequently hesitant and unsure. Perhaps we take risks when we are with others but are timid when alone, or we are cozily comfortable when alone yet are painfully shy and withdrawn when with others. Or maybe we drift along with the tides of circumstance, going up and down, not knowing what we might really care about more than anything else, but thinking there must be something.
To explore kindness as that thread of meaning requires finding out if we can be strong and still be kind, be smart and still be kind, whether we can be profoundly kind to ourselves and at the same time strongly dedicated to kindness for those around us. We have to find the power in kindness, the confidence in kindness, the release in kindness—the type of kindness that transcends belief systems, allegiances, ideologies, cliques, and tribes. This is the trait that can transform our lives.
Kindness is the fuel that helps us truly “walk our talk” of love, a quality so easy to speak about or extol but often so hard to make real. It helps us to genuinely care for one another and for ourselves as well. Kindness is the foundation of unselfconscious generosity, natural inclusivity, and an unfeigned integrity. When we are devoted to the development of kindness, it becomes our ready response, so that reacting from compassion, from caring, is not a question of giving ourselves a lecture: “I don’t really feel like it, but I’d better be helpful, or what would people think?” When we are devoted to the development of kindness, we are no longer forcing ourselves into a mold we think we have to occupy; rather, it becomes a movement of the heart so deep and subtle that it is like a movement of the sea close to the ocean floor, all but hidden yet affecting absolutely everything that happens above. That’s the force of kindness.
The quality of kindness gives us the ability to take abstract ideals like compassion, or “love thy neighbor,” and make them authentic and palpable and vibrant each and every day, going to work or going to school or going home, or getting through a situation we would never in a million years have chosen. When we really examine kindness we find it is a deep and abiding understanding of how connected we all are. We see that kindness inspires a sense of ethics independent of any religious adherence, which can guide our families, communities, and the world we live in toward realizing greater safety and peace. I think this spirit underlies one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s most famous quotations: “My true religion is kindness.”
In 1997, while attending a conference in San Francisco called “Peacemaking: The Power of Nonviolence,” I walked by the writer Alice Walker, who was having an informal conversation with a group of people. I overheard her say, “As I get older, I realize that the thing I value the most is good-heartedness.” Intrigued, I reflected for some time on that statement. I thought of how we struggle and strive in life, of our craving for acquisitions and attainments and possessions and praise and glory. Then I thought of what in fact uplifts us when we are feeling down no matter how much we own, of what gives us a boost when it is so easy to feel weak or inferior because we are in mental or physical pain. I thought of what unites us when we could, instead, feel isolated or hurt because of some difference that we think sets us intractably apart, or one that others deliberately use to marginalize or diminish us. And I too found myself again and again coming back to good-heartedness, to the giving and receiving of kindness.
Ways of Increasing the Force of Kindness in Your Life
- Reflect on someone in your life who has reached out to you in kindness. How do you regard him or her?
- Notice how the mood of someone in a chance encounter—such as the checkout person in the supermarket or a bank teller—affects you.
- Think about your degree of confidence in yourself. What factors have helped enhance it or decrease it?
- Reflect on why kindness might be considered a force instead of a weakness.
- Make the effort to thank someone each day. Notice what is created between you and the other person in that way.
- Reflect on who you admire in life, and why.
About the Author, Sharon Salzberg
Sharon Salzberg, a student of Buddhism since 1971, has been leading meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. Influenced by her more than twenty-five years of study with Burmese, Indian, and Tibetan teachers, she teaches intensive awareness practice (vipassana or insight meditation) and the profound cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion (the Brahma Viharas). She is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, both in Massachusetts. Salzberg is the author of several books including The Kindness Handbook, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, and A Heart as Wide as the World. She has also authored several Sounds True audio and interactive learning kit works including Insight Meditation (with Joseph Goldstein), Unplug, and Lovingkindness Meditation. Visit sharonsalzberg.com.
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