Time For LovingKindness

The Greek word agape describes unconditional, universal love. This kind of love is at the core of nearly every religious tradition and deep wisdom path. We’re talking Big Love, made up of compassion for all of Earth’s inhabitants.

Be always humble, gentle, and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another. Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together. (Ephesians 4:2-3)

Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world: spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.  (excerpt from Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness)

He who sees all beings in his Self and his Self in all beings, he never suffers; because when he sees all creatures within his true Self, then jealousy, grief and hatred vanish. (Paramananda, The Upanishads)

Benevolence towards all living beings, joy at the sight of the virtuous, compassion and sympathy for the afflicted, and tolerance towards the insolent and ill-behaved.  (Jain text, Tattvartha Sutra, chapter 7, sutra 11)

There are many forces trying to tear us away from such a compassionate approach, forces that foster divisions to gain profit and political power.

But we can quietly amplify love in our daily lives, even while waiting in line at the market or sitting on the bus by practicing lovingkindness. This is one of the most ancient forms of Buddhist practice, known for over 2,500 years. Consider the following studies showing how effective even a secular and simplified lovingkindness practice can be.

Intentionally take a lovingkindness walk. In a study out of Iowa State University, students were asked to think genuine kind and loving thoughts about each person they saw on one 12 minute walk. They were also told to recite this affirmation to themselves each time they saw a stranger: “I wish for this person to be happy.”  The study compared them with other students who were told to walk and consider what they had in common with passersby, students who were told to walk and compare themselves with others, and students who simply walked while observing others. The students who practiced lovingkindness toward others benefited from “…lower anxiety, greater happiness, greater empathy, and higher feelings of caring and connectedness…”

Intentionally cultivate feelings of compassion. A University of Wisconsin–Madison study put people through a mindfulness program. They were required to follow guided audio instruction for 30 minutes each day for two weeks. Half participated in compassion training in which they worked at cultivating feelings of compassion for different people (a loved one, the self, a stranger, and a difficult person). The other half received reappraisal training in which they “practiced reinterpreting personally stressful events” with the goal of lessening their negative emotional reaction.

Before and after the study, participants’ brains were scanned as they concentrated on their assigned strategy (compassion or reappraisal) while viewing a series of images. A majority of those images depicted people suffering. Brain scans of those who received compassion training revealed “a pattern of neural changes” related to empathy, executive and emotional control, and reward processing. In other words, they expanded their capacity to care.

Also, all participants took part in an online “redistribution game,” which imposed unfairness on others while giving participants a chance to rectify it. People who completed compassion training spent nearly twice as much of their own money to try to rectify unfairness as those who completed the more neutral training. Researchers wrote, “This demonstrates that purely mental training in compassion can result in observable altruistic changes toward a victim.”

Intentionally relate to a person unlike you. Back in the 1980’s, sociology professor Charles Flynn created The Love Project. Professor Flynn asked students in his Miami University of Ohio classes to make a semester-long, specific effort “to relate in a loving manner to someone they wouldn’t otherwise relate to.” Flynn also showed videos of Leo Buscaglia’s lectures and made Buscaglia’s book Love a requirement.

Over several years, more than 400 students kept journals and completed questionnaires about The Love Project. Evaluating these materials, Flynn found that 80 percent of students experienced an increased sense of compassionate concern for people in general. Sixty-five percent of the participants had an increased sense of their own self-worth. A follow-up survey showed these effects diminished somewhat but still persisted  a year later.

Scrolling through our phones is almost automatic when we’re stuck in a waiting room, standing in line,  or sitting at a coffee shop. But next time, lets try a few minutes of lovingkindness instead. Compassion can grow anywhere.

 

Gifting a Week of Meals

giving meals, cooking for others, meal sharing,

Yum. (CC by 2.0 thebittenword.com on flickr)

Soon after my second baby was born, I was informed that I’d be receiving a week of meals delivered by my friends. The next seven nights our doorbell rang and there stood someone dear to me holding warm dishes filled with delights.

A break from planning and making dinner was a blessed relief. It also exposed my family to a wider array of foods. More importantly, each night we sat down to eat a relaxed dinner lovingly made for us.

We were given so much food that we tucked lots of it in the freezer, spreading the bounty of kindness into the following weeks. One friend came laden with two different kinds of lasagna, one with garlicky white sauce and spinach, another layered with black beans and lots of veggies. Years later I still make both of her recipes.

A week of meals for families with new babies became a tradition in my circle of friends and my Le Leche League chapter. Here’s what worked for us.

1. Someone particularly close to the new mom and her family usually broached the idea to their mutual friends. We never designated a person in charge of planning. But your group of friends, or church, or neighborhood may decide that putting one person in charge of noting who will make a meal which night makes it easier.

2. We contacted the new mom with some basic questions such as best days and times to drop off food, food preferences, and if she wanted food brought ready to eat at dinner time or in advance to heat up later that day. Some moms preferred to have meal deliveries every other day.

3. Then we verified the plans with all potential participants. It worked best to accommodate a variety of needs among people contributing meals. Some preferred to drop off bags of Mid-Eastern salads or trays of sushi they picked up on the way home from work. Some didn’t have time to deliver a meal during the week but happily provided brunch on the weekend. It helped to jot down what people were planning to make so the family didn’t end up with three enchilada entrees on three consecutive nights.

4. We sent out a full schedule to everyone participating. It functioned as a reminder, listed who was bringing what, and offered suggestions such as labeling pans and including recipes. A shared Google doc can uncomplicate things. Or use one of these online meal scheduling sites to make this easier:

Meal Baby

Take Them a Meal

Meal Train

Care Calendar

Lotsa Helping Hands

Caring Meals

Of course, a new baby isn’t the only reason to provide a series of meals. It’s a great way to welcome someone home when they return from service project or military assignment. It’s a godsend when people are dealing with illness or injury. And it’s remarkably helpful during the time a family is undergoing a major home renovation. Mix it up. Rather than arranging a week of steady meals, you might offer a meal every Wednesday or set up a regular potluck date to eat together.

There may be no more basic gesture of kindness than feeding people. Food sharing is a tradition found in every culture, stretching back to our earliest history. It’s a stomach-filling, community-building kindness like no other. It can also swing back around remarkably. By the time my fourth child was born I was gifted with a full three weeks of meals, nearly all made by people I’d once cooked for. It was an embarrassment of riches but oh how those delicious foods warmed our hearts.

Other ways to build community:

Bring Kids Back to the Commons

Engage the Window Box Effect

It Really Does Take a Village

We Don’t Need No Age Segregation 

Welcome Kids Into the Workplace More Than Once a Year

Odd Second Saturday Suppers

Better Together: Restoring the American Community

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

All That We Share

This is a repost from our farm site

Fostering the Flip Side of Gratitude

dark side of gratitude, responding to nay-sayers, when those in authority predict doom, when doctors are wrong, when teachers are wrong, when therapists are wrong,

Cajoled into seeing a friend’s obstetrician, the one she praised so highly, I came prepared with a list of questions folded in my jeans pocket. But I didn’t get a chance to ask about a doula, the Leboyer method, or anything else. The doctor walked in, greeted me and looked me over without performing an exam. Then he announced with certainty that I had “insufficient pelvic capacity.” He assured me that my petite size meant I would never be able to deliver a full-term baby.

“What do you mean?” I gasped.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “It just means you’ll require a Cesarean.”

I was six weeks pregnant.

I may have been young and expecting my first child, but I dared to question his judgment. He became indignant. A lecture followed about the number of babies he’d delivered. He went on about anoxia and brain damage, then intoned the words that surely convinced legions of women before me, “Do you want to endanger the life of your baby?”

That was all it took.

I never returned.

But how was this self-satisfied man to know if his assertion turned out to be valid?  I didn’t get back to him. Nor did I refute the next obstetrician whose office I also left after he told me my vegetarian diet would result in a sickly, underweight baby.

Although these physicians never knew if their dire predictions came true, I went on to deliver a 9 lb, 10 oz baby quite naturally. In subsequent years I had three more sizeable vegetarian-grown babies.

On behalf of each of my children I learned to speak up–forcefully and often. This pushed me right past the shyness I thought was an indelible part of my personality. Once I became comfortable speaking up I felt empowered to assert my feelings of gratitude as well.

According to Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier and Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude, regularly practicing gratitude boosts our health and well-being. Small acts of kindness also create a ripple effect, generating more compassion in others. Sometimes it’s easier to thank those who are close to us but it’s powerful to acknowledge people who are consequential strangers or people we’ve never met but whose efforts make a difference.

My gratitude practice often takes the form of appreciative letter to strangers. I leave a note for a waitress whose cheery demeanor has healed me of some common sadness. I send a letter to a nursing home administrator describing the tender affection I witnessed an aide show a patient. I send written kudos to the cast of a locally produced play. They don’t take long to write although occasionally I have to make an effort to find out where to send one.

Not long ago I was delighted to finally locate the address of a local school bus driver. I regularly wait in my car as he stops on a 55 mph road and in only a few moments backs into a narrow entry way with the grace and dexterity of a ballroom dancer. So I wrote a letter to explain that seeing him drive with such skill gave me the sense one day I too might develop true mastery in my line of work.

I never sign my name. I think it’s better to write “your customer” or “fellow traveler” or whatever fits the situation. That way it isn’t about me, it’s about a wider sense of appreciation. Although I have to admit, I benefit too. Looking for the good in a situation changes my energy in a positive way.

But really, paying attention only to sweetness and light ignores the shadow. People in positions of authority need to know when their judgments or actions are harmful. All of us can learn from mistakes, unless somehow we’re deprived of the consequences of our words or actions. Today, many professionals are well insulated from those consequences unless they reach litigation.

I don’t advocate griping or threatening. I’m talking about communication that fosters understanding. A simple letter can spare future clients, students or patients the same struggles your family may have endured. Of course this isn’t necessary when the situation can be handled right away. But how many of us have faced long term predictions of doom? A family bed is nothing but bad parenting.  Without this surgery you’ll end up crippled. Homeschool and you’ll have a maladjusted child on your hands. Ritalin is the only solution for that behavior. After years of hearing such pronouncements I have come to realize that updating a professional on his or her assessment is another form of kindness. It’s the flip side of gratitude.

If you choose to get in touch with someone for these same reasons, here are guidelines that have worked for me.

1. Be clear about your own goals before writing that letter or email. Wait until you can proceed without anger. The person you are contacting will be unlikely to learn anything unless you maintain a positive and respectful tone throughout.

2. Refresh the recipient about your situation as it was when you were last in contact.

3. State clearly and kindly that (as a physician, teacher, therapist) he or she is in a position to help many people. You assume that as a matter of professional interest it would be helpful to know about the outcome of a situation he/she assessed.

4. Sticking only to the facts, explain how in your situation their judgment or actions were misguided. Then update with pertinent details.

5. If relevant, include research or other data which the professional can use to gain insight.

6. Wish this person well. Don’t expect or ask for follow up contact.

The highest response to nay-sayers is to flourish joyfully in our choices. So I respond  to those who predicted doom for my children who were held long and nursed often, to those who judged our learning and lifestyle choices harshly—we are well. For that I’m endlessly appreciative.

Lets try, whenever possible, to find the freedom right beyond the boundaries of old ideas. To do that we need to share the insight that comes from experience. There, even the flip side of gratitude turns toward wisdom.

when professional advice is wrong, shadow side of gratitude, finding peace rather than revenge, gratitude's underbelly,

A version of this piece first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Natural Life magazine

Writing Hands image courtesy of Jggy

A Childhood Idyll by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Spreads Like Butter But No Calories: Kindness

No matter how many times someone claims that humans are naturally selfish and aggressive, they’re wrong.

We’re constructed for compassion.

It’s easy to tell. Our bodies function best when we’re in a state of cooperation and caring. Research shows this in our skin, our brains, nervous systems, our hearts. Research also proves this whether looking for physical, emotional or social benefits.

Kindness, generosity and compassion not only keep us healthy as individuals, they bind us together in networks of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. These networks spread across the globe for many of us, drawing us in close circles of caring despite distance.

As we grow up we learn to emphasize some behaviors over others, but it appears we speak an innate language of kindness before we speak in words. Hard to believe? Take a look at babies. As reported in, Why We Cooperate (Boston Review Books), studies of babies between one to two years of age show them remarkably eager to help, share and cooperate. Not true of our ape friends. Similar studies of chimpanzees show them to be selfish, particularly when they can get more food for themselves.

James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives write that cooperative behavior is not only natural, it’s contagious. When people benefit from the kindness of others they go on to spread the compassion. The tendency to “pay it forward’ influences dozens more in an enlarging network of kindness. And even more heartening, the effect persists. Kindness begats more kindness, blotting out previously selfish behavior.

These findings amplify what anthropologists are now saying (see Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace), that the long progress of humanity has been made possible through generosity and cooperation.

Christakis says, “Our work over the past few years, examining the function of human social networks and their genetic origins, has led us to conclude that there is a deep and fundamental connection between social networks and goodness. The flow of good and desirable properties like ideas, love and kindness is required for human social networks to endure, and, in turn, networks are required for such properties to spread. Humans form social networks because the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs.”

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“If there is anything I have learned about men and women, it is that there is a deeper spirit of altruism than is ever evident.

Just as the rivers we see are minor compared to the underground streams, so, too, the idealism that is visible is minor compared to what people carry in their hearts unreleased or scarcely released.”

Dr. Albert Schweitzer

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Butter image Creative Commons.  Children holding hands image thanks to Bill Gracey’s Flickr photostream.