2016-06-30
In our culture, Sharon Salzberg believes, kindness is unfairly relegated to "5th-class status," a virtue of last resort for those who aren't beautiful, brilliant, courageous, or strong. In her latest work, "The Force of Kindness," a combination book and CD set from Sounds True, she attempts to liberate compassion from any association with "wimpiness" and explores how powerful it can be in people's lives. Besides, as she explained in a recent interview, being kind makes us happy.

What does kindness mean to you?

I think the associations people have with kindness are often things like meekness and sweetness and maybe sickly sweetness; whereas I do think of kindness as a force, as a power. When I look back over the instances, the encounters of my life, even when I just look around at the world, there's something that moves me so strongly that really is inspiring and uplifting about people just taking the time to pay attention to somebody or going a little bit out of their way to seek to help them. I can almost feel the palpable force of that. It reminds us of our own inner strength and our capacity to give, and it also reminds us of how connected we all are.

In what way can kindness be a spiritual practice?

It's both an internal spiritual practice and it's an external practice. I think one doesn't have to have a kind of classically spiritual word for it, to define it or access it, but it's like a commitment. It's remembering what we care about.

Mostly, I think it has to do with attention. You're rushing down the street and somebody asks you for directions, and the first thing you feel is annoyance. Like, I'm in a hurry, can't you see? But then you stop and you look at them and they look a little forlorn maybe, certainly a little bit lost and uneasy. And you think, they trusted me, that's why they asked me. They have that kind of inclination and you stop and you talk to them and there's just that little moment of connection. If we pay attention to what's around us then I think that leads us - or that's a form itself, a form of kindness.

You refer to the Dalai Lama's phrase, "enlightened self-interest." What do we gain by being kind?

I think it's a source of great happiness. The Dalai Lama also says, "I've never met anyone I consider a stranger." I was just in Tucson for his teachings and many of us were staying at the same hotel that he was. And the teachings were in the hotel. (It was really phenomenal seeing this resort turn into an ashram!)

Anyway, yesterday morning I went downstairs to meet some friends for breakfast and I saw these people lining up with katas, with scarves, and I realized that the Dalai Lama was just about to leave. So my friends and I lined up instead of having breakfast and in a little while he left the hotel. But he went down the line and recognized every single person on that line and wished us well. There were children and hotel workers and certainly students. It was such a beautiful moment that reminded me that sometimes it can be very simple, but it gives other people so much joy. He could have just rushed out, but he stopped and he paid attention to everybody.

I think that joy is also something that fills us when we're able to offer something to somebody else. It's something that satisfies us or fulfills us. I think even the research people are doing these days into meditation - like when they put someone into an MRI machine and tell them, "Ok. Now do your compassion meditation," one of the parts of the brain that lights up is the pleasure center. It's joy. Compassion isn't morose; it's something replenishing and opening, that's why it makes us happy.

If it makes us happy, why doesn't kindness come more easily to us?


I think there are a number of reasons. Sometimes people don't trust the force of kindness. They think love or compassion or kindness will make you weak and kind of stupid and people will take advantage of you, you won't stand up for other people. So I think that's just a basic misunderstanding. If we really look at the quality, like when people have stopped for us and helped us out or paid attention to us or listen to our story of unhappiness for the hundredth time, there's such a sense of appreciation for that ability. We don't consider those people stupid or foolish with their head in the clouds. There's a great energy there. We can clear up that misunderstanding.

Sometimes it's just the force of habit. We think if we give to others there's not going to be enough for us or we're afraid. We have this sense of being in competition with the entire universe and we don't want to help anyone else out. Maybe no one else helped us out, it seems. We think we'll lose something from taking time or giving care or concern, so that's also a misunderstanding that through clear seeing can be avoided or transformed.

And then there's just the question of mindfulness and the moment. We tend to be in a hurry; we're going a lot of places. We're conceptualizing and thinking about the next 15 conversations we need to have or things we need to do. It takes a moment just to notice somebody's needs us or just to breathe and stop and pay attention fully to that person and see if there's something that we can do. It takes a good degree of mindfulness; so it's a cultivation, it's like training.


How do you draw the line between protecting yourself and being a kind person?

Well there's always a balance. I don't know that kindness leaves us unprotected, but I notice that when I walk down the street sometimes I'm in my own world and sometimes I'm actually paying attention. It's kind of interesting paying attention: there's that woman with a baby in the stroller... there's that guy and he looks really intense. I don't stare at them or anything!

Maybe one can make the distinction between kindness as a kind of force and the specific actions that you take in a specific circumstance based on what context you're in and what seems most skillful or appropriate.

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Recently a friend was driving me down from Massachusetts and when we stopped somewhere to get gas a woman came up and said to my friend, "I need 18 dollars 'cause my car broke down," and I have this problem and that problem. My friend said, "I only have three." So she gave her the $3 and the woman walked away and my friend said, "I don't know if that was a scam or not, but I felt good about giving her $3."

We went into the gas station store and came out and the woman was gone. I said, "I wonder where she is." My friend said, " I saw her get into a car and go away." Which seemed to imply that maybe she didn't need the $18. But those things happen all the time and we make our best judgment about how to respond and whether to give or not to give, and whether to give a little as opposed to a lot. If we decide it's not appropriate as far as we can tell to give them money, that doesn't necessarily mean we're being unkind. I think a far less kind thing is to completely discount that person and not consider them a human being or ignore them or overlook them in the course of our lives as though they have nothing to do with us, because, in fact, they do.


How can we practice kindness with people who have betrayed or hurt us in some way?

Understanding kindness doesn't mean giving up your sense of principles or values, or acquiescing or succumbing--it's nothing like that. That's more along the lines of what Trungpa Rinpoche used to call "idiot compassion," so that's not what I'm talking about either. I think a lot of it has do with--and this is something the Dalai Lama talked about--it's a very thorough understanding of our own minds and different emotional states.

So, for example, when we look at anger there's a very positive forcefulness to it. There's a lot of energy to it and that's a good thing. The negative things, which can be overwhelming and lead to disaster, are things like its blindness: when we're angry we get lost in tunnel vision and we start to assume a kind of permanence where there's really change.

So, for example, if we're angry at our self because we said this really stupid thing one day, the 50 great things we did that day, they're gone. They just disappear. It's like our whole sense of who we are just shrinks down to that one comment and we can't imagine it's ever going to change or that we can do better. Those are huge mistakes right there. Not having a more open, full perspective and not remembering the truth of change. And that's part of the problem with anger, that it fosters those emotions very strongly. We look at things like that in terms of making choices as to what to nurture within ourselves and what to let go of. Can we have a great self-respect and insistence on being treated well and at the same time not fall into those deluded attributes of anger when thinking of somebody else and remember what we care about more than anything, which may be good-heartedness?


You write about a connection between fearlessness and morality.

The Buddha talked about morality as being the gift of fearless in a few different ways. One is it's a gift of fearlessness to ourselves because we're not in that sort of timid, paranoid state of "Oh no, what if they found out what I said?" I don't know if you've ever had the experience of either being about to or actually having had some really nasty comments about somebody else come out of your mouth and then the person in question walks in the room. There's that horrible moment of "did they hear me?" Or even if you didn't actually say them, knowing that you were about to or attempted to is such an awful feeling. Using harmful speech, telling lies (even little ones), acting in ways that imply that we're not all connected and that what we do doesn't matter. It all sort of debilitates us and limits us and makes us very afraid, whether we realize it or not.

Having a commitment to being straightforward and being clear and being honest and caring about others allows us not to live in fear all the time. It's also considered a gift of fearlessness to others because it's almost like that's what we are radiating is this assurance that I'm not going to hurt you, I'm not going to try and take advantage of you or manipulate you or deceive you. People feel that, they definitely respond to that.