Kindness is compassion in action. It is a way of taking the vital human emotions of empathy or sympathy and channeling those emotions into a real-life confrontation with ruthlessness, abandonment, thoughtlessness, loneliness — all the myriad ways, every single day, we find ourselves suffering or witnessing suffering in others.

“Yet growing up I had the impression that a kind heart ranked awfully low in cultural desirability, well after a sound head, a sharp wit, invulnerability, power over others, a fine sense of irony, and countless other qualities. The hero I saw displayed in the movies was fiercely resolute; the sidekick, trailing after the hero, picking up the pieces, might have been kind. The owerwhelmingly popular girl on TV was striking, imposing, amusing; the second banana was usually kind, and a lot less magnetic or interesting.

“Today as well, when we think of adventure, going out on a limb, being bold, being on the edge, it is rarely in the direction of caring, of compassion. Usually we externalize our sense of adventure and think of climbing mountains or jumping out of airplanes. Our idea of taking a risk is to be more ambitious, maybe more competitive. To be bold translates as being more hard-bitten and not noticing the consequence of our actions on others. To be brave has no gentleness or sensitivity associated with it.

“On the face of it, kindness can seem wimpy, a cop-out, an excuse to do just a little bit to try to make a difference when so very much needs to be done. We might see kindness as the rationale for feeling good after speaking nicely to a homeless person we meet on the street, without having to consider basic injustice and what steps have to be taken to help that person and others like them to not suffer anymore. We might delegate kindness to the category of a quaint old-fashioned virtue, not very effective, and certainly not very powerful. We might disdain kindness as a way of promoting separation and a hierarchy of distinctions: ‘I, who am superior, and untouched by your problem, will help you, who are inferior and in a bad way.’ We might dismiss kindness as the last, frail stand of righteousness; the lesser state we turn to in some dismay when wisdom, clarity, incisiveness, and intense love all have seemed to fail us and we haven’t been able to make any substantial difference in someone’s life.

“A commitment to kindness can be the thread that twines throughout our various successes, disappointments, delights, and traumas, making our lives seamless, giving us ballast in a world of change, a reservoir of heartfulness to infuse our choices, our relationships, and our reactions.

“Many of us long for an underlying sense of meaning, something we can still believe in no matter what happens to us, a navigational force to pull all the disparate pieces of our lives together into some kind of whole. Perhaps we find ourselves feeling helpless when we don’t have control over a situation and can’t fathom what might happen next, unsure of where to turn when we aren’t having the positive effect we want with a troubled family member or a friend. In any of these circumstances, and in so many more, we shut down. Then we go through the motions of our day, day after day, without much dynamism or spirit.

“Many of us experience ourselves as fragmented, perhaps as confident and expressive when we are with our families but a completely different person when we are at work, frequently hesitant and unsure. Perhaps we take risks when we are with others but are timid when alone, or are cozily comfortable when alone yet are painfully shy and withdrawn when with others. Or maybe we drift along with the tides of circumstance, going up and down, not knowing what we might really care about more than anything else, but thinking there must be something.

“To explore kindness as that thread of meaning requires finding out if we can be strong and still be kind, be smart and still be kind, whether we can be profoundly kind to ourselves and at the same time strongly dedicated to kindness for those around us. We have to find the power in kindness, the confidence in kindness, the release in kindness; the type of kindness that transcends belief systems, allegiances, ideologies, cliques, and tribes. This is the trait that can transform our lives.

“Kindness is the fuel that helps us truly ‘walk our talk’ of love, a quality so easy to speak about or extol but often so hard to make real. It helps us to genuinely care for one another and for ourselves as well. Kindness is the foundation of unselfconscious generosity, natural inclusivity, and an unfeigned integrity. When we are devoted to the development of kindness, it becomes our ready response, so that reacting from compassion, from caring, is not a question of giving ourselves a lecture: ‘I don’t really feel like it, but I’d better be helpful, or what would people think.’ When we are devoted to the development of kindness, we are no longer forcing ourselves into a mold we think we have to occupy; rather, it becomes a movement of the heart so deep and subtle that it is like a movement of the sea close to the ocean floor, all but hidden, yet affecting absolutely everything that happens above. That’s the force of kindness.

“The quality of kindness gives us the ability to take abstract ideals like compassion, or ‘love they neighbor,’ and make them authentic and palpable and vibrant each and every day, going to work or going to school or going home, or getting through a situation we would never in a million years have chosen. When we really examine kindness we find it is a deep and abiding understanding of how connected we are. We see that kindness inspires a sense of ethics independent of any religious adherence, which can guide our families, communities, and the world we live in towards realizing greater safety and peace. I think this spirit underlies one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s most famous quotations: ‘My true religion is kindness.’

“In 1997, while attending a conference in San Francisco called ‘Peacemaking: The Power of Nonviolence,’ I walked by the writer Alice Walker, who was having an informal conversation with a group of people. I overheard her say, ‘As I get older, I realize that the thing I value the most is good-heartedness.’ Intrigued, I reflected for some time on that statement. I thought of how we struggle and strive in life, of our craving for acquisitions and attainments and possessions and praise and glory. Then I thought of what in fact uplifts us when we are feeling down no matter how much we own, of what gives us a boost when it is so easy to feel weak or inferior because we are in mental or physical pain. I thought of what unites us when we could, instead, feel isolated, hurting because of some difference that we think sets us intractably apart, or one that others deliberately use to marginalize us, to diminish us. And I too thought myself again and again coming back to good-heartedness, to the giving and receiving of kindness.”

~Spirituality & Practice: Book Excerpt: The Force of Kindness, by Sharon Salzberg

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