The Great Power of Ordinary Kindness
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has taught me the tremendous power and value of ordinary kindness. Her example showed me what kindness really is, how easily it can be misunderstood and overlooked, and how influential it can be in the creation of happy lives and relationships. By her work and practice, Sharon lit the way for me to cultivate my own kind heart.
In the tradition of meditation Sharon teaches and practices, which arose out of the Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia, there’s is a type of concentration practice called metta (in Sanskrit maitri), which means loving-kindness or friendliness. The method is to repeat phrases that invoke kindness, methodically deepening one’s concentration in the experience of friendliness and interconnectedness. Usually there are three or four phrases, for example, “May you be safe and protected. May you be peaceful and happy. May you live with ease of heart in all circumstances.”
Generally, students are instructed to begin by offering these phrases either to oneself or to a benefactor, someone toward whom it seems easy to feel kindness. As strength of heart grows, the meditator slowly includes more challenging categories of people (or beings, since we can work with animals too). Eventually, we develop the capacity to include even our most difficult enemies in the field of kindness. Along the way, there’s a chance to offer phrases of kindness to everyone, including dear friends and people we feel neutral about.
Even if you are unfamiliar with the practice, you can perhaps imagine that the effort to cultivate this evenhanded friendliness tends to bring the student face to face with many other emotions – dislike, judgment, anger and envy are just a few of the mental demons that rear their heads as we practice this meditation. Perhaps because the journey to an open and loving heart involves facing our inner demons, the metta practice often includes silent retreats of a week or a month or even three months, where we have time and space to allow this profound meditative process to affect our hearts fully.
On one such retreat, a month-long, I chose Sharon as my benefactor. At the time, Sharon and I spent a fair amount of time together, because part of my work at the Insight Meditation Society was to act as her assistant. Through that work, I witnessed Sharon interacting with many people in a while variety of circumstances. I saw her in many roles – as a teacher, a customer in convenience stores, a non-profit board member, a friend, a leader of a spiritual community. Sometimes it’s suggested that one should choose a benefactor you don’t know too well, so that thoughts about their weaknesses or difficulties in the relationship will be less likely to intrude on the cultivation of kindness toward them. Sharon and I knew each other pretty well, but I felt drawn to working with her as my benefactor because she had helped me a lot, and decided to go with my gut. Because of our familiarity, I expected to face a few inner demons in my meditations on kindness toward her. I thought I might feel judgmental of Sharon’s behavior in various situations, or see her natural human flaws come to the foreground of my mind.
Over the weeks of retreat, I was surprised and touched to discover that, as memories and images of Sharon filtered through my practice, they provided great support for the growth of kindness in my heart. In repeating phrases of loving-kindness toward Sharon, I learned on experiential level what it means to have a benefactor, what a benefactor is. I began to understand why the teachings suggest we work with a benefactor early on in our practice, as offering phrases of kindness to Sharon helped me touch and then develop a warmth of heart I had never known before.
A slow acknowledgement occurred of how often Sharon extends herself on behalf of others (including me!) or puts her own wishes aside in favor of those of the group. Memory after memory struck me with the recognition that although she is often candid, Sharon generally does not speak in ways that might hurt others. Another aspect of her kindness that came clear was that she doesn’t tend to shy away from difficulty. I remember once telling her about some challenges in my work at IMS. Sharon listened to the whole story, and then just said something like, “That does sound hard.”
Over the month of retreat, as thoughts and memories faded, what was left in the phrases as I held Sharon in mind was an enduring sense of our humanness, our interconnectedness, and our potential to love each other right in the midst of all the ordinary complexities and disagreements life brings. Not only did concentration on the quality of kindness develop, but insight into what it means to be kind deepened and matured.
In many ways it was a wonderful retreat, but the full impact of it has taken years to come to fruit. Initially, I was struck by the simple appreciation that someone I knew to be fully human was also capable of such wisdom and strength. Sharon isn’t some mythical figure from the distant past, capable of great yogic feats. As far as I know she doesn’t fly, except in airplanes, or bi-locate, unless you count skype. She’s living here and now in New York City! Sharon has an Iphone and a laptop and a complex worldwide teaching schedule to manage. In the midst of all that, she manages to treat people beautifully, to be a beacon of kindness. Through her practice and teachings she has been largely responsible for the spread of loving-kindness practice in the western world. Through her example, I discovered that I didn’t need to change anything specific about my life to develop boundless compassion. Kindness really can be practiced moment by moment in ordinary situations. Thanks to the time I spent working with Sharon as my benefactor on retreat, I realized that I too can in fact be a strong force for something I value deeply – basic human goodness and care. This has changed my life.
But it was only later that I started to recognize another aspect of the wisdom and vision that underpins Sharon’s kindness. Perhaps it’s best conveyed in Sharon’s own words: “As I go through all kinds of feelings and experiences in my journey through life — delight, surprise, chagrin, dismay — I hold this question as a guiding light: ‘What do I really need right now to be happy?’ What I come to over and over again is that only qualities as vast and deep as love, connection and kindness will really make me happy in any sort of enduring way.” What I’m slowly coming to know is that, in practice, in our experience of them, kindness and love are not only helpful to the recipient, they are of great benefit to the giver as well. Kindness, it turns out, is place to rest your heart. If you want to learn more about Sharon’s teachings, visit www.sharonsalzberg.com.
Eowyn Ahlstrom, Karuna Yoga teacher. middlepath-healingarts.com