How to Be a Kinder Person
Several years ago, when my son was still a baby, we were in the grocery store and he started to get fussy. I had a cart full of groceries, and I knew I was running out of time.
Before I knew it, a stranger came over and started unloading my groceries for me. It wasn't out of obligation. It was just a sense of – okay, here is something I can do in this moment. And he was very kind. He didn’t ask for anything in return; his kindness was freely given.
Kindness to others is at the center of the world’s spiritual and ethical traditions. When we cultivate kindness, we deepen our relationships with ourselves and others. We learn to be a good friend – even to strangers. And we're really wishing people well with genuine warmth and authenticity.
But how do we do it? How do we cultivate more kindness? How can we be more like that stranger in the supermarket?
First, we can practice simple acts of kindness over and over again. They don’t have to be huge acts; they can just be simple moments, where, oh, there's an opportunity to be kind.
For me, I sometimes do this while on the phone with the people in customer service. A lot of times they are trained to be nice, and niceness doesn't necessarily mean kind. So, a lot of times it's inauthentic and I can feel that, and it kind of irritates me. When I notice this, I try to say to myself, “Okay, wait. Let me see if I can actually be kind.”
This doesn't mean that I don't ask for what I want, because often I do need something, or something's happening that I need help with, and I can be forceful and firm in a very kind way. It simply means connecting with each other and still being able to maintain this sense of warmth and connection no matter what's happening.
Second, we can practice formal lovingkindness meditation – there are guided meditations on this in the Ten Percent app. Gradually, we learn to incline over and over again toward kindness, so that it can arise and radiate everywhere. By doing this over and over again, we change our habits, our brain changes, and our bodies change. As a result, our baseline can increase so that we're kind in more moments throughout the day.
It’s also possible to cultivate kindness toward oneself. For example, I used to live with a lot of fear. I'd wake up in the middle of the night and terror was one of my most immediate experiences. But as I practiced inclining toward lovingkindness over and over again, eventually I got pretty good at it. And fear can't take hold in the same way when lovingkindness is there. It’s very freeing that we have the potential to train our minds in this way.
There are also some things that kindness does not mean.
We’re not necessarily trying to add something that isn’t there; we’re recognizing when we are not kind, and seeing what blocks us. As the quote attributed to Rumi says, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
We’re also not saying that things are perfect. People make mistakes and we make mistakes. And with kindness we can say, “No, that's not okay. No thank you. Not right now.” But we can stay connected to one another in the moment and be present with what's happening. As Sharon Salzberg says, "To cultivate lovingkindness does not mean that we approve of or condone all actions. It means that we can see clearly actions that are incorrect or unskillful and still not lose the connection."
Ultimately, kindness is about our connection with all people. We all want to be happy. We all want to be well. We all want to feel this connection and belonging. When we can stay connected with lovingkindness, even when there's conflict, it radiates everywhere. People can feel that, and it makes a difference.
The late Maya Angelou once said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, and people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Emily Horn is on the core team of Buddhist Geeks, which integrates technology, culture and meditation. She is a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Insight Meditation Society, and InsightLA, and has been called a "power player of the mindfulness movement" by Wired Magazine.