“Even by meeting someone’s eyes, we let go of where we are holding back.”
— Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on How to Be Kind
Metta, from the Pali language of ancient India, is associated with a short Sutra or discourse in which the Buddha extols the virtues of kindness. Typically, the word Metta (Maitri in Sanskrit) translates as “Loving-Kindness” or “Friendliness”.
The Buddha’s description of kindness does not point to a moral obligation or address a fundamental fault—quite the opposite. Rather it is a question of what is natural on the journey to enlightenment. In the Buddhist tradition, it is by practicing kindness that we create the conditions for waking up to our inherent goodness and compassion.
How to be Kind to Others
By emphasizing how to be kind to others, the Metta Sutra has a clear implication: if our goal is to wake up, it matters what we do. Generally, what we do is a matter of habit. If we look behind the habits that keep us from feeling our heart or showing kindness to others, we find fear.
It’s possible that the reason we are numb to the suffering of others is that paying attention to a larger world scares us. To really see another person or situation requires that we drop, if just for a moment, our own anxious but seemingly safe preoccupation with ourselves. As is painfully obvious in these challenging times, facing others often requires the courage to face our own fear. (Interestingly, the Buddha taught the Metta Sutra to his monks after they experienced fear while meditating in the forest.)
It takes bravery to open up to our world. Traditional Buddhist teachings identify four ways that can work to engage a larger world. Borrowed from the Hindu tradition, these are known as the Four Brahmaviharas:
Joy or Appreciation—replacing complaint
And Equanimity—replacing bias
Taking up these attitudes and behaviors is similar to the Western ideal of “godliness”. (Vihara means abode, Brahma is the name of the Hindu deity. By being gentle we are dwelling in Brahma’s house.) The Brahmaviharas invite us to give up fighting with our world, embracing a path of gentleness and appreciation.
Reversing habitual self-concern, creating the conditions that support waking up, we practice kindness in what we think, say and do. But there’s a catch. If you’ve ever tried to sustain kindness, it’s difficult. You start to wonder: when are “kind words” genuine and when are we simply being “nice” or even cowardly? As a parent for example, can’t a forceful response to your child be kind? And when is kindness an attempt to secure a new, more “spiritual” identity? When is an emphasis on kindness an attempt to paper over the parts of ourselves and our world we are afraid to see?
Anticipating these challenges, in Mahayana Buddhism, the Four Brahmaviharas become the Four Limitless Ones. These same categories (Maitri, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity) are taken up as meditations on the well being of others. These contemplations begin with the practice of insight into the ephemeral nature of our ever-changing “self.” Based upon this insight, tenderness that transcends the dualism of “helping” (or not helping!) others is born.
Wishing well-being for those who are near and those we don’t know, equanimity develops. Fear and struggle with the idea of “other” is relaxed and our minds experience peace. Practicing the Four Limitless Ones confirms that, as the Buddha taught, kindness and compassion are both a cause and result of meditative experience.
How to be Kind to Yourself
Before we can dissolve what separates us from others, however, we need to understand these boundaries. Trungpa Rinpoche called the practice of mindfulness meditation “making friends with ourselves.” By describing meditation this way, Rinpoche was pointing to mindfulness practice as an extension of the friendliness of the Four Brahmaviharas.
Sitting on our meditation cushion, without trying to fix or prove anything, we let ourselves be as we are in the moment. We discover ourselves in our own spot, with a body—where we are, and a mind—who we are. In each moment, care and attention is brought to our body-mind, including feelings and sensations we may have avoided. In a gentle way, through meditation, we train in meeting ourselves over and over.
Mindfulness brings us down to earth, back to our senses. It cultivates a habit of friendliness toward our experience in this moment as a human being. Real kindness happens when we let go of the habit of judging or punishing ourselves. In order to understand how to be kind to others, first we learn how to be. Appreciating our interconnectedness with others is kindness. But before we can connect with others, we have to share the same world, recognizing that, more often than not, we also share the pattern and habit of judging ourselves and each other.
The practice of kindness begins with the decency of the Four Brahmaviharas. Meeting our world with gentleness, in sitting meditation we extend this friendliness to ourselves. When we are ready and with the support of our teacher, we rouse the courage to make a close examination of our experience. Investigating the self with warmth and humor, the idea of a solid separateness from others is revealed as a concept, a habit born of fear. Through the practice of the Four Immeasurables, boundaries grow fuzzy, fear relaxes and interconnectedness is felt.
How to Be Kind
So how, really, to be kind? According to the Sutra, we are kind to others the way a parent “would protect their only child.” Interconnectedness means that kindness is personal, it touches us. The words of the Buddha suggest that the world is our family. (The root of the word kindness is kin–or family). Because we are all already family, we can trust our interactions with others.
Kindness is a journey, but there needs to be a way to begin. Here, Sakyong Mipham offers simple advice. To begin the process of connection: look. When we care enough about someone to offer our regard, as in the original meaning of the word—we meet their gaze with our own. When we do that, they are no longer invisible to us, or us to them. From this mutual seeing, our connection can reveal itself. Looking someone in the eyes with simple curiosity, without judgement, begins the journey of kindness.