How to Be Kind When Confronted with Cruelty

Kindness is a force of imagination—a whole-hearted, courageous, genuine awareness that we are all connected.

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Kindness is not necessarily at all passive or meek. The manifestation of kindness is not just in being nice and sweet—it has great forcefulness. The certainty of someone’s conviction that we can be happy, manifested through their caring, animates a potential within us that might otherwise just have lain dormant because we simply did not believe in it.

Kindness is a practice of inclining the mind, of intention. Rather than laying a veneer of idealism on top of reality, we want to see quite nakedly all the different things that we feel and want for what they are. Perhaps it is anger or fear or repulsion rather than the kindness we would so much more strongly prefer. The mistake that most of us make at one time or another with a practice like compassion or kindness is to try to deny what is actually going on: “I mustn’t feel resentment; I must only feel love. Because, after all, that is my dedication—to be kind.”

It is a very delicate balance to bring together pure awareness, which is completely honest in seeing what is happening, with an unwavering confidence that reminds us we are genuinely capable of love and compassion. We manage to do so to some extent by practicing love and kindness toward ourselves and by seeing the negative feelings that arise as not our fault. We must learn to view the fact that we have negative feelings not as an irreversible personal defect or as some kind of portentous setback on our path to liberation, but simply as the result of conditioned habits of mind. We can hold both a vision of our heart’s objective and a compassionate acknowledgment of whatever truth is manifesting in the present moment.

Six Ways of Increasing the Force of Kindness in Your Life

  1. Reflect on someone in your life who has reached out to you in kindness. How do you regard him or her?
  2. Notice how your mood is affected by someone in a chance encounter— such as the checkout person in the supermarket or a bank teller.
  3. Think about your degree of confidence in yourself. What factors have helped enhance it or decrease it?
  4. Reflect on why kindness might be considered a force instead of a weakness.
  5. Make the effort to thank someone each day. Notice what is created between you and the other person in that way.
  6. Reflect on who you admire in life, and why.

How to Be Kind When Confronted with Cruelty

One of the terrible things about experiencing the cruelty that can flow from others toward us— whether through racism or sexism, through being dismissed as secondary, or through any of the varied ways we might be categorized, filed away, and ignored by someone—is the way it grinds us down. It is all too easy to begin believing this projected image of ourselves as someone not worth much—and to take that in and begin to live from that reflection as though it were true. To get back in touch with kindness is to get back in touch with our own bigger, vibrant, more expansive potential instead of being defined by the limited, biased vision others put upon us. Why see ourselves through the distortion of their particular lens?

Even if others don’t intend to harm us, their careless disregard or easy assumptions about us can be demeaning. Any of us might recall being misunderstood, overlooked, abandoned, treated unjustly. Even if we are encountering cruelty, we must try to understand its roots and determine not to be the same as those acting it out. We must determine not to simply keep perpetrating the forces of separation and disregard. If we don’t make that effort, what will we really have accomplished?

To get back in touch with kindness is to get back in touch with our own bigger, vibrant, more expansive potential instead of being defined by the limited, biased vision others put upon us.

Can you imagine seeking strength without hatred, power without vengefulness, authority without dualism and division? Can you imagine having that much openness, that much courage, and that much imagination itself?

Practicing kindness doesn’t at all mean that we will like everybody or acquiesce to everything that he or she does. It doesn’t mean that we become complacent or passive about naming wrongdoing as wrong or about seeking change, sometimes very forcefully, with our whole heart.

We use the practice of loving-kindness meditation as a way to recover our innermost knowledge of the fact that we’re all linked, as we dissolve the barriers we have been upholding and genuinely awaken to how connected we all are.

Six Ways to Offer Loving-Kindness to Others

  1. Reflect on a time you have been objectified by someone. What were the consequences? Reflect on a time you have objectified someone else. What were the consequences?
  2. Take the time to pay attention to a stranger—someone you pass on the street or see in the subway. As an exercise, imagine where they are going and what their day will be like.
  3. Stay aware of the internal feelings generated when someone hurts you through his or her own unskillful actions. Remember that this is what others feel as well when they are hurt or harmed.
  4. Stay aware of the internal feelings generated when someone gives you a gift or is kind to you. Remember that this is what others feel as well.
  5. Pay full attention and really look at and listen to someone you usually ignore or find annoying.
  6. Practice loving-kindness meditation toward others as well as yourself.

Practicing loving-kindness does mean that we learn to see the lives of others, really see them, as related to our own lives. It means that we open up to the possibility of caring for others not just because we like them or admire them or are indebted to them in some way, but because our lives are inextricably linked to one another’s. We use the practice of lovingkindness meditation as a way to recover our innermost knowledge of that linkage as we dissolve the barriers we have been upholding and genuinely awaken to how connected we all are.

Excerpted from “The Force of Kindness: Change Your Life with Love & Compassion” by Sharon Salzberg. 2005, Sounds True.

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