kindness

What matters most to you?

RickHansonIn every life, reminders arrive about what’s really important.

Two years ago, I received one myself, in a form that’s already come to countless people and will come to countless more: news of a potentially serious health problem. My semi-annual dermatology mole check turned up a localized melanoma cancer in my ear that needed to come out immediately. The prognosis was very positive – the melanoma was “non-invasive,” whew – but it was certainly an intimation of mortality. Hopefully this particular bullet will whiz by, but the whole experience was an uncomfortably concrete message that sooner or later something will catch up with each one of us.

When all this happened back in June, 2011, it was like there was three layers to my mind. The top was focused on problem-solving. Beneath that there was a furry little animal that was upset and wanted to curl up with loved ones. The bottom layer felt accepting, grateful, and at peace.

Naturally enough, after the bullet passes – maybe taking a bit of your ear with it! – you reflect on your life, both past and to come. Of course, you don’t need a health scare – which in my case was small potatoes compared to what so many people around the world must deal with – to consider what you care about most. Then you appreciate the things you’ve honored so far, and you see where you could center yourself more in what’s truly important to you.

While it’s good advice not to sweat the small stuff, we also need to nurture the large stuff.

There are many good reasons to do so, from simply enjoying yourself to recognizing the truth that one day you’ll have just A Year to Live, the title of Stephen Levine’s haunting book. You’ll never know when you step over the invisible line and the countdown begins – 365 days left, then . . . – but you can know, before and after you cross it, that you’ve remembered the big things.
How?

A Few Questions
In this life, what do you really care about?

Looking back, what has mattered to you? Looking ahead, what do you want to keep on the front burner?

Consider this well-known suggestion: imagine resting comfortably in your last few days and reflecting on your life; what do you want to be glad that you felt and did, that you made a priority?

Some Big Things
I’ll offer here some things I’ve been thinking about lately. See what fits for you, and add your own. Here we go.

You. The sweet soft vulnerable innerness upon which both the chocolate kisses and sharp darts of life land. Your own well-being. What you make of what the poet Mary Oliver has called “your one wild and precious life.”

Love in its many forms, from compassion and small acts of kindness to passionate romance and profound cherishing. The people who matter to you.

Tasting – with all your senses – whatever is delicious in this moment: a ripe banana, birdsong, the curve of a highway railing, the lips of a lover, being alive. . .
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Practice. Helping yourself routinely to deepen in awareness and to pull weeds and plant flowers in the garden of your mind.

Karma yoga – a Hindu term that means skillful action toward wholesome ends, engaged as practice, imbued with a sense of union with whatever is sacred to you. This includes taking care of details that matter, and appreciating the power of little things to add up over time for better or worse.

Letting go. Exhaling, relaxing, changing your mind, moving on, disengaging from upsets (while also standing up for things that matter).

The thing(s) you keep putting off – perhaps speaking your mind to someone, writing that book, returning to the piano, making time to exercise, or seeing the Grand Canyon.

Being, making time for hanging out with no agenda. Rather than doing, the addiction of modern life. Doing crowds out being like cancer cells crowd out healthy ones.

Remembering to remember the big things. And to act upon them. Before it’s too late.

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Live well: Metta meditation helps you see world in kinder way

Jen Mulson, The Gazette: We all could use a lot more metta in our lives.

The Pali (a Middle Indo-Aryan language) word means loving kindness. Metta meditation is a practice that allows you to generate feelings of goodwill and love for yourself, your loved ones, those you feel neutral about and those you find difficult.

Pat Komarow, a local yoga and meditation teacher, will guide a metta meditation at Buddha Day at Marmalade at Smokebrush on Saturday. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to attend.

“It’s so powerful because it’s unconditional,” she said. “It’s foreign to the Western world…

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Buddhism’s big week: Dalai Lama’s visit shines light on its many flourishing forms

Like many Westerners, Mary Bennett turned to Buddhism when the faith of her childhood stopped working for her.

She still wanted a spiritual practice, but one that valued questioning.

“Buddhism encourages you to investigate every piece of information you’re given, and that really appealed to me,” said Bennett, who works in Madison in the field of health care advocacy. “All of us want to be good people, but how? Buddhism provides a path and instruction on how to gain wisdom and compassion.”

It’s a big week for Buddhism in Madison — one of many in the last four decades because of the…

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Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and me

Poppy Damon, Varsity, Cambridge, UK: ‘Whether one believes in a religion or not and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.’ Dalai Lama
When I was 14 I skipped school. It wasn’t to go drink VKS in the park like other ‘kids my age’. I went see the Dalai Lama speak at the ‘Burswood Dome’ in Western Australia, a venue graced by the likes of Elton John and boasting a humungous casino complex. In light of his recent visit to Cambridge and the very valid and interesting discussion that it has caused (for once)…

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Bringing kindness to mind (Day 1)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In one of the Buddha’s teachings on purifying the mind, he said that the basic attitude we should be cultivating can be summed up in the thought:

‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease.’

Traditionally this kindly and loving attitude starts with how we relate to ourselves. If we carry around a harsh attitude inside ourselves, in the way we talk to ourselves internally, then it’s harder for us to have kindness for others.

So apart from doing some sitting metta practice today as part of 100 Days of Lovingkindness, I’d encourage you to cultivate kindness toward yourself throughout the day.

The phrases I most often use in cultivating lovingkindness towards myself are:

  • May I be well
  • May I be happy
  • May I feel at ease

Try saying those to yourself now. Let the rhythm of the words sink into your mind. Build that intention to be kinder!

And see if, throughout the day, you can keep coming back to dropping those thoughts into the mind at odd moments. I was doing it this morning as I was walking to the office. From time to time as I’ve been writing this article I’ve paused for a moment and dropped in one of the phrases. Every time I do it, I feel happier. Now I’ve been doing this practice for 30 years, so you may or may not feel happier, kinder, and more at ease as you repeat these phrases, but they will have an effect, and often quite quickly.

Apart from anything else, these phrases, when we have them running through our minds, reduce the normal stream of thoughts — often critical or self-critical — that tend to bubble up all day long. With less of that critical thinking going on we feel happier.

But the phrases also work in their own right, not just because they reduce critical thoughts. Every time you are dropping one of those thoughts into the mind, you’re strengthening your desire to be kind to yourself. And this has effects. When we use particular parts of the brain repeatedly, those parts actually get bigger. So when you cultivate loving thoughts for yourself, you’re strengthening pathways in the brain, and bringing about long-term change. You can trust this process! It works.

So keep coming back to these thoughts at odd moments. You’ll forget to do it for long periods. That’s all right. Every time you do actually remember, you’re building an intention to be kind to yourself. And that’s going to benefit not just you, but everyone you’re in contact with.

What are you doing to be kinder to yourself today?

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post :: See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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Cultivate goodwill

Two young girls showing each other affection

As the most social and loving species on the planet, we have the wonderful ability and inclination to connect with others, be empathic, cooperate, care, and love. On the other hand, we also have the capacity and inclination to be fearfully aggressive toward any individual or group we regard as “them.” (In my book – Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom – I develop this idea further, including how to stimulate and strengthen the neural circuits of self-control, empathy, and compassion.)

To tame the wolf of hate, it’s important to get a handle on “ill will” – irritated, resentful, and angry feelings and intentions toward others. While it may seem justified in the moment, ill will harms you probably more than it harms others. In another metaphor, having ill will toward others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Avoiding ill will does not mean passivity, allowing yourself or others to be exploited, staying silent in the face of injustice, etc. There is plenty of room for speaking truth to power and effective action without succumbing to ill will. Think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama as examples. In fact, with a clear mind and a peaceful heart, your actions are likely to be more effective.

Ill will creates negative, vicious cycles. But that means that good will can create positive cycles. Plus good will cultivates wholesome qualities in you.

How?

Cultivate Positive Emotions

In general, really nourish and develop positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, and peacefulness. For example, look for things to be happy about, and take in the good whenever possible. Positive feelings calm the body, quiet the mind, create a buffer against stress, and foster supportive relationships – all of which reduce ill will.

Practice Noncontention

Don’t argue unless you have to. Inside your own mind, try not to get swirled along by the mind-streams of other people. Reflect on the neurological turbulence underlying their thoughts: the incredibly complicated, dynamic, and largely arbitrary churning of momentary neural assemblies into coherence and then chaos. Getting upset about somebody’s thoughts is like getting upset about spray from a waterfall. Try to decouple your thoughts from the other person’s. Tell yourself: She’s over there and I’m over here. Her mind is separate from my mind.

Be Careful About Attributing Intentions

Be cautious about attributing intentions to other people. Prefrontal theory-of-mind networks attribute intentions routinely, but they are often wrong. Most of the time you are just a bit player in other people’s dramas; they are not targeting you in particular.

Bring Compassion to Yourself

As soon as you feel mistreated, bring compassion to yourself – this is urgent care for the heart. Try putting your hand on your cheek or heart to stimulate the embodied experience of receiving compassion.

Meet Mistreatment with Loving Kindness

Traditionally, loving-kindness is considered the direct antidote to ill will, so resolve to meet mistreatment with loving-kindness. No matter what. A famous sutra in Buddhism sets a high standard: “Even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw… you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate’” (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 223).

Personally, I’m not there yet, but if it’s possible to stay loving while being horribly mistreated – and from some of the accounts of people in awful circumstances, it clearly is – then we should be able to rise up in lesser situations, like getting cut off in traffic or being put down yet again by a teenager.

Communicate

To the extent that it’s useful, speak your truth and stick up for yourself with skillful assertiveness. Your ill will is telling you something. The art is to understand its message – perhaps that another person is not a true friend, or that you need to be clearer about your boundaries – without being swept away by anger.

Put Things in Perspective

Put whatever happened in perspective. The effects of most events fade with time. They’re also part of a larger whole, the great majority of which is usually fine.

Practice Generosity

Use things that aggravate you as a way to practice generosity. Consider letting people have what they took: their victory, their bit of money or time, their one-upping. Be generous with forbearance and patience.

Cultivate Positive Qualities

Cultivate positive qualities like kindness, compassion, empathy, and calm. Nourish your own good will.

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Happy New Year

Vimalasara

Many of us in the world use the new year as an opportunity to let go of the past and make new beginnings. I thought I would acknowledge the new year as one of those GIFTS — a Great Indicator For Throwing Stuff Out.

We are the fortunate ones to be reading this right now, because for some people the world did end on December 21st or thereafter. So here we are, having survived another end of the world date. There have been many such apocalypses predicted in the past and none, of course, have come true. We could spend the rest of our lives worrying about predictions of the end of the world, or we could begin to think about how we truly want to live our life.

  1. What direction do you want your life to be heading towards? Aspirations?
  2. What conditions need to be cultivated to make your aspirations true?
  3. What is holding you back? Externally? Internally?
  4. What are the steps you need to take to help support your aspirations?

If we are wanting to live a more mindful life, more in sync with Buddhist teachings, we would be placing every efforts to transform our body, speech and mind. We would be aware of our actions having consequences and would apply mindfulness to recreate actions that only promote kindness.

The Four Reminders

Perhaps go back to the four questions and see how many of your aspirations are to do with body, speech and mind? Ask yourself, will your aspirations lead you in the direction of moderation? A direction that is free of self indulgence or denial and self mortification? The Buddha taught us the middle way – the path of ethics, meditation and wisdom to free us from our suffering. Perhaps that could be an aspiration to investigate the middle way in 2013.

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Apology as a spiritual practice

Yesterday I lost my temper with my daughter and yelled at her. I even snatched out of her hands the baby monitor that she and her brother had been using to make a noise with.

I’m not proud of losing my temper. In fact I’m ashamed when that kind of thing happens.

It’s true that I’d asked her several times to stop, but that’s still no excuse.

It didn’t help either that I’d been trying to get a little work done in the living room and was trying hard to stay focused on a message I was writing. But that’s no excuse either.

I messed up. I communicated in an unskillful way and shocked and distressed my little girl.

These things are going to happen, though, so I don’t beat myself up about them. Saying I feel ashamed doesn’t mean I think I’m a terrible person, but simply that I recognize that my action was wrong. I feel ashamed, not guilty. Unfortunately, things like this are going to happen again, though. That’s just how things are.

What I did get right, I think, was that I apologized swiftly. That’s something I try to do. When I have my little outbursts they take me over for just a split second, usually, but then what seems to happen is that I return almost at once to a more ethical perspective. And when I’ve hurt someone, especially my kids, I let them know that I regret my actions. Often the apology comes mere moments after the thing I’m apologizing for, as it did this time. And my daughter was instantly fine, and harmony was restored.

This incident was fresh in my mind when I came across a passage in an article by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on lovingkindness (or as he prefers to call it, goodwill). I’m reproducing it here, reformatted to help bring out more clearly the points he makes.

As for the times when you realize that you’ve harmed others, the Buddha recommends that you understand that remorse is not going to undo the harm, so if an apology is appropriate, you apologize. In any case, you resolve not to repeat the harmful action again. Then you spread thoughts of goodwill in all directions.

This accomplishes several things.

  • It reminds you of your own goodness, so that you don’t — in defense of your self-image — revert to the sort of denial that refuses to admit that any harm was done.
  • It strengthens your determination to stick with your resolve not to do harm.
  • And it forces you to examine your actions to see their actual effect: If any of your other habits are harmful, you want to abandon them before they cause further harm.

In other words, you don’t want your goodwill to be just an ungrounded, floating idea. You want to apply it scrupulously to the nitty-gritty of all your interactions with others. That way your goodwill becomes honest. And it actually does have an impact, which is why we develop this attitude to begin with: to make sure that it truly animates our thoughts, words, and deeds in a way that leads to a happiness harmless for all.

I see apology as being a reorientation of our being toward the good. Our minds and selves are modular: some parts of us see the way to happiness as lying in selfishness and aggression, while other parts of us see the path to happiness as lying in mindfulness and compassion. When the unskillful takes hold of us, it’s crucial to re-establish as quickly as possible that this was a deviation, and to redirect ourselves toward awakening. When we try to justify what we’ve done, by rationalizing or weaseling our way out of admitting fault, we actually strengthen the unskillful within us, and end up perpetuating our own and others’ suffering.

Another way to deal with our unskillful actions is confession. Confession’s what I’m doing here, in part. When we confess we’re being honest about what we’ve done, so that we can own it and move on.

When I first did formal confession, I was terrified that the people I was confessing to (we did it in a group) would stop liking me if they knew what I was “really” like. But in fact, I discovered that they loved me more for having been honest with them. In confessing we’re not looking for forgiveness, just to have what we’ve done out in the open, rather than festering inside us. I don’t need you to forgive me; I just need you there to hear me.

The power of confession, like that of apology, lies in re-establishing our connection with who we truly want to be. It gives the reins of our being back to the wiser, kinder, and more honest parts of ourselves.

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Kindly awareness

Hand tenderly cradling a rose, which is still attached to the bush

If your life feels like a struggle with the world, it may be that your real struggle is with yourself. But if we turn towards our experience with kindly awareness we can find the deepest kind of peace and happiness that comes from within

Mindfulness means paying attention. Simply paying more attention to our surroundings brings many benefits, but something interesting also happens when we also pay attention to the thoughts in our heads and the feelings that go with them.

Many people notice how hard we on ourselves we can be. There’s a constant commentary on everything we do, often including self-criticism, harsh judgments, chivvying and berating. That has an effect and those thoughts turn out to be closely related to stress, anxiety and depression. It’s hard to relax if you feel that what you do isn’t good enough.

That’s where kindness comes in. Noticing our thoughts helps us let unhelpful ones go rather than dwelling on them and that’s a way of being kind to ourselves. But feelings are important as well, and it’s very helpful to find techniques that help us respond to our experience with a sense of kindness.

The Kindly Breath

One way to do this is through using the breath. As we breath in we can imagine that the breath expresses a sense of kindness that enters and fills the body. Words or phrases can encourage that, so we can quietly repeat to ourselves ‘May I be well; may I be happy’, letting the words express a heartfelt wish.

In this way, kindness can be a part of a breathing meditation and it can help us to face whatever difficult situations, thoughts, feelings or sensations (like pain) may confront us.

Compassion for Others

Kindness for ourselves can open into kindness or compassion for others. Our own suffering can cut us off from others, and experiences like stress, pain or depression can make us preoccupied with our difficulties. Connecting with others can be a way out of that, and the kindness we develop for ourselves can grow into kindness or compassion for others.

In fact, one of the most popular Buddhist meditation, taught by the Buddha himself, practices is called ‘development or loving-kindness’ or mettabhavana. In this practice you develop feelings of kindness for yourself, a good friend, someone to whom you feel neutral, and someone you find difficult. Then you spread the kindly feelings to everyone in the world.

if you are interested in learning more about this practice, you can use this guide.

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Six ways to sustain benevolence in ourselves and in our relationships, nations, and world

Hand holding a rectangular object on which is inscribed, "In a world where you can be anything, be kind."

Benevolence is a fancy word that means something simple: good intentions toward living beings, including oneself.

This goodwill is present in warmth, friendliness, compassion, ordinary decency, fair play, kindness, altruism, generosity, and love. The benevolent heart leans toward others; it is not neutral or indifferent. Benevolence is the opposite of ill will, coldness, prejudice, cruelty, and aggression. We’ve all been benevolent, we all know what it’s like to wish someone well.

Benevolence is widely praised – from parents telling children to share their toys to saints preaching the Golden Rule – because it has so many benefits:

  • Benevolence toward oneself is needed to fulfill our three fundamental needs: to avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. When these needs are met, your brain shifts into its Responsive mode, in which the body repairs and refuels itself, you feel peaceful, happy, and loving.
  • Benevolence toward others reduces quarrels, builds trust, and is the best-odds strategy to get good treatment in return.
  • Benevolence within and between nations promotes the rule of law, educates children, feeds the hungry, supports human rights, offers humanitarian aid, and works for peace. Benevolence toward our planet tries to protect endangered species and reduce global warming.

Of course, this is just a partial list of benefits. Bottom-line, benevolence is good for individuals, relationships, nations, and the world as a whole.

The fact that benevolence is often enlightened self-interest makes it no less warm-hearted and virtuous. And at this time in history when individuals feel increasingly stressed and isolated, when relationships often stand on shaky ground, when international conflicts are fueled by dwindling resources and increasingly lethal weapons, and when humanity is dumping over nine billions tons of carbon each year into the atmosphere (like throwing 5 billion cars a year up into the sky, most of which stay there) – benevolence is not just moral, it’s essential.

But easier said than done.

How can we sustain benevolence in ourselves and in our relationships, nations, and world?

  1. Know what benevolence feels like in your body, heart, and mind – Bring to mind a sense of warmth and good wishes toward someone. How does this feel? Try on other kinds of benevolence, and toward other beings, to sense what these are like as well.
  2. Realize that benevolence is natural and normal – In the media, we are so bombarded with words and images of anti-benevolence that you can start to think that ordinary decency and kindness are somehow exotic. But in fact, as we evolved, our ancestors stayed alive and passed on their genes by caring about themselves and others. And given the gratitude and reverence for nature commonly found in hunter-gatherer bands today, they likely also cared about the world upon which they depended.
  3. Take care of yourself – When your core needs are met – when you’re not stressed by threat, loss, or rejection – the brain defaults to its resting state, its home base. From this home base, most people are fair-minded, empathic, cooperative, compassionate, and kind: in a word, benevolent. While it’s possible to sustain goodwill in a state of fear, frustration, or loneliness, it is sure a lot harder. An undisturbed, healthy brain is a benevolent one.
  4. Take a stand for benevolence – Establish your intentions formally – perhaps at the start of the day, or during a contemplative practice, or at a meal – to wish yourself and all other beings well. In challenging situations, take care of your needs while also asking yourself, “How could I be benevolent here? How could I restrain any destructive thoughts, words, or deeds? Can I wish for the welfare of others? Can I express compassion and kindness?”
  5. Step out of your comfort zone – Not doing anything foolish, consider how you could stretch a bit (or more) in your good intentions toward others. For example, seeing people you don’t know, try wishing them well. Or with someone who’s irritating, try looking past the surface to sense this person’s own stress and worries; without waiving your rights, can you find more patience, can you let go of recrimination or payback? Or could you extend yourself with friends or family, maybe doing more dishes or giving someone a ride? In the larger world, consider volunteering some time or giving more to a charity.
  6. Last, appreciate some of the benevolence that buoys you along – We’ve all been nurtured and protected by friends and family, humanity altogether, and the biosphere. In some sense, there’s an exuberant benevolence in the physical universe itself; consider that most of the atoms in your body – any that are heavier than helium – were born inside an exploding star. Afloat in these gifts, who could not be benevolent?
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