2016-06-30
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.

Is religion required for an ethical life?
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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.

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    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.

    We don't need any sort of religious orientation to lead a life that is ethical, compassionate, and kind. It is, as the Dalai Lama puts it so aptly, a case for "enlightened self-interest." If we really want to be happy, to be life-affirming, to be free of the tiresome and binding constraints of what is ordinary and merely habitual, we should look at the force of kindness as it is lived through morality.

    When we don't follow through on a momentary impulse to do a harmful act, we are more able to see the impermanence and the transparency of the desire or anger that arose to fuel that action to begin with. Even if they have come up strongly, we are empowered by our ability to choose not to at from a place of desire or anger or anxiety. We see that we need not be afraid of those impulses any longer, while at the same time we can choose to not follow their call. We can make the choice to let go of harmful urges without any rancor towards ourselves, or any shame about what we might be feeling or fearing or wanting, but instead out of the greatest love for ourselves.

    Having avoided harmful action, we also avoid the guilt and fear of discovery and the confusion and regret that come when we forget that what we do and say has consequences. Because we do fewer actions that keep us feeling separate from others, the common, dispiriting sense of loneliness and alienation we can have is relieved. We find greater lightness and ease in our lives as we increasingly care for ourselves and other beings.

    More and more we experience the happiness of composure and strength. Rather than the turbulence and agitation that we undergo when our minds are full of worry, remorse, and guilt, we find that we more easily experience inner quietude. Because there is not a great bundle of complexity that we are creating - one that we may subsequently need to disentangle and try somehow to make amends for - we can be more peaceful in this moment.

    This is a quality of happiness that is not going to fracture as conditions change, when people behave in disappointing ways, when we do not get what we want. This is a kind of happiness based on knowing our interconnectedness, on the integrity of acting from our deepest values. This is the practice of learning how to truly be a friend to ourselves, and be a friend to others. And this is the understanding that being a friend to ourselves and being one to others is really the same thing.

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