Excerpted from "The Force of Kindness," with permission from Sounds True.

A friend of mine, at the end of a retreat, offered a provocative reflection that intrigued and inspired me. After looking intensively at her inner experience for nine days of meditation and seeing many of her life choices in a brand new light, she commented, "If you really want to be a rebel, practice kindness."

There could be many wonderful extrapolations: "If you really want to be outrageous, be ethical." "If you want to go against the grain, be kindhearted." "If you want to live on your own terms, breaking out from expectation and external demands, practice love." "To be free, to be different, to be bold, be compassionate."

My friend is an independent thinker, a person who likes to make her own decisions and set her own goals. She likes to know what options she has before her, and to be able to choose the one that is individual, distinctive, noncomformist. When she can really be herself, and not assume a facade in order to please people or fit in or meet their expectations, she is happy. I think she was absolutely right about kindness and rebellion.

The world may tell us to grab as much as we want, and we might think that the audacity of rebelliousness is to grab even more with impunity, but how about being really radical and questioning how much we need? Conventional wisdom may be that retribution displays strength and can summarily bring an end to conflicts, but how about taking a leap and challenging ourselves to a whole new meaning of resolution based on mutuality and caring? The easy way may be to turn away and distract ourselves form the distress and suffering of others, but how about being daring enough to pay attention? Our conditioning may tell us we don't need anybody, but how about taking a real look at life and noticing that we are all entwined in a fabric of interdependence, then being willing to risk acting accordingly?

Although in current times there are some common connotations of morality as expressing fear of life or prudishness, in fact a commitment to ethics is a commitment to living life in the most free, most loving, most expansive sense. In Buddhist teaching, morality does not mean a forced or puritanical abiding by rules. Morality means living with intentions that reflect our love and compassion for ourselves as well as our caring for others. As the philosopher George Santayana said, "Morality is the desire to lessen suffering in the world." Living in a way that doesn't perpetuate hurting ourselves or hurting another is considered to be an expression both of great power and great compassion.

The Buddha said that if we truly loved ourselves we would never harm another, because if we harm another it is in some way diminishing who we are. There is no way to lash out at someone physically or verbally, to belittle their achievements, to exploit them in some way, to consider them unworthy of hearing the truth, and emerge undamaged ourselves. We are capable of so much more, and we dishonor that potential when we don't live with integrity.

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  • The Buddha also said, "When watching after oneself, one watches after others. When watching after others, one watches oneself." And he went on to question, "How does one, by watching after oneself, watch after others?" By sustaining meditation and having access to our inner world of thoughts and feelings, we can more and more understand our deeper motivations, and we can also begin to catch sight of our fleeting impulses. We come to understand how to form a meaningful aspiration for our lives, and we learn how to be in touch with that aspiration in different and challenging circumstances.


    When we are committed to an ethical life, we are not ruled by changing conditions in the outside world. We have a thread of meaning in our lives; we have a sense of dedication that reflects great love for ourselves and a deeper understanding of where happiness is to be found. If we take care of others we find that our self-respect grows and flourishes, and that this is the basis for our growing confidence, courage, and ease of heart.