Author and interfaith spiritual director Janice Lynne Lundy explains how a simple question helps her to keep her heart open – to others, and to herself.
“Do you have a kind heart today?” the Indian master Atisha asked. He posed this question to whomever he might encounter in his daily travels. Can you envision someone stopping you in a busy shopping mall in the midst of the holiday hustle and asking you that very question? I imagine that any of us would be caught unawares, stumbling over ourselves to come up with a good response. “Umm, I’m a little busy right now,” we’d say. “I have a lot of shopping to do. Yeah, ok, I’m feeling pretty kind. I am buying people all this stuff, you know.” And on we’d march to the next store, with the single-pointed attention of a hunting dog sniffing out his prey. “Geez, what a weirdo,” we might mumble to our companions, glancing back at master Atisha as he asks the question of another unsuspecting shopper.
In truth, ever since I stumbled across Atisha’s question, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and trying it on for size. Not asking someone else the question, mind you, but asking it of myself as a way of determining how openhearted I am at any given moment. It seems that in December we’re invited to think a bit more about how we relate to others. The holidays we celebrate—Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa—invite us to examine our own hearts; to open them wide, offer wishes of well-being to others, and engage in acts of generosity. But what if we’re like that shopper in the mall I described, and we’re feeling too busy or overwhelmed, resentful or Scrooge-like, at what the holiday season demands of us? What then? We can begin by cultivating compassion.
Webster’s dictionary defines compassion as empathy, care, concern, sensitivity, warmth, tenderness, or mercy toward another. The definition I like best, however, is kindness. If you combine this word with another sourced in the formal definition of compassion—“love”—you’ll discover my favorite word in the English language: loving-kindness. To me, this word says it all. Just saying it, in fact, makes you feel warm and fuzzy all over. Loving-kindness. It opens the door of your heart just a crack, enough to let in a little ardor of the season.
We can begin to cultivate this virtue by asking ourselves Atisha’s question: Am I feeling kind right now? This is a wonderful question to reflect upon, especially in the midst of a season whose pressures may disconnect us from our good, kind heart.
Start Where You Are
Loving-kindness begins at home. Not with our loved ones, but with ourselves. In the spirit of holiday giving, of wanting to make things jolly for everyone, we may not treat ourselves so kindly. We may operate with a monumental “To Do” list, make numerous commitments to entertain, and set standards of decorating or gift giving that rival Martha Stewart herself. Because we innately want to give of ourselves and create beautiful, meaningful experiences for others, we may overextend or exhaust ourselves. This is not being nice to ourselves. Naughty is more like it.
If we desire to be more compassionate and kind to others, we must be that for ourselves first. As the holidays progress, don’t let your desire to please, an inclination toward perfection, or those nasty “shoulds” get in the way of your own self-care. Don’t let “keeping up with the Joneses” prevent you from keeping up with yourself. You can demonstrate self-kindness in many ways, including: Saying ‘No’ when you feel so inclined. Delegating. Minimizing. Not rushing. Resting. Treat yourself as kindly as you would your own best friend. The Buddha himself espoused, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.”
The more kindly you treat yourself, the better you’ll feel—and the more beneficent of heart you’ll be to others. When we take good care of ourselves, we are able to more fully care for those we love.
Do Unto Others
I have been blessed throughout my life with many people who have modeled compassion for me. Wise and wonderful women, especially, generous and kind: grandmothers, my mother, mothers of friends, teachers, and mentors. So many showed me firsthand how to be caring, because they were so caring themselves. We can learn to be more compassionate by modeling the kind acts of those who have gone before us.
If you’re feeling a bit stingy or closed-hearted, call upon a memory of someone who demonstrated compassion to you. Bring them into your mind’s eye and feel, once again, what it was like to be on the receiving end of their mercy. Their tenderness. Their generosity. Remember how delicious it felt to be cared for in this way. The greatest gift you can give back to them this holiday season is to emulate their fine example. Do unto others as they have done to you. Share the love they bestowed upon you with others who may be in need of love themselves. Model the compassion you’ve been shown and just watch how those around you begin to boast that holiday glow.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama may have articulated best how we arrive at a place of compassion. “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” No matter which holidays we celebrate, no matter what traditions we hold dear, the thread of compassion runs through them all. The brightest and most beautiful gift of the season is loving-kindness—yours, mine, and ours.