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The Force of Kindness

by Sharon Salzberg

In northeastern India, there is a town called Bodh Gaya that has grown up around the tree the Buddha was sitting under when he became enlightened. In 1971, an 18-year-old New Yorker named Sharon Salzberg traveled to Bodh Gaya and took her first intensive meditation course. Motivated by "an intuition that the methods of meditation would bring some clarity and peace," she did not know that they would also lead her to play a crucial role in bringing meditation practices to the West.

Over the last 30 years, as cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and as a teacher and writer, Sharon has drawn from her ongoing studies, practice, and experience to guide and inspire others. The ancient Buddhist practices of vipassana (mindfulness) and metta (loving-kindness) are the foundations of her work.

Her widely read books offer insight into deceptively simple concepts—faith, peace, happiness, kindness—with clarity and sincerity. Sharon’s writing invites us again and again into our own direct experience, into a practice of mindful awareness of "what is," no matter what we find, without judgment or fear. As you read her words here, slow down, breathe, open your heart, and deeply hear the human truths she shares.

I have been engaged by kindness nearly my whole life, fascinated by it at times, repulsed by it at others. Particularly when I was young and others extended kindness to me,I felt humiliated by the apparent evidence of my pain. I hated that anyone could see that I was hurt. And yet, now I see that those early gifts of kindness planted the seeds of a nascent self-love within me. Those seeds were really what allowed me, more than anything else, to survive the often-painful circumstances of my childhood. As I got older, I was less resistant to acts of kindness, more moved by them, more able to acknowledge how important they had been and still were to me.

Since then, the pursuit of kindness has magnetized much of my spiritual journey. That is, once I got over my disdain of it as an "also-ran" quality, the kind of characteristic you cultivate if tougher, finer things like wisdom elude you. As I continue my meditation practice every day, and try to live out my deepest values every day, kindness has only grown in importance as a crucial element of those efforts.

It is not a cushy, undemanding path. It is easy to overlook the power of kindness, or misunderstand it. The embodiment of kindness is often made difficult by our long-ingrained patterns of fear and jealousy. Those around us may devalue our dedication to kindness. We may devalue it ourselves. There are many challenges, many subtleties, many intricacies. But if we can commit to the open-hearted exploration of kindness, it will reveal itself as a force that can change our lives.

What Is Kindness?

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 overwhelmingly 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.

The quality of kindness gives us the ability to take abstract ideals like compassion or "love thy 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 all are. We see that kindness inspires a sense of ethics independent of 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."

What Can Kindness Do for Us?

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 even a little too much of the unexpected occurs, defenseless when we find 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.

How Do We Practice Kindness?

Kindness is a practice of inclining the mind, of intention. Rather than laying a veneer of idealism on top of reality, we want to see quite nakedly all the different things that we feel and want for what they are. Perhaps it is anger or fear or repulsion rather than the kindness we would so much more strongly prefer. The mistake that most of us make at one time or another with a practice like compassion or kindness is to try to deny what is actually going on: "I mustn’t feel resentment; I must only feel love. Because, after all, that is my dedication—to be kind."

It is a very delicate balance to bring together pure awareness, which is completely honest in seeing what is happening, with an unwavering confidence that reminds us we are genuinely capable of love and compassion. We manage to do so to some extent by practicing love and kindness towards ourselves and by seeing the negative feelings that arise not as our fault. We must learn to view the fact that we have negative feelings not as an irreversible personal defect or as some kind of portentous setback on our path to liberation, but simply as the result of conditioned habits of mind. We can hold both a vision of our heart’s objective and a compassionate acknowledgment of whatever truth is manifesting in the present moment.

Even the Dalai Lama says about himself, "I don’t know why people like me so much." And then he says, "It must be because I try to be compassionate, to have bodhicitta, that aspiration of compassion." Bodhicitta is the bedrock of Tibetan Buddhism, a wish for the happiness, welfare, and freedom from suffering for all beings everywhere, along with the commitment to work toward that end. Notably, even the Dalai Lama doesn’t claim complete success; he claims a dedication to really trying.


Sharon Salzberg is the author of Faith, Lovingkindness, A Heart as Wide as the World, and The Force of Kindness and editor of Voices of Insight, a collection of essays by leading teachers of Buddhist meditation in the West. Her writing has also appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Tricycle, Shambhala Sun, and Yoga Journal.

This excerpt from The Force of Kindness is reprinted with permission from Sounds True and was published in the Spring 2007 issue of the Kripalu catalog.