The quality of kindness
By Aparna Sharma
When it comes down to brass tacks, all the religions, all the teachings, all the practises, distil into the simple capacity to be kind to the other, says Aparna Sharmaa
“So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.”
-Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa had been appointed the priest in the garden temple of Kali in Dakshineshwar in West Bengal. One day, he fed a cat with the food that was to be offered to Goddess Kali. This was too much for the manager of the temple garden, who considered himself responsible for the proper conduct of the worship. He reported Sri Ramakrishna’s insane behaviour to the owner of the property.
Sri Ramakrishna has described the incident: “The Divine Mother revealed to me in the Kali temple that it was She who had become everything. She showed me that everything was full of Consciousness. The image was Consciousness, the altar was Consciousness, the water vessels were Consciousness, the doorsill was Consciousness, the marble floor was consciousness – all was Consciousness. I found everything inside the room soaked, as it were, in Bliss – the Bliss of God. I saw a wicked man in front of the Kali temple; but in him also I saw the power of the Divine Mother vibrating. That was why I fed a cat with the food that was to be offered to the Divine Mother. I clearly perceived that all this was the Divine Mother – even the cat.”
That is the only state where true compassion, true love, true karuna ever resides. Compassion, kindness, karuna, maitri, metta, empathy, love – they are all different names for the same thing. The thing that caused a drunken, man-killing elephant let loose on the Buddha to suddenly quieten and go down on its knees as the Buddha calmly touched it. It is what caused a raging mad bull running through a narrow lane to go back the way it came as Swami Vivekananda stood still. It is what caused a deadly cobra to go back when Ramana Maharishi merely looked at it calmly. It is what causes an enlightened being to come back to the earth again and again to remove the suffering of all sentient beings. Shantideva’s profound resolve is a reflection of the deepest kindness:
“For as long as space remains,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
Until then may I too remain
To dispel the miseries of the world.”
The highest expression of love
Osho calls ‘compassion’ the ultimate flowering of love. “When your love is not just a desire for the other, when your love is not only a need, when your love is a sharing, when your love is not that of a beggar but that of an emperor, when your love is not asking for something in return, but is ready only to give – to give for the sheer joy of giving – then add meditation to it and the pure fragrance is released, the imprisoned splendor is released. That is compassion; compassion is the highest phenomenon.”
In the absence of self-realization, the practise of kindness, generosity, or selfless seva, is a doing. But once we realize our true self, then kindness is not something we do, it is something we are.
Then kindness flows inward-out. It is our very nature. It is no longer addressed to anyone in particular; it simply overflows in all directions and all dimensions. Every action one then does is in service to that wholeness, from self to self. Nobody is excluded from it. And it is so vast, it can contain the whole universe.
“The word kindness has a gentle sound,” says Irish poet, John O’Donohue. “When someone is kind to you, you feel understood and seen. There is no judgment or harsh perception directed toward you. Kindness has gracious eyes; it is not small-minded or competitive…”
It makes people open up and relax. It gives the sentient being a faith in the gentleness of life. It softens the glance, lightens the heart. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, “When you begin to see life from this point of view, your stomach, which is in a knot, can just relax. The back of your neck, which is all tensed up, can just relax. Your mind which is spinning and spinning, can just relax. You begin to see that everything is spontaneously arising and that things are not “coming at you” or “trying to attack you,” in any given moment you will likely experience more space and more room to relax into.”
“How did the rose ever open its heart?” asks Hafiz, the Sufi poet.
“It felt the encouragement of light
We all remain
That light is kindness.
When someone is kind to us, non-judgemental, caring, not harming in any way, we can, for once, drop the armour, drop the mask. Have you ever thought why your room is the only place you can be with your hair uncombed?
Says Asha Ganguly, a Kolkata-based teacher, “There have been occasions in my life when instead of chastisement, I met with great forbearance. On one occasion my father was in hospital with a brain haemorrhage. On leaving the hospital with a relative I disliked, I refused to stay at his house, and instead asked to be taken home. The next day, the relative launched a bitter tirade against me to my poor mother, worn and anxious after spending days by the bedside of my father. But my mother responded with great dignity and restraint, and told the man that at this point of time, this was not something she wanted to enter into.
I remember almost bursting with gratitude towards my mother for not humiliating me in front of that man. I have never forgotten that sense of deliverance and gratitude. It was transforming.”
What is kindness?
Kindness is what “leads God to give us green pastures, quiet waters, and the restoration of our souls when we’re weary,” says The Holy Bible. And “In kindness He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young”.
Kindness is the capacity to step out of our own head, out of the narrow confines of the ego, and feel for the other, to put ourselves into the other’s shoes, and to connect with them. It may be as trivial as treating a beggar with dignity by placing a coin carefully in his hands, or it may be as huge as sacrificing your life for the sake of the other. Without kindness, this world would have been too cold, cruel and selfish for anyone to survive.
The spiritual teacher, Mooji, says that in any moment, especially in a moment of calamity, if only we could see how many angels surrounded us, we would not be so anxious.
How many angels
The very first validation of kindness is in our being born. Nowhere does the gentle sway of kindness become more visible than in the existence of a newly born infant. The infant is swaddled with love and tenderness from the moment of its birth. How it is adored and looked after. Its helplessness, its beauty, and joy draw the very best out of even the worst of us.
In its very existence, the baby inherits all the love, all the kindness of the universe, for ‘To be born is to be chosen.’ Some primal kindness chose us.
Compassion and quiet wisdom is present all around us. There is a gentle hold of kindness to support us in the very earth beneath our feet as is in the immenseness of existence within us. As Rilke says, – “to be here is to be immense.”
Our very nature
Kindness is the very root of our nature. It is not something we need to acquire. Yet it is obscured by the thick crust of ego and conditioning that keep us locked in selfishness, insensitivity, or fear and hurt.
Says Mitali Aggarwal, a Mumbai-based teacher turned writer, “When I was made the school prefect at a young age, my head swelled. I became a harsh, shrieking authoritarian with no regard for the feelings of my juniors or classmates. Juniors shuddered at my sight, and classmates called me arrogant. Then one day I happened to leaf through the pages of my childhood album. As I saw an image of me as a young child, peering innocently at the world with huge wide open eyes, something struck me. I changed afterwards. Determined to recapture my pure self, I became kinder to rule-breakers, and forgave many of their trespasses. I realized how cruel I was being in considering my juniors to be inferior to me. When I became a teacher later on, this inner transformation earned me huge love and respect from my students. I was patient in the face of their unruliness, and never demanded their respect. This, in turn, made them willingly obey me.”
The art of giving
Since it is the ego that conceals our natural kindness, one way to wear it down is through practicing generosity. By actively giving up on what we have hitherto accumulated, we counteract the insecurity, fear and selfishness that keeps us isolated from the rest of our kind.
Our society trains us to be acquisitive, to accumulate, insure, protect and hoard. We tend to grasp and hold on to everything we come across – houses, vehicles, valuables, mates, children, pets, educational qualifications, skills, careers, experiences and travels. And there we miss the point. For spiritual living is not about accumulating but about giving up, letting go.
You may protest that you don’t have enough energy or enthusiasm to give anything away. That you are already feeling overwhelmed, or impoverished.
In that case, Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Jon Kabat-Zinn, advises, “Perhaps most of all, you need to give to yourself first for a while. Then you might try to give to others a tiny bit more than you think you can. Consciously noting and letting go of any ideas of getting anything in return, give. Initiate giving. Don’t wait for someone to ask. See what happens, especially to you. You may find that you gain a greater clarity about yourself and your relationships as well as more energy rather than less. You may find that rather than exhausting yourself or your resources, you replenish them. Such is the power of mindful selfless generosity.”
Says Indira Rao, a lawyer based in Bangalore, “My maid and I share a close relationship, and I always give her breakfast. Yet I found that when I made upma or poha, I carefully picked out all the cashew nut pieces for myself, and left very little for her. Ashamed, I am now training myself to give her generous amounts of anything I cook. I feel my love for her has increased by this.”
The role of pain
It is not to say that kindness or compassion will shield us from all suffering. Rather, the opposite may sometimes be true. For only a heart that has known the deepest suffering can open up to the pain in the eyes of the other.
There are Tibetans who have spent 20 or 25 years in solitary confinement, tortured almost every day by the Chinese, who have been able to transcend it in some extraordinary ways. They have seen the challenge as an incredible vehicle for their own transcendence.
The Dalai Lama tells a story about an older monk who escaped Tibet, and he came to see him in Dharamsala. He started to talk to him about his experiences in Chinese prisons. The monk said, “I was in great danger.” His Holiness asked, “In danger of what?” And the monk said, “In danger of becoming angry.”
Poet Kim Rosen recounts the year 2008 when she sold all her stocks and invested them in a seemingly ‘stable’ fund. Two months later she received a message on her voice mail telling her that the fund had been a fraud. She had lost near about everything she owned. The first thing that crossed her troubled mind were lines of a poem:
“Before you know what kindness really is,
you must lose things.”
She stared at the phone in her hand, not knowing where to turn, or whom to call. “In a spooked state, I watched the next lines of the poem unfurl behind my eyes”:
“What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go…”
Naomi Shihab Nye says it simply in her poem, Kindness:
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.”
Kim remembered how carefully she had saved the money from selling her house and cutting down on necessities. She had spent a lifetime saving this money. But she had never realised how her financial security separated her from others. Now as she became one of the millions who didn’t know where the next rent would come from, she started developing a deeper empathy with people. She began to understand the human heart and began to open hers – to receiving kindness.
“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
Only kindness raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for…”
In 1992, when Yugoslavia was being bombed, there was a man in the streets of Sarajevo who’d sit in a corner, dressed in full formal attire, as if for an opera, playing a cello every evening, creating music amid the blood, bone, and rubble. That was Vedran Smailovic, the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera. All around him, mortar shells and bullets would fly. Yet he would play on regardless. He played to ruined homes, smouldering fires, scared people hiding in basements. He played for the human dignity that was the first casualty in war. Ultimately, he played for life, for peace, and for the possibility of hope that exists even in the darkest hour.
Asked by a journalist whether he was not crazy to be doing what he was doing, Smailovic replied: “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”
In Donohue’s words, “The world can be harsh and negative, but if we remain generous and patient, kindness inevitably reveals itself.”
“What do you do when you see someone pelting a stone at a pup?” asks Jotvinder Singh, a Delhi-based entrepreneur. “If you scare the guy, it is your first step towards compassion for animals. Your journey starts.”
After years of running a printing and publishing business, Jotvinder turned to his “inner calling”. He shut shop and started providing cooked food for dogs, pets as well as stray dogs across Delhi, and five other Indian cities. He developed special food, adopted stray dogs, identified ‘feeding points’ in different cities, put up water bowls, took help from local security guards, taxi stand people, and tea stall owners… and he has been feeding stray dogs ever since. When asked “Why?” he says, “Who else will do it?”
Jotvinder’s simple solution for most problems is, “Go to the street, feed the dogs, or play with them. Take my word, you will find a purpose in life!”
Rashmi Menon, a physician-turned-healer from Mumbai, recently started giving a free online course in emotional healing, something that most healers would have made a fortune from. When asked why, she says, “I trust that whatever is apt for me in terms of monetary compensation, the Universe will take care of. I just need to focus on my ‘giving’ and the subtle benefits of confidence I get in turn. That is my only duty.”
This, for me, is compassion – making no fuss, using no big words, just getting up and doing what needs to be done. Unsurprisingly, both of them are the happiest people in my environment.
Another happy person, in fact, dubbed the “happiest person in the world” is the French biochemist-turned-Buddhist monk, Mattheiu Ricard. He is H.H. Dalai Lama’s French translator. Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin wired up his skull with 256 sensors, and discovered that while meditating on compassion, his brain produced gamma waves that trigger happiness, consciousness, attention, learning and memory. His was a level of gamma rays “never reported before in the neuroscience literature”.
Sarah Thomas, a Mumbai-based journalist, recalls that when her father was suddenly stricken ill in their home town of Vishakapatnam, she and her siblings were all far away. And yet, her mother did not miss them because the larger church community poured out in support. There were people sitting with her father round the clock, while others would bring food for her mother. “This is when I understood the value of community,” she says.
How kindness helps
When you do voluntary work, the reward centre of your brain pumps out ‘endogenous opioids’, the natural versions of morphine and heroin, which in turn produce the mood-elevating neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine and the hormone oxytocin give you a natural high, often referred to as ‘helpers’ high’
As an antidote against Forbes-like lists of the rich and famous, the UK newspaper, The Independent, released its seventh annual Happy List this June. The list contains “100 people who, without thought of personal gain, give back and help others, rather than themselves.”
Dr. David R. Hamilton, scientist and author, has charted out many benefits of performing acts of kindness. The resulting emotional warmth produces the hormone, oxytocin (the ‘love molecule’) which, in turn, lowers the blood pressure, decreases depression, and helps in reducing obesity, heals wounds, and reduces pain levels. Oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals, and inflammation in the cardiovascular system, and so slows aging at source. So this is also another reason why kindness is good for the heart.
A 2013 review of 40 international studies suggests that such volunteer work can actually increase your life span. Seniors who gave 100 hours or more annually were 28 per cent less likely to die from any cause than their less-philanthropic counterparts. A study on pain management found that when chronic-pain sufferers helped others with the same ailment, their own pain levels dropped. On a scale of 0 to 10, people’s average pain ratings dropped from nearly a 6 to below 4 after volunteer training. Psychology and Aging journal reported that adults who volunteered at least 200 hours in the year were 40 per cent less likely to develop hypertension. Those with the least self-centred lives had healthier biomarkers in their blood than those whose lives were pretty much “all about me”.
Any act of kindness, I believe, first of all, puts things in perspective. When I myself started doing ‘food seva’, distributing home-cooked dinner to the homeless and daily-wagers once a week, there were so many emotional dramas of mine that took a back-seat. Watching a young, teenage mother being abused by a drunken husband, or an old homeless man spreading out a sack and a plastic sheet as his only quilt in the freezing winter nights of the North, or simply watching the hard-working urban poor, the bottom-most of the economic ladder, reduced the magnitude of my own problems substantially.
When we choose to live in kindness, we are aligned with the Divine flow of principles (cause and effect). The more we love, the more we understand; the more we understand, the more we love.
There is a story of a ripe Zen student, a fisherman, who completed his studies and came down from the mountain to mix with the world. He was not easy to find for he was somewhere among the common folks, in the marketplace, with other fishermen. The only way to know him, was that wherever he went, withered trees burst into bloom.
Poet Mary Oliver says,
And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope.
I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is.
I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned,
I have become younger.
Goodness goes viral
There is a growing movement of people offering to do kind acts for strangers. In the year 2000, a novel, Pay it forward, by Catherine Ryan Hyde started a movement of giving. Catherine thought of it when her car caught fire, and two strangers came to her assistance, but left before she could thank them.
Author Ann Herbert coined the phrase “Random Acts of Kindness” which popularizes the idea of anonymously doing something nice for strangers. They advocate activities like paying anonymously for another person at a coffee shop, leaving hampers of food on neighbours’ doorsteps, picking up litter, or just doling out free hugs. They say that there is no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple which spreads outwards, with no logical end.
And now, goodness has gone viral. The hundreds of videos of real-life random acts of kindness on the net are a testimony to that. The New England Journal of Medicine reported a ‘domino effect’, whereby an anonymous 28-year-old person had walked into a clinic and donated a kidney.
This set off a ‘pay it forward’ type ripple effect where the spouses or other family members of recipients of a kidney donated one of theirs anonymously to someone who might need it. Across the US, at least 10 people received a new kidney as a consequence of that anonymous donor.
The ‘Random Acts of Kindness Foundation’ founded in Denver, Colorado, has counterparts in other parts of the world. The World Kindness Movement branched out to 23 organisations in different countries. The movements have gone way past the level of community endeavour, they have enveloped the globe.
Sri Chinmoy says, “The very nature of kindness is to spread. If you are kind to others, today they will be kind to you and tomorrow to somebody else.”
Karen Armstrong, a former nun, and author of books like The Spiral Staircase, is a passionate advocate for restoring compassion to the centre of all religious, moral and political life. She launched a worldwide movement called The Charter for Compassion on November 12, 2009, soon after she won the Ted prize on February 28, 2008, and made a wish for help in creating, launching and propagating the charter.
Among those who have already given the charter their backing are Richard Branson, musician Peter Gabriel, Sir Ken Robinson and the Dalai Lama. The charter defines compassion as the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of another. It adds, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world, and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”
Over 41 cities have labelled themselves as compassionate cities, while many schools and universities too have taken on the commitment to be compassionate. More than a lakh people have signed the charter.
How to share
There are umpteen ways to share, or to be kind. Read to the elderly, be with a friend in their time of need, spend time in homes for the aged, run a marathon for a cause, contribute to a cause. It is not just about money or material possessions, rather it is about sharing the fullness of your being, your best self, your enthusiasm, your vitality, your spirit, your trust, your openness, above all, your presence.
Like Gibran says,
“You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”
Krishna Das, born Jeff Kagel in New York, reminisces about the time he spent with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, in India.
“Maharaj-ji never told us to meditate. When we asked him how to find God, he said, “Serve people.”
We didn’t understand. So we asked, “How do we raise kundalini (spiritual energy that rests at the base of the spine)?” He said, “Feed people and remember God.”
“It was confusing to me because I was so sure I needed to do some special practice or get some secret mantra in order to cure myself of my unhappiness. Of course, all I really needed was to stop thinking about myself all the time.”
In His book, A Bird on the Wing, Osho says, “Go deeper and deeper into meditation so you can go higher and higher in compassion. The deeper the roots of a tree reach, the higher the peak…. As deep as your meditation is, the same depth will be achieved in compassion. So compassion is the criterion.”
In the Buddhist practice of ‘metta’ meditation or loving kindness, we send such waves of love outwards. Here we deeply meditate on, trying to relate to a variation of the words:
‘May I be safe
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I live at ease of heart.’
Our first love needs to be to ourselves, since we ourselves are our own worst critics. Self-loathing, lack of self-love, that negative talking ‘voice’ within are familiar to nearly everyone.
Once we learn to truly give love to ourselves, we gradually soften and silence that incessant ‘voice’ in our heads.
Then we can gradually extend that feeling of loving-kindness to others
‘May you be safe
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you live at ease of heart.”
Starting with someone we love, going on to someone we are neutral about, and furthering it onto our worst enemies, we wish them well. We expand our heart of loving-kindness and allow our love to expand and radiate outward to the entire world.
“We cannot tell the precise moment when kindness becomes a way of our heart,” says Ray Bradbury. “As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”
It just happens!