The Convenience of Kindness

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Kindness seems to be a powerful talking point these days.

 

cecil the lion

A lot of this is due to media/Internet accounts of how we treat other humans, as well as how we relate to animals (the story of Cecil the Lion, for example, who not long ago was illegally shot by a self-styled “big-game hunter” in Africa). We can even see how we deal with inanimate/animated objects, such as the recently famed hitchhiking robot HitchBot, which (and I almost wrote “who”) made it safely across Canada and Europe, but was dismembered and destroyed in Philadelphia).

Our measure of kindness to any being we encounter can chart a clear path of the evolution of our awareness as human beings. Kindness is the visible manifestation of enlightened thought. The Dalai Lama, when asked to summarize Buddhism, replied, “My religion is kindness.”

True, it’s not always convenient or easy to be kind, but kindness is not really a choice we make for the sake of convenience. It is, however, a rare opportunity to be that which we are seeking, and to remember our true nature, our light-mind, by putting our positive actions to work for us. How can we feel the full depth of heartfelt kindness from others if we are only kind to others when it’s convenient?

The killing of Cecil the Lion was a great occasion of awareness. How kind can we be at the moment where our ego calls out for action directly opposed to kindness? However unfortunate the circumstances were, the news of Cecil’s death, carried throughout the world, brought us to our hearts/knees faster than any other way the universe could think of. And the shooter (think of Judas) played his part so well that people are reacting to him with judgments of disdain and unkindness and even threats of violence.

However, we can also look at it this way: the dentist and the lion together brought much-needed attention not only to the shame of big-game hunting and poaching, but to the plight of the people of Zimbabwe and the reality of their lives under a morally corrupt regime. Strange as it may sound, perhaps we owe thanks, not only to Cecil, but also to the shooter as well for bringing to light the injustices and severe unkindness oppressing an entire country.

A recent social experiment on kindness, the solar panel-powered “HitchBot,” was designed to travel across continents by depending on the kindness of strangers. The funny-looking little humanoid machine could carry on (limited) friendly conversation, was equipped with a GPS tracker and a camera to chronicle its journey, and was programmed to snap a photo of what was going on around it every 20 minutes.

Because Hitchbot could speak and had limbs (albeit made of pool noodles), and because people could interact with it, many felt compelled to express strong sadness, outrage, and disgust on social media when the friendly little robot was found dismembered and destroyed in Philadelphia.  (According to the San Francisco Chronicle of August 4th, 2015, HitchBot may be revived for another opportunity for others to present kindness.)

Kindness is seen as a virtue in many cultures and religions. In the parable of the Buddha and the elephant Nalagiri, we see kindness in action as a virtue.

Devadutta, a disciple, cousin and brother-in-law of Gautama, the Śākyamuni Buddha, became jealous of Buddha and on his third attempt to kill the Blessed One sets the fierce elephant, Nalagiri, on the path of the Buddha.

When Nalagiri saw the Buddha coming at a distance, it raised its ears, tail and trunk and charged at him. As the elephant came close, the Buddha radiated his loving-kindness (metta) towards the elephant. So vast and deep was the Buddha’s love that as the elephant reached the Buddha, it stopped, became quiet and stood before the Master.

The Buddha then stroked Nalagiri on the trunk and spoke softly. Respectfully, the elephant removed the dust at the master’s feet with its trunk, and scattered the dust over its own head. Then it retreated, with its head facing the Buddha, as far as the stable, and remained fully tamed.

Buddha’s loving kindness and friendliness tamed Nalagiri.

(The parable suggests that kindness affects everyone. Buddhists call such kindness in a virtuous state of perfection as Mettā, while some Indian literature refers to it as maitrī.)

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that you approach an angry animal, or even let one approach you. As most of us have not yet fully realized our own Buddha nature, that would be an ego-driven response, and quite likely to end in disaster.

Our kindness, not yet as developed as the Buddha’s, seems to depend on our mood. If we’re feeling generous and joyful, we’re often much kinder to others and want to share our happiness by putting others first. If we’re feeling as cranky as Nalagiri, or in a less-than-generous mood, we’re also likely to share that; we act as if others are secondary to us and project our ill humor on them as a way of releasing or venting the irritable nagging sensation we woke up with or acquired during the day.

So, here’s the thing: the choice we make to be kind when it’s inconvenient is really what shapes us, our future ideas of self and of others, and even our health.

Medically, it’s been shown that speaking and listening to kindness can affect our physical system and help us to maintain our health. The so-called vagus nerve, for instance, is actually a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. Part of the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system, it can activate different organs throughout the body (heart, lungs, liver, digestive organs). When active, it can produce a sensation of warm expansion in the chest, the way we feel when we are moved by an unselfish act or a beautiful piece of music.

University of Illinois psychiatrist Steve Porges long ago argued that the vagus nerve, while it serves many other functions, is also a care-taking organ. Several hypotheses justify this: this nerve complex, unique to mammals, is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to oxytocin receptor networks that generate positive feelings. In the words of Porges: 

 “Our research and that of other scientists suggests that the vagus nerve may be a physiological system that supports caretaking and altruism. We have found that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of compassion and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity.  People who have high vagus-nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love, and happiness.”

Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with elevated vagal tone (high baseline vagus-nerve activity) are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism—exploring a branch of our nervous system that has seemingly evolved to support such behavior.

Here are some of the observations connected with these studies:

“Meditating on a compassionate approach to others shifts resting-brain activation to the left hemisphere, a region associated with happiness, and boosts immune functions.

Talking about areas of gratitude, in classrooms, at the dinner table, or in a diary, boosts happiness, social wellbeing and health.

Experiences of reverence in nature, or being around others who are morally inspiring, improves an individual’s sense of connection to others and sense of purpose.

Laughing and playing in the face of trauma provides perspective upon life’s inevitable difficulties, and improves resilience and adjustment.

Devoting resources to others, rather than indulging materialist desires, brings about a feeling of lasting well-being.”

The point is that if you can make the conscious decision to be kind (or even to entertain the possibility of kindness) to your fellow humans and all living creatures (including friendly robots), even when such kindness is seemingly not convenient, this attitude will spread energetically and be felt by many in all the realms of your life.

And know this: even if you cannot find a reason to be kind, simply taking the kindest action possible will assist you on your way to fully remembering your true nature.   

 ~ Melinda Iverson Inn

www.melindaiversoninn.com

 

From deep grief, to loving relationships: I’m now offering  spirit readings , and energetic transmissions to help you communicate with and trust your inner wisdom.

 

Further reading: 

Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.

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This material is copyrighted. © 2014 Melinda Iverson Inn www.melindaiversoninn.com – You are free to share, copy, distribute and display the work under the following conditions: You must give author credit, you may not use this for commercial purposes, and you may not alter, transform or build upon this work. For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. Any of these conditions can be waived if you get the permission of the copyright holder. Any other purpose of use must be granted permission by the author.