“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” ~Howard Zinn
Have you ever experienced an unexpected act of kindness that completely changed your day?
I have, and I sincerely hope you have too.
Please pause for a moment and try to remember the last time that happened. How were you feeling before? What happened? And how did the act of kindness impact you?
If I look back on my own life, I can find countless moments where the suddenness, the unexpectedness of an act of kindness, shook me awake.
It might sound strange, but this seems to have been especially so when it came from a stranger.
That’s not to say that the kindness of those close to us isn’t important, because it is. The kindness of our friends, family, and colleagues can keep us going when life throws challenges in our way, and their joy in our happiness makes the good moments radiate even stronger.
But there is something about an act of kindness from an unexpected source that causes its healing ripples to be especially powerful.
And most of the time this isn’t some great or inspiring act but just a very small gesture: a smile, a friendly greeting, a sincere question, a few words from someone who genuinely seems to wish you a good day.
I remember the first time I went backpacking, feeling lost in a city, staring at my map, when a random stranger offered me his help in pointing out the way.
I remember feeling tired and lost in thought after a long drive, stopping for gas and a quick bite, and the man working behind the counter at the restaurant clearing my mind with the pleasure he took in his work, smiling with a disarming friendliness.
I remember sitting in a train in Thailand for fourteen hours, anxiously moving toward my first month-long meditation retreat, and suddenly getting a few genuine words of encouragement and advice from a pair sitting across the aisle.
I remember a woman sitting in her car, rolling down her window to share her joy in seeing my son race down a hill on his bike.
I remember yesterday, when the cook at our canteen advised me on what to choose, doing her best to prepare my dish with full attention and then sincerely wishing me a good day.
In all these situations I was not only left with a feeling of joy, but also a sense of connection.
Kindness can bring a short moment of relaxation in an otherwise busy day, or a complete change from feeling stressed and chagrined to feeling elated, open, and interconnected with the world.
Kindness is just that powerful.
And the beautiful thing is that we all have the chance, every single day, to contribute to this kindness in the world.
So, again, pause for a moment and this time think about the last time when you were the kind stranger. When was that? How did it make you feel?
To start with the second question, my guess would be that it made you feel good. The first question might be more difficult to answer. Looking at myself, although I would love to say “today,” that just isn’t true.
Interesting, isn’t it.
So, kindness is very powerful and important, it helps us and others, it doesn’t cost us anything, yet it still is difficult to give every day.
I can think of many reasons why it is difficult, but to keep it simple I’ll list three:
1. You can only give what you have.
If you want to give somebody money, you must first have money in your bank account. If you want to give kindness, you must first practice being kind to yourself.
That is why, for example, Buddhist meditation on loving-kindness (mettā) begins by giving loving-kindness to yourself, and only then to others.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to spend hours each day meditating; just start with a few minutes every morning (or any other time that fits your schedule) by wishing yourself and those close to you happiness and health. Then try to act on this throughout the day by honoring your needs and prioritizing things that bring you peace and joy.
It’s okay to wish yourself happiness; it’s not selfish. If you are happy you will be able to radiate that happiness outward, making spontaneous acts of kindness easier to do.
As your ability to do so strengthens, you can always add a few minutes to wish the same to people you know but about whom you do not have a specific feeling, or a neutral feeling. If that gets easier and easier you can even start adding people you dislike, strengthening the power of your kindness further and further.
2. You have to see the other person.
If you are anything like me, then you probably live most of your life in a form of zombie state. Moving from place to place, working, talking, acting on what’s happening, checking your smartphone way too often, all without any form of true consciousness or mindfulness.
You can do the following test to check this for yourself.
At the end of the day, look into the mirror and ask yourself how often that day you truly noticed how and what you were doing. That’s all.
Chances are the honest conclusion will be that you just rushed through the day (again).
If you don’t notice how you are during the day, if you are not mindful of your own state of mind, if you do not see yourself, then how can you truly see another person?
It all comes down to how much conscious space we have—how open our mind is toward ourselves and those around us.
Consciousness tends to expand when we harbor wholesome qualities such as patience, energy, calm, and so on, and it tends to narrow when we harbor unwholesome qualities such as anger, desire, envy, and so on.
Fundamentally, these mental qualities depend strongly on mindfulness, on our ability to see our mind for what it is.
If you let a goat loose in a field of grass it will just do whatever it pleases and eat wherever it pleases. If you tie the goat to a pole, the goat will only eat the grass within the circumference of the rope and pole.
Mindfulness is like the rope that binds our mind to ourselves, keeping it within. Keeping the mind within prevents it from creating all kinds of illusions and personal realities that cause the unwholesome aspects of your mind to arise.
Keeping the mind within helps bring calm and contentment.
To strengthen your mindfulness, you do not necessarily have to sit down on a meditation cushion as is often suggested. Mindfulness is something you can practice every day, whatever you are doing.
Just pick a few routines you do every day and cultivate the intention to do them as mindfully as possible. Do only what you are doing, with all your attention, and if you find your mind drifting off bring it back to your task.
The more you practice this, the more it will become an ingrained aspect of your mind, bringing with it the experience of calm and openness—and the better you’ll be able to really see other people and recognize opportunities for kindness,
3. You have to practice regularly and be patient with yourself.
In the end, kindness isn’t different from other skills. Every human possesses the potential to be kind, but you have to practice it in order to bring that potential to fruition.
Research by the University of Wisconsin showed that compassion can be learned. Just like a muscle can be trained by weightlifting, people can build up their compassion.
The most direct route I know of is training through meditation—by practicing loving-kindness meditation and the practice of being mindful, as mentioned about, even if it is only for a few minutes every day.
But don’t go at it with the businessman’s approach most of us grew up with. A businessman’s approach means expecting results relative to the time you invest. Developing the mind, developing kindness, doesn’t work that way.
We all have our own personal qualities and hindrances, and just as with other skills, to some it comes natural, while others need more time and effort.
Don’t worry too much about the results; getting on the path to becoming a kinder person is the most important thing. If you keep practicing patiently you will develop the power of kindness within yourself sooner or later. And it will become second nature to offer those small gestures of support, appreciation, and encouragement that can completely change someone’s day.
Usually Wouter can be found playing with his children, helping patients as a physician, or relaxing with a good book. Luckily for him, enough time remains for the daily practice of meditation and writing for the Buddho Foundation’s Buddhism & Meditation Blog. When it comes to meditation, Wouter emphasizes patience and perseverance, the desire for (quick) results being one of the biggest obstacles on the path to a free and happy life.