Many people unconsciously feel that kindness is not necessary to meditation. That it is enough to achieve peace in your own mind, without worrying about what is in others’. But I’d like to argue that this is a misunderstanding of what peace is, and where it travels.
THE ROLE OF SELF-FOCUS IN MENTAL DISTRESS
I’d like to start by taking you back to the last time you lost your temper. Perhaps you became angry with a close friend or relation, and decided that they were not treating you right in some way. Maybe the customer service department of some company dismissed you out of hand. Or maybe someone cut you off, or bumped into you, while you were driving your car. I’d like you to go back there, get into that mind state, and ask yourself whom you were trying to protect in that situation.
The answer, in many cases, will be ‘myself’. In that moment, you probably became extremely self-focused, especially since someone had just threatened your wellbeing. Whether you were hurt, or ignored, or neglected, or attacked, I am guessing that your interest became you. Right then, you cared a little less about the other person who had mistreated you, and a little more about maintaining your own sense of self-respect, or dignity, or wellbeing.
THE ILLUSION OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
You may also, ironically, have felt strongly that you were in the right, and that the other person was in the wrong, and did not know what they were doing or talking about. That’s how it works. Psychologically, when you are threatened, then your identity is threatened. And when your identity is threatened, you emphasise the difference between yourself and your enemy, and you start thinking of ways in which they are not like you. They can’t be – they just hurt you! And so you ‘other’ them, turn them into an alien, tell yourself that you would never be found behaving like them.
THE TRUTH THAT IT COULD HAVE BEEN YOU
But the truth is, often, that, given a different set of circumstances, it could have been you. It could have been you driving carelessly; it could have been you dismissing another person. It’s just that , when it happens, you don’t notice so much. You turn a blind eye to the effects of your behaviour on others, because the resulting suffering is not immediately obvious to you. You concentrate on what affects your own happiness, and blow everyone else.
But this is to miss an essential factor in the happiness chain. Many of our relationships are dyadic – it’s just, for a while, us and one other person. Peace is like a circle that constantly runs between two people. Your behaviour affects their behaviour, and their behaviour affects your behaviour. So to ignore the effects of your own behaviour is like a blindness. The truth is it could have been you causing suffering in that situation. But the way you are built, it is hard to see.
MEDITATION AND KINDNESS
Relating all this back to kindness and meditation, what is the connection? Well, if we meditate from the point of view of gaining our own peace, all our meditation is one way. It is all about how others affect us, and how we respond inside ourselves. This is great – but it is only half the story. What about what we give out to others? When are we going to train that side of the transaction?
Let’s apply it back to an example situation. Let’s suppose that another car driver is careless and bumps into you. Now, imagine that the both of you have spent the last week on a course learning to stay peaceful and serene in every situation. What will be the result?
Sure, the result will be peaceful. Each of you will be staring at the other, and reminding themselves that this is only a manifestation of suffering; that you just have to breathe, and you will find inner peace again. Maybe you swap details for insurance purposes, and then go your separate ways, each with the slight idea that they are the most morally superior person in the situation, because they have remained calm against the odds.
WHAT ACTIVE KINDNESS BRINGS
Now re-imagine the situation with some changes. Imagine the same accident, but that both of you have been on a course learning not only to stay peaceful in yourself, but to work for the peace of others. What a difference that might make. Instead of the stale calm of two separate individuals, we might see the interaction of two people who are seeking peace not only in themselves, but for others. You may check how each other are. You may help each other check for damage to your cars. And, because peace is a circle between two people, you may both find it easier to find peace in the situation.
THE DIFFERENCE IN COMMUNICATION STYLE
There is an analogy in counselling. The counsellor who seeks to retain their own peace in a session is operating from the one-sided perspective. It has it’s advantages, but the net result will be fewer opportunities for peace in the relationship. The counsellor who seeks peace for both themselves and the other, has found a more open way of relating which has different opportunities for mutual healing.
The difference in style is this. In the first way, you are seeking to put yourself at peace. In the second, you are seeking to put everyone at peace. In the modern world, full of fear about abuse, it is easy to fall into your own bubble, afraid to extend a hand. But it takes practice, and at least if we try, in our meditation and our lives, to reach out and try to help others gain peace, then we can get better at it over time.
WHAT IF I AM NATURALLY RECLUSIVE?
A very valid point is, what if I am the reclusive type? Why should I extend myself towards others, and ruin my own peace in the process, to do something I am not very good at?
The answers in literature are mixed. It is a subtle question. I wonder if an answer might be to pay attention to each situation, and weigh up the respective benefits of self-extension and self-reflection. In some situations, it might be entirely appropriate for a reclusive person to remain a little aloof, and respectfully quiet. But in other situations, even the very private person might be wise to extend a helping hand a little out of their comfort zone. It can be all the more valuable if it is exceptional.
Many people meditate to achieve internal peace, and this is great. But if we ignore meditations on kindness and compassion, we can become only half-developed. We may be missing opportunities to extend happiness beyond ourselves. If, on the other hand, we spend some time in meditation teaching ourselves to be kind to others, then we open ourselves to a different kind of adventure. This can be harder for naturally reclusive people; but even then, it expands their ability to help others when the need arises.