Kindness and Compassion

Today for the Skill of the Month, I wanted to highlight an important part of not only mindfulness practice but also just being a decent human being. Humans tend to be highly judgmental not only of others but of themselves. Sometimes we judge ourselves even more harshly than we would others. It is not always easy to be nonjudging. The antidote to judgment may be kindness and compassion.

As a skill, kindness and compassion are extremely useful to us for a variety of reasons. We can improve our physical health by recognizing when we need to take a break (being kind to ourselves). We can improve relationships with others and reduce feelings of anger and resentment by being compassionate to others.

As part of mindfulness practice, nonjudment is part of the “seven attitudes” considered to be the foundation of the practice. (The others are patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go.)  All of these, you can probably tell, are extremely helpful in cultivating kindness and compassion.

Let’s look a little more closely at how to cultivate kindness and compassion into your life—not just in your mindfulness practice.

Picture a parent holding an infant that is crying. That parent is probably not judging the infant for crying. He’s not thinking “this kid is a wimp!” “get over it already!” or some other negative thought. He is probably thinking (and possibly saying) “shhhh”, “it’s okay”, “Daddy is here”… something like that in a soothing, loving tone. This is the model you may chose to envision when you are witness to someone that is crying or struggling. The message is not one of judging, its one of compassion. Its one of lovingkindness. Its one of empathy and understanding.

You might be thinking that when you see a “big kid” or an adult crying or upset, they don’t deserve the same treatment as an infant—they should “know better” or they’re just being “dramatic” or maybe you even think they’re “being a baby!” On the surface, ignoring this or even belittling the person may seem like the way to “teach them” but really, a much more helpful thing to do would be to acknowledge their pain (even if it’s a “ridiculous” thing to be in pain over—like a child that starts crying because they can’t have a toy). Imagine for a moment a scene that we’ve all experienced—the crying kid at Target that is upset because their mom won’t buy them a toy. What usually happens is the mom either ignores the kid’s crying, tells them to stop crying, or maybe they leave the store completely. These may all be appropriate responses but only after the mom has shown lovingkindness to that child. This may look like a gentle hug, or a comment to the child that “I see you’re disappointed that we aren’t buying that toy today. I love you even when you’re sad or angry.” If that mom is looking at her child with compassion, it can reduce the possibility that she’ll say something mean or threatening to the child.

Let’s look at how we can practice kindness and compassion to ourselves. The simplest way to do this is to think about what you would say to your friend that was going through whatever you’re going through. Would you judge them? Would you make them feel guilty? Alternatively you might say “it’s okay” and just have empathy for them. Or you might help them, when they’re ready, to come up with a plan to problem solve the issue or say something like “there’s always next time!” These are the exact same words you can say to yourself! Now if you say “but I SHOULD know better” or “I don’t deserve their pity or sympathy”, I ask you “why not?”

I firmly believe that everyone is doing the best that they can. This includes you and me. We are coping with the world and what is happening in it in the very best way that we know how. We MAY be able to cope better if we learn some new skills or with practice and so on, but at this moment, with what resources we have, we’re doing our best. If we feel we could be doing better, then we need to actively seek out ways (skills) to improvethings—either in the way we handle them or making changes so that these stressors are no longer happening. Either way, the important part is to keep in mind that we are doing our best at this moment. We need to have compassion for our own selves.

The alternative to kindness and compassion is judgment. If we sit in judgment of ourselves or others, we invariably feel terrible. Either we feel that this person is a “bad” person and that just stirs up negative feelings or we feel that we are “bad” and guess what—negative feelings again!

Okay, its all well and good to notice our judgment but HOW do we let it go? I argue that we do this by looking for compassion. If it helps, say “that poor so and so.” At least then we start to foster compassion. I’m thinking about someone that has very different political views than I hold. I could judge them as “uneducated” and I just notice my level of anger rising. OR I could say “that poor so and so doesn’t know how to find valid information” and I feel the tiniest bit of sympathy for them—the first step in fostering compassion and kindness. This thought may lead me to want to help them or at least recognize that they don’t have as many resources as I do. Thinking in this way reduces my anger and frustration and motivates me to help—to be kind and compassionate.

So this month, give kindness and compassion a try in reducing your own judgment of yourself and others. Be kind to yourself. Be compassionate to yourself. When we can practice this, we will feel better about others and ourselves.