Being kind to others is good for you

For the Monitor
Published: 9/17/2016 11:00:13 PM

The blinding sun is rising gloriously on the horizon, as commuters lurch and creep along.

The sedan in front of me slows in the travel lane, and I pull out to pass. That is when I see him – headlights flashing aggressively and hand affixed steadily on the horn, he thunders down on me in his gigantic Chevy Avalanche.

“Fittingly reckless name,” I think to myself as I duck back into the left-hand lane to avoid him. Speeding by me within inches of my bumper, he greets me with his middle finger and furling his face in scorn, he mouths what I doubt was, “thank you”.

Road Sage

The adrenalin and cortisol surge, priming me to retaliate, but my mind resists intentionally choosing another path. I inhale deeply, smile and as he races out of sight wordlessly I repeat, “may you be happy, may you be at peace.” I don’t have time or space in my life for the type of negativity and aggression this gentleman is generating. Rechanneling this energy, I silently wish him well and continue on my way to school, where working with young people is a constant reminder of the need to foster positivity.

Our society fairly wallows in hate, aggression, and thoughts of revenge, from Hollywood to our presidential politics. No one is immune to its divisive influence, so responding with tolerance and love takes a conscious and powerful effort. In the case of my hostile truck-driving friend, I force myself to choose a path of non-reactivity and compassion, betting on the best in people rather than the lowest common denominator.

Metta Awareness

A few weeks ago, I wrote an account of my three days spent in silence, engaged in a personal mindfulness retreat at my home on Main Street. The final day of this experience is traditionally spent practicing “loving-kindness.” Also called metta meditation, loving-kindness practice is about bringing warmth and positive energy to the world – a hard concept to argue with, but one that is often disregarded.

In the sacred Buddhist and Hindu languages, metta signifies friendship, kindness, benevolence and goodwill. It represents a compassionate approach to others and one’s self. As I awoke on the final day of my retreat, after two full days of silence, I began this practice, choosing a “benefactor” to whom I would express compassion.

This exercise is meant to begin with someone I love and who loves me in return. I chose my son Sam and as I sat for my morning mindfulness practice, I repeated in my mind, “may you be happy, may you be at peace.” With every breath, I sent him love, joy and harmony with those phrases echoing in my thoughts.

Next, I set out on a silent walk on the trails in the forest behind my home, ending in the center of town. With each step I repeated internally, “may you be happy, may you be at peace.”

Then, as the practice encourages, I turned the metta mantra towards myself. “May I be happy, may I be at peace.” I was instantly struck at how uncomfortable that felt. How is it that we are programmed to suppress intentional kindness and self love? Our culture seems to propagate self-criticism and doubt, as though we are not good enough to deserve love. We can identify and celebrate the strengths in others, but are reluctant to appreciate these same positive traits in ourselves.

Despite the discomfort I continued with the practice, alternating between Sam and me, repeating the phrases. Soon other individuals in my life were lining up in my mind to receive compassion, and as I walked slowly I sent well wishes their way. One by one I smiled and directed happiness and peace toward their lives.

I then began to practice loving-kindness with those people with whom I have had challenging relationships. As I repeated, “may you be happy, may you be at peace,” I was astounded at the feeling of anger and resentment lifting off my shoulders and heart. I even tried it with a certain presidential candidate with whom I do not share values. I was reluctantly reminded of that individual’s inherent humanity despite often inflammatory rhetoric.

Now walking back down Main Street, I smiled as cars passed, conveying happiness and peace in my mind to each of the drivers. A dog barked, and I wished it well, and did the same for the crickets that had filled my days in silence with a chorus of stillness. I felt an overwhelming sense of joy and though I don’t imagine it was enlightenment, it sure felt good.

Try this at home

This practice does not require any special set of skills or commitment to silent meditation. Buddhist or Hindu beliefs are not prerequisites nor is any kind of sacred following. A willingness to be benevolent and thoughtful is the only condition for practicing loving-kindness.

What would happen if for only a day, people everywhere attempted this metta exercise? Even if everyone in a given town or community tried to share in this experiment, the impact would likely be significant and lasting. Anyone can do it and perhaps everyone should. Try it. Challenge your family or friends to try it for a day. Heck, encourage them to give it a shot for an hour or even ten minutes.

On the Road Again

As I arrive at school, my trucker friend is long gone and has hopefully found peace and happiness, even if just for a moment. I step out of my car and repeat in my mind, “may all beings be happy, may all beings be at peace.” Maybe it will not actualize today, but I am going to keep trying.

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