It begins – or should begin – with our families, our kin, those who are closest, or most like us.
Like little children, as we grow older, we stray from our families and relations and enter into new relationships. At first we seek common ground, shared hopes perhaps, and then shared fortunes, but I realise, looking back, that it was often the generosity of my mother and grandparents that established the relationships for me, which might otherwise have faded away.
When we are grown up and healthy, we are still dependent, Ringu Tulku says: We still need the love of others. We need the appreciation of others, and we need the help and support of others. [Lazy Lama looks at Loving Kindness, Ringu Tulku, Bodhicharya Publications]
It’s like the saying, ‘When the trees support each other, then we have houses and cities; when human beings support each other, we have society, we have civilisation.’
Kindness is not just the giving; it is the opening up. Kindness is the displacing of the ego that wants this and doesn’t want that, that will do something necessary for this needy person, but not for that one. Kindness is a space in the heart that grows larger and larger until it can encompass the world.
Meanness sees the world as a threat instead of a sea of rich possibilities, and something demanding the maintenance of the self, rather than the involvement with others and the responsibilities and the costs that might involve. It thus fails to appreciate the extent to which we are already dependent on others and the world around us, that gave us life. And it is this very involvement that is the principal source of enrichment of our lives. I once stood next to one of the richest men in the world at a party, and never forgot his sad, grey face. However many millions of barrels of oil you possess, they can never replace human beings and human warmth. They may even create a barrier, which can prevent an individual coming into himself, until kindness – wise kindness – can begin to dissolve the barriers. Just doing generous things that make us look good doesn’t work, because it binds us into a trap run by the ego, and that is indulgence, however wonderful its effects, not kindness.
It is simpler to begin with ourselves, and kindness – wise kindness – begins the process of dissolving the barriers between ourselves and others. When my mother passed away, I needed to dispose of her car, which was in excellent condition and with little mileage on the clock, but all I was offered was scrap value. I became more and more irritated until a good friend said, ‘Selling it for the money you’ve been offered would simply make you angry – you’d be better off giving it away.’
The next day I rang my god-daughter’s mother, who told me her daughter was coming down from Scotland for her brother’s wedding, to which I was also invited and she was also looking for a second-hand car, since salt corrosion was a problem with older cars in Scotland. I drove the car up to the wedding and handed it over, and was amazed at the delight this gave me. I found that as the emperor Marcus Aurelius said: ‘Kindness is man’s greatest delight.’ It is often claimed that kindness is simply a mechanism for the furtherance of the species, but I would have furthered the species (mine) better by putting the money in the bank, though this would have afforded me little pleasure, if some of the financial security. But giving the car away to someone I loved made my day. ‘Once you put kindness back in the picture, there can be no such thing as the isolated self…once we allow it as a pleasure, it makes us more porous, less insulated and separated from others.’ [On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, Penguin Books] If I had simply sold the car, I wouldn’t have had any of that.
And small acts can give us considerable satisfaction: helping an old lady on to a bus, making space for someone in a narrow street instead of pushing through, thinking ahead to save someone a problem. And this does not mean becoming a doormat. It is often surprising to discover who is open to kindness and who is impervious to it, usually out of fear or wanting something you can’t provide. They may have unfulfilled expectations, but kindness does not deal in expectations. It is not virtue signalling, which can cause friction and division rather than bringing people together and helping them.
Kindness like all our natural functions, can come out in all sorts of ways, but can sometimes founder on the rock of ingratitude or by being rebuffed, upon which the ego arises and vents its anger on the rebuffer. But as the authors of On Kindness say, ‘Fellow feeling joins us to various and diverse other people. Kindness is extravagant.’ [On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, Penguin Books] We must always remember that ‘the passions are the Buddha,’ and that the shining self can be suddenly replaced by a raging ego. But kindness slowly wears away the rough self, leaving it in shallower and shallower waters, until – like a lot of wild plants – it has to adapt slowly, and as it does, its nature changes, as do we ourselves.
Kindness and happiness seem to generate one another; Francis Hutchinson the Scottish philosopher wrote that ‘to be kind is the greatest measure of human happiness’. I once had the intuition that the ‘Divine Abidings’ (compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity) seemed to share the same nature, and Ajahn Sumedho commented: ‘They do because they all have the same source.’ And kindness and happiness also have this relationship, in my experience, though happiness is the passive component and has a dependent nature. Perhaps it is as Yeats said, that ‘The good are always merry and the merry always good.’ In both there is a reflection of the source. It may not always be so, but is very often the case, for humour tends to displace the ego; we are reaching back into our nature where there is a benign calm, sometimes interrupted by laughter. And it is catching – people respond to it. For some it is a new or at least half-forgotten sensation – a reminder of something delightful and nearly lost, that we can recover at negligible cost and the loss of a little solidity. In early childhood we don’t only leave Wordsworth’s clouds of glory, but memories and places like the ‘Blue remembered hills that will not come again,’ but that can in some wise be recovered because they are inherent in our true nature.
And how can this be done? A long time ago I gave an account of a metta (loving kindness) retreat with a wonderful Sri Lankan monk called Venerable Anuruddha. [Metta the English Problem] He encouraged us to write a list of all the things that produced natural warm feelings in us: children playing, kittens, the river at evening, and so on. He encouraged us to become aware of these and focus on them. ‘These are already there for you to develop,’ he said, and after a few days asked me how it was going.
‘Slight feeling of gold,’ I said.
‘Then it’s going well,’ he said.
And by the end of the retreat, I had become much more at ease with myself and other people, which was a delightful experience. It is really about discovering the well of kindness already within oneself. If therapy helps people cope with disconnection from the world, kindness reinvigorates the connection. Kindness awakens your latent ability to be and commune with the world and the manyfolk. Our regard and care for others begins to open the door of happiness, and like many other things, practice makes perfect.
Click here to read more articles from John.
I liked the story about giving away the car rather than selling it. I had a similar experience. I am a teacher and I charged my first young private student a fee for lessons. The second time a young Spanish girl asked me for lessons, I decided that I would give them free of charge. The difference in my personal satisfaction from the freely given lessons was remarkable. Not only did I enjoy the teaching much more, but I also bonded with the young student far more deeply. Taking the financial relationship out of the equation created a warm, loving relationship.
Will pass this onto John.
It’s too easy to forget all the good that surronds us.
I check myself often on the effects of my actions and inter actions, these words reminds me that it can be taken out of context and indeed is seen differently by each person the receiver and the giver…….In the end my own acts of kindness are only known to me, I am not necessarily happy per say but I am at peace.
“Kindness is a space in the heart that grows larger and larger until it can encompass the world.” What lovely words. Great post, thank you for sharing.
That’s very nice of you Nadine. Will pass your kind words on to John.