With the world the way it is right now, I’ve been thinking a lot lately upon kindness. What it is that makes people act out of altruism. What drives people to put the needs of others above their own.
The first thing I came to realise is that being kind is not the same as being nice.
Being nice is a social survival mechanism. It’s something we do to maintain a position within a group. Our motivations are for our own status and reputation, for acceptance.
Being kind has an entirely different driving force. Being kind is a generosity of the heart. We give of ourselves and want for nothing in return. Without expectation, without contract.
To me, there must be two components that are present in order for us to be kind: empathy, and compassion.
Empathy is our understanding of another person’s subjective experience. We can visualise the world through the eyes of another. Remember that all of our realities are unique, shaped as much by our perception of the world as by the actions the world makes upon us. To have empathy, we must be able to put aside our prejudices and change our perspective.
Compassion is our desire to improve the subjective experience of others. To ease their suffering. Yet we need to have empathy in order to have compassion. If we cannot feel the subjective experience of another, we cannot be motivated to improve it.
Kindness, then, is our compassion made manifest. But there is a danger to this when we act with complete selflessness. When we wholeheartedly focus our kindness outwards, putting the wellbeing of others at the forefront of what we we do, we can forget that we need to also spend some kindness on ourselves.
In Buddhism, we have a term called metta. At its core, it means loving-kindness, but it runs much deeper than that. It is the well from which our kindness flows, giving and wanting nothing in return.
What makes metta so interesting is that it is not about self-sacrifice. It teaches us that we should not always put others above ourselves. That we must ensure to take time to appreciate us as well, to give ourselves a bit of kindness too.
It can often feel easier to be kinder to other people. We may forget that compassion extends inwards as well as outwards. We may not feel that we are deserving of kindness. We may feel that self-sacrifice gives us a sense of purpose, that it is spiritually rewarding.
There may be times when those thoughts creep in where we are blaming ourselves for things going wrong, or being critical of something that we have done. But I ask you this — have you ever taken the time to reflect upon your inner voice? How do you speak to yourself? Would you ever speak to a friend the way that you speak to you?
For me, to experience the loving-kindness of metta, we need to be kind to all beings, including ourselves. Being kind to yourself isn’t being selfish. It isn’t premeditated or strategic. It isn’t a means for self-gain or the gift of a favour that you expect in return. It’s just you, manifesting your compassion in all directions.
So take a moment to be as kind to yourself as you would be to others.