Cultivating Kindness for Others
By John Schorling
Last month, the Monthly Musing addressed cultivating kindness for ourselves. This month, the focus is on cultivating kindness toward others. There are many benefits of doing both. Extending kindness to ourselves can help decrease the impact of negative experiences and emotions and improve our wellbeing. Extending kindness to others can have similar effects. Often when we are angry with someone or hold a grudge, we may be the ones who feel it the most. If we can acknowledge these feelings and intentionally respond with kindness we may feel better, as may the other person, and our relationships may improve.
It may be helpful to revisit the definition of mindfulness that we use in the Mindfulness Center: Intentional present-moment nonjudgmental awareness with kindness. If we are not paying attention, when we interact with others we may react negatively and be critical and judgmental without even noticing it. This happens automatically, outside of our conscious awareness, based on how our past experiences influence our perceptions. These influences are pervasive. They begin in childhood with the “rules” we learn in our families of origin about acceptable behaviors and appearances. They are reinforced daily through interactions with others and through media. As a result we may immediately see someone as good or bad, or worthy or not, or any one of an endless number of judgments without even realizing it. These then influence our behavior and how we treat others so that we may be dismissive or critical or even angry. When this happens we may end up upset with ourselves for how we have acted, and the other person may be upset with us as well.
However, when we pause and bring our awareness to our present moment experience, we can notice our perceptions and the emotions and thoughts that arise. When we do this we may also become aware that we have choices in how we respond, both to ourselves and to others. Often when we pause, we see things differently. If someone treats us in a way that we perceive as rude we can notice anger arising. If we notice the anger, we can acknowledge it and perhaps just let it go, choosing not to feed the emotion. We can also reflect on the other person’s situation, and how we can never really know why others act as they do. It is also possible that the behavior we perceive as rude is not intended that way.
Regardless of the specific circumstances, we can still choose to respond with kindness, both kindness for ourselves given that we experienced the interaction negatively, and kindness for the other person as they may be experiencing difficulties themselves. Both parties in this situation wants things to be different than they are, which means that they are suffering. Rather than being judgmental, can we respond with compassion, having the desire to alleviate suffering, and kindness, accepting others as they are?
Practicing being nonjudgmental and cultivating kindness for ourselves and others does not mean that we have to let others take advantage of us or that we can’t express what we would like. Rather, it means we can stand up for what we believe in, acknowledging that others also want to be happy even if their actions seem unlikely to accomplish this. We can cultivate kindness and compassion for others and also choose to not agree with them or even to not associate with them.
Putting kindness into action is challenging as it is often counter to the automatic reactions that we experience. A well-established way of cultivating kindness for ourselves and others is through lovingkindness meditation. Studies have demonstrated that individuals who regularly practice lovingkindness meditation experience increased self-compassion, decreased negative and increased positive emotions when they see others who are having difficulty, and increased altruistic behavior, along with other positive effects. There are kindness meditations on the Mindfulness Center website in both the Audio Recordings https://med.virginia.edu/mindfulness-center/continue-your-practice/audio-recordings/ and Mindful Pause https://med.virginia.edu/mindfulness-center/continue-your-practice/mindfullness-pause/ sections.
How each of us experiences this moment is the result of innumerable prior events that have led to us being here right now, to our having these perceptions, these emotions and these thoughts. Assuming that our own actions or those of others are due to one thing which we then feel anger or disappointment about is overly simplistic. Rather, if we can we appreciate the complexity of all that has led to this moment we may find it easier to respond with kindness, recognizing that despite a lifetime of challenges we all would like to be happy, healthy and safe.
Filed Under: Monthly Musings