A guest post by writer and psychotherapist Jennifer Hotchner on kindness as a nurturing force for our basic goodness.
Often, we believe that kindness is a trait that we learn, a behavior that we add to our personality. In fact, if we look at what makes the world go round—the kindness instinct is always there. Our growth provided by someone else’s milk. Our knowing of ourselves reflected in someone else’s eyes. Even our heartbeat is kind, and as the modern Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham says, everyone has one.
He also says that society starts with two people, usually one parent and one child. He says that our very survival as human beings depends on what happens between these two people. I think there’s something to that.
About two years ago someone very close to me had a five-year-old son whose best friend was shot by his father. This happened in a wealthy suburban neighborhood. The father had lost his job and was recently divorced and possibly going to lose custody of his children.
My friend cared deeply for this young boy, who’d come over for many play-dates. She told me how she learned very quickly that there were very few people that she could actually talk to about this. This was one of those experiences, too heart-wrenching, too traumatizing to look at directly. You can feel yourself turn away just hearing about it.
And what causes us to turn away? What strikes us so deeply when we see the suffering of others? Often we interpret this turning away as a lack of compassion. We are wired to avoid pain. We know this. But what about the fact that we even feel pain when confronted with someone else’s suffering? What if that were the big clue that our kindness instinct exists? What if that pain was Basic Goodness waving its flags? I am here. In this heartbreak I am here.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, in Letters to a Young Poet, “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something that wants our love.”
I watched as my friend went right into the darkness of this situation blind. There was no way to know how to navigate. She helped the mother collect her son’s things. She agonized over how to communicate to her own children about what had happened. I saw how she tried to make sense of murder, and her heartbreak, over and over again. This was her chance to completely give up on humanity, and of course the question crossed her mind.
But I saw that by some miracle, like a plant somehow surviving in a dark basement, her love instead grew, taking on a fierce conviction. If she saw another child being ignored or shamed at a holiday gathering she would target them, sweep them up onto her lap, squeeze them, and whisper good things about them in their ears. I have seen her turn towards humanity with different eyes — as if she wasn’t going to give up even though she still could not understand how it came to this.
These days Sakyong Mipham talks about Basic Goodness with a sense of urgency. It is as if we are facing such critical choice points on a daily basis.
The other day I was sliding through those little squares on the bottom of my computer screen that highlight stories from Yahoo news. They’re very seductive—Cat Gets Head Stuck in a Pipe, How to Know if Your Marriage Will Fail, Man Shoots Seven People at a Local Salon, Actress Wows at Forty-seven…. (I clicked on the cat because I wanted to see what that looked like.)
I continued on to read my e-mail, and from the back of my mind one headline kept floating into view, quietly like a banner advertising death on a beautiful summer day: Man Shoots Seven People at a Local Salon. It bothered me that I skipped over this news as if it was ordinary, as ordinary as a famous actress looking hot in a blue dress. I went back and clicked on the image of the man in question wearing no shoes standing by a cop car, two women with their eyes wide in disbelief, gripping each other’s shirts with one hand and covering their sobs with the other. Stop. Look. I can feel this.
Sakyong Mipham, has made a radical claim—that all of the complicated suffering that we are seeing in the world today, all of it, has to do with how individuals feel about themselves.
I looked closely into the eyes of the man accused of murder. It was just the two of us, him locked in the computer screen, me looking on at a safe distance. This was my society.
Sakyong Mipham says that “We either choose to acknowledge our Basic Goodness, or we cower from it in fear. Society is based on what we determine it to be.”
Even being aware that we have a choice might go a long way.
the first augury says
It can be quite liberating to discover just how much control we have over our own subjectivity, and our opinions about things. Such mental constructs are vaporous at best, and easily disperse in the winds of change. Yet it can be a dangerous delusion to confuse our opinions of something with the physical reality of its existence.
It is so exceedingly tempting to our minds, this shell game. Our minds will gladly substitute the "wild" and unexplored unknowns with what is closest, most comfortable and clearly "known". As a coping mechanism for the nervous system, it is essential to a certain degree. But when these defensive measures take on a life of their own, and such substitutions for approximates becomes a constant and automatic process at every level of the mind, the seeming "safety" it provides has actually become the height of danger.
In a single day you are born a thousand times and die ten thousand times, not knowing how to stop. This is most perilous.
Lida Anne says
Thanks for writing about the topic of kindness and giving such clear insight into it. After reading it, I was excited to share with my partner your simple language and logic about the kindness instinct. The fact that we feel others pain and want to turn away does point to something soft within us. Something that is already there, a part of us. I'm curious about what the Sakyong said about the suffering we see in the world has to do with how people feel about themselves. How can we work with looking at the pain and changing how we feel about ourselves?
Thanks so much-
Jennifer Hotchner says
Thank you for your feedback Lida Anne and your question—how can we look at the pain and change how we feel about ourselves? At a ceremony in Halifax, Nova Scotia the Sakyong said "How we feel about ourselves becomes a whisper, a breeze, a view." Initially, before we try and change ourselves, we might be better off testing this statement out, and looking for the manifestation of it in ourselves and the world today.
I have seen shame about who we are at restaurants, malls, libraries, grocery stores. I watch as families look at each other with disgust and then look out into the crowd as if all the other people were good and knew something they did not. I wonder how this feeling permeates through the night, and possibly into school the next day, or the work place. I have felt my own embarrassment just for existing and walking. How far will this breeze go?
For me, this is a big statement the Sakyong is making. That all the suffering, the big suffering like wars, violence in our youth, and even economic collapse, are due to whether or not individuals know they are “goodness”. Perhaps if we just stay with this radical concept for a while the changing how we feel about ourselves will naturally occur, because Basic Goodness is already there, in our seeking, in your question, in the pain that longs for something different.
nobody special says
The most important questions are the ones you ask yourself. No one can tell you how to listen to yourself, in the same way that no one else has your fingerprint. It is the most difficult choice there is, and that is why people will seek endless amounts of distractions and excuses for not doing it.
The core of our living being is our reason for being born, and it has many deep-seated issues that are crying out desperately for our attention… otherwise we would not be here. Once we actually turn our attention to our own suffering, we will eventually discover the possibility of its cessation – but not until then. There is an infinity of pithy quotes, catchy ideas, thrilling narratives, epic myths, exciting characters, quaint stories and so on which are directly related to these matters. Much more than enough to be completely satisfied by them alone. After all, why would we want to feel our own suffering when we can just ignore it instead?
In fact, such desire for consolation or distraction is the most common thing amongst everyone on the planet. It is a constant in all our lives, until we encounter it directly and begin to understand the motivation behind it. Then we can begin to connect to the universal nature of suffering, and eventually come to understand the connection between all things.
But thinking about something and understanding it are quite different. Thoughts are most often purely intellectual ideas – like a virtual reality where everything is nice and safe and clean and sterilized, but essentially incomplete. Understanding requires the ability to emotionally feel and instinctively sense the implications as well as knowing the conceptual framework. Understanding requires our whole being, whereas our thoughts and ideas can be purely intellectual, and only a shallow imitation of actual reality itself.
Jennifer Hotchner says
Thank you for your insights. Well said 'nobody special'.