Kindness

December 20, 2010 § 4 Comments

A dear friend of mine from college just contacted me recently. I adore her, much more than I have ever told her. In college she was the wisest friend I had. She embodies the very definition of steady. I never knew when she was upset because she was never ruffled. Unfortunately I have been terrible at keeping in touch and in her recent email she shared things I hadn’t known about her. She said she was trying lately to be more kind to herself. All I could think of was Oh. Oh, if only you could see yourself as I do, my brave, kind, beautiful, wise friend, you would be so very very kind to yourself.

For days I have been thinking of kindness and sweet it is and yet, how rare. I have been doing yoga regularly for five years now, and only this year have I started to become aware of my thoughts. I told Rolf Gates that I hated to meditate because my thoughts scared me so much. “It’s not just you,” he told me. “The mind is basically just a tape of greed, hatred, and delusion. That’s why we need to be compassionate with ourselves.” That one conversation opened a doorway up for me. Some days I listen to the way I talk to myself. The whole tape is one of punishment: You’re doing it wrong, why do you always mess things up, how could you have done that. Blah, blah, blah. But here’s what happens when I think like that: I harden up. I carve myself into a smooth, shear blade in order to navigate the thick barrage of words I hurl at myself constantly. And when I am hard like this I am hard to others as well. When I am overwhelmed or stressed I make myself into steel in order to survive my own life and in turn I am neither warm not receptive to others. During these times, I barely stop to breathe. “Listen,” Mary Oliver writes, “Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?”

I remember the kindnesses bestowed upon me like riches and there have been many. I have another dear friend, Karen who I have lost in touch with because of an argument we had over a decade ago. Only Karen is like one of those slobbering Newfoundland dogs that won’t stop following you. She insisted on being my friend when I was not very kind or even very responsive. She is abundant in her kindness, in her forgiveness of me. “Oh Pam,” she says, “You are just so silly.”

When people aren’t kind to me, I don’t think they are silly. I think they are mean. I think they should fall off the face of the earth and have terrible things happen to them. (You now see why I don’t like to meditate.) Today someone was unkind to me in a way that affected my son and I was furious. Hurt. Befuddled why someone would act in such a way. Luckily, when it happened I was on my way to yoga, and it’s very difficult to retaliate when you know you are going to be on a mat soon, in a room filled with extraordinarily kind people who are doing their best so that you can too. I thought of myself saying “Om” and I suddenly got that yoga wasn’t about handstands or flexibility. Once, years ago when I was trying to reconcile my new life as a stay at home mom, my yoga teacher, Bhava Ram, told me that I was doing more yoga while cleaning the toilet than doing a standing split on a yoga mat.We do yoga so that in life we can be yoga.

In my life, I have usually been the recipient of kindness and forgiveness. This is probably some geographic form of bias, but I think that people on the west coast are more forgiving than the east, or at least DC. Car horns are rarely used in southern California (it is deemed rude there) and if you are flaky or forget something, people easily forgive you. “No worries,” they say, “I’ll catch you on the flip side.” My heart melts when I think of how my friends there forgave my east coast abrasiveness when I first moved there, my defensiveness and my immediate instinct to attack before I was attacked. Or to cut myself off, to tell myself, I’m just done with them, if someone hurt me.

Today I was on the other end. I was in the place to forgive, to not close myself off. I was the one with an opportunity to lavish someone with abundance, to smile and to forgive. I didn’t do it perfectly. I apologized for things I didn’t do, which never helps. I was scared and played a little bit too small because I was intimidated. But instead of beating myself up afterwards, I tried to be kind to my own cracked heart. I tried my best, even though my best was a little shaky and wobbly.  I tried to remember that the times when I am mean and sharp to others is often because I am being mean and sharp to myself.

In yoga this afternoon, we worked on heart-opening poses and also on our core strength. “If you are going to walk around this world with an open heart,” our instructor said, “You can be damn sure you’re going to need a strong core.” This is much easier on the mat than in real life. We also did a chant that was based on St. Francis’ prayer. It went something like this:
Make me an instrument for Thy will
Not mine, but Thine be done
Free me from anger, jealousy and fear
Fill my heart with compassion
Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

I wrote a few days ago about trying to cultivate Ishvara Pranidhana, or a faith in something larger than oneself. I try to remember that light beneath the clouds, but forget 5 minutes after I think about it. I don’t think that I yet believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do think I can learn from everything that happens. Like Carrie Bradshaw says in the Sex and the City Movie, “The 30’s are for learning the lessons.” Right on, sister.

I don’t feel tonight like I did something good today in not getting angry in the face of anger. Instead I feel a bit wrecked. I feel like I did something new, and that I didn’t do it very well. I cried. I felt lousy and didn’t get the satisfaction of getting even.

But here’s the thing I did learn: We have to start on ourselves first with this kindness business. Somewhere along the line I thought that if I beat myself up enough, I would turn into a kind and loving person, but that’s not he way it works. It starts with softening our own heart towards our own heart. It starts with telling that mean old voice in our head to step out for a martini. It starts with being gentle to ourselves despite our great ragged flaws and gaping holes. It starts with polishing up our tarnished parts. It starts with comfort and joy and peace. In this season of giving, sometimes it’s our own bruised selves who need it the most.

Make me an instrument for Thy will
Not mine, but Thine be done
Free me from anger, jealousy and fear
Fill my heart with compassion
Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
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§ 4 Responses to Kindness

  • Lindsey says:

    I don’t know what I can coherently add other than to say yes – every word of this drops down deep inside of me, especially the image of hardening yourself into a blade to cope with the barrage of words coming at you (for me they also come from outside). Alas. I suppose all we can do is begin again. xox

  • Oh Pam. If these are the lessons of your thirties, you are so well on your way. I wish I could tell you that by the time you get to the fifties your core will be solid and your heart wide open, but what I’m finding is that the lessons continue, with an ever greater sense of urgency. You are an instrument of peace already, right here, right now. And when I read your posts, I feel like your most grateful student. Thank you for this one.

  • Hi Pam, as another fifty-something (and one who started the often tearful yoga lessons in my thirties) I’m with Katrina in affirming your true heart. And in being compassionate with yourself, do your best to reach down deep the the hidden and terrified being that so many of us have huddling in our core of dread. Perhaps in this strange virtual place we begin to come out of our most secret shells and mysteriously link up for the greater good. Let us all be the instrument of that, particularly in our collective soul-Selves. Namaste

  • Mer says:

    I just discovered your blog and love your writing. This post beautifully explains why an open heart and a willing vulnerability are so valuable no matter what the outcome of a given situation is. When we react by hardening ourselves into what we think is a protective shield we really end up turning into weapons that hurt others and scare away chances for love or light to find their way in to our lives.

    I’ve been practicing yoga for the past seven years and still struggle to soften my heart and take the lessons I learn on the mat and use them in my day to day dealings. The main lessons I want to remember are that life is better when we are kind and patient with ourselves and others, when we are steady and calm in the face of challenge, when we take time to acknowledge the miracle of being alive and appreciate the chances we get each new day to try and get it right.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences I look forward to reading more!

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