Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Kindness

The Old Testament maxim “love your neighbor as yourself”[1] sets a very high goal for our human relationships. Sometimes, for a moment, we may love our neighbor, but as a way of life, love eludes us. We can, though, work to approach love through its practical manifestation: kindness.

Simple, unassuming kindness toward the people and the life around us brings both immediate and lasting rewards. As with any thoroughly right action, acts of kindness bring a special satisfaction to us and a ray of light into the world. Kindness flows naturally from our hearts: we need only lift the veils that hide and block it.

First and foremost, our ordinary self-centeredness precludes true kindness. As long as we measure everything in life in terms of our own needs, wants, and antipathies, as long as we regard other people as objects like pieces of furniture, we leave no room for kindness. We may consider certain people undeserving of our kindness. It may even seem stupid to us to be kind, to give something of ourselves freely for no visible reward. Where is the profit in that? Not seeing the real answer, we may even be unkind or at best neutral toward our neighbor.

But there is a profit in kindness, even for our self-interest, our true self-interest. Being kind removes us from the thrall of egoism, at least temporarily, and ushers us into a more connected and natural world. If we could but see that acts of kindness benefit our own being as much as the recipient of our kindness, our resistance would melt away and we would seek opportunities to be kind. In the meantime, the most powerful medicine for hard-heartedness derives from seeing our own indifference, our own unkindness in actual life events, actions, and attitudes.

Living nearly all the time in the world of pre-programmed actions and reactions, we rarely actually notice anything, including opportunities for kindness. Openings for kindness usually do not appear on our radar, as our habits and conditioning block their perception. Not present to occasions for potential kindness, we sleep walk right past them. As an antidote, we can diligently practice the methods for awakening, for presence, for being fully in this moment. True presence unveils our basic kindness and shows us appropriate venues for its expression.

When our willingness to be kind does break through and our awareness reveals opportunities, difficult questions naturally arise. What constitutes kindness? What is the most appropriate and effective action in a given situation? Most of us have had experiences in which we thought we were being kind, only to have it all backfire because we did or said the wrong thing. We need wisdom to guide our actions. Good intentions alone can lead to misguided actions. Giving the addict money, may only prolong the addiction. Offering our opinions, when the more appropriate stance is to just listen, can easily spoil the moment. Conversely, remaining silent when we should speak truly can be a disservice. Intruding when we should do nothing, clumsily aggravates the situation. To act appropriately and effectively, we need to bring all our powers to bear, our intelligence and experience, our insight into the person and the circumstances, our kind attitude, the humility of knowing our limitations, and our developing inner eye for the truth.

We can, however, readily practice kindness in certain simple situations that do not call for deep wisdom. Courtesy is a common and underrated form of kindness, whether in holding a door for a stranger or in driving. Indeed, the practice of kindness while driving can prove a very fruitful field, because it arouses our resistance to giving way, to being magnanimous, to letting the other guy win even when he’s rude and greedy.

Work on kindness serves to purify and transform our hearts. Kindness operates directly against self-centeredness, though it can be arrogated by egoism: being kind while preening in an inward mirror. “That was kind of me. I’m such a kind and wonderful person.” If we look carefully, though, we find that mirror empty: no separation from our neighbor. The best kindness occurs when we serve another without reflecting that we are performing an act of kindness and without seeking or expecting gratitude in return. This may be a distant goal, so we begin where we are. Far better to take credit for kindness, than to succumb to unkindness or wallow in indifference.

Rightly conducted spiritual practice inevitably leads to the manifestation of more kindness. Outward kindness may even be considered as one measure of a person's spiritual station. Conversely, the practice of kindness, toward both friend and stranger, helps enormously in that most essential task of the spiritual path: the purification of heart and motivation. So we remember to open our hearts and actions toward others both as an expression of the Great Heart of the World and as a method to cleanse our soul. We remember to do this until the day arrives when kindness becomes our nature.

[1] Leviticus 19:18


        

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