The Simple-Not-So-Simple Challenge Of Kindness
Kindness – easy to say, not so easy to do.
What makes kindness a challenge are what I call ‘kindness blockers’ – those things that get in the way of our innate kindness.
Things that get in the way of kindness are primarily those things that trigger our sympathetic nervous system – our fight, flight, freeze self-preservation instinct.
Our threat system is ‘highly conditionable’, which means that it can be trained to be activated by certain threats, and that these learned reactions can get passed down over generations. The emergent science of epigenetics has shown, for example, that memory of trauma can be passed down across at least 3 generations. In one now classic experiment, mice were exposed to the smell of cherry blossom and each time were given an electric shock. The researchers discovered that the baby mice, having never had an electric shock, recoiled instantly at the smell of cherry blossom. Rachel Yehuda and her team have demonstrated this same intergenerational transmission of learned responses in humans.
This means that you and I, and the double helix at the centre of our being, we are a walking memory box. Life is a clever old thing. Passing on these memories means that the next generations are biologically and psychologically primed for the experiences of their ancestors.
The downside is of course that we carry on living with our body-minds stuck in a past that largely does not represent the present or the future we want to collectively manifest.
To make this concrete, let’s say that your great great uncle died tragically by drowning. For as long as you can remember, whenever you go near any body of water including a bath or shower you freak out, have a panic attack. This encoded memory clearly gets in the way of your functioning, and of course your capacity for compassion. (This story is based on a client I recently treated).
So, you see, the simple goal – to be kind – is actually not-so-simple (are you happy now Mr Greedy Brain?). To get to this state of being, we need to be in a healing environment, a space/place where we can recondition ourselves.
We need to get to know our triggers really, really well.
And we need to think critically about the world we live in, about the built-in tendencies of our current environment to repeatedly, almost obsessively trigger our self-preservation system. A very simple example here: 99% of people I know say that the first thing they do when they wake up is turn on their phones. Now, unless the first thing you do in the morning is use your meditation app, the likelihood is you are instantly triggering your self-preservation systems in this one simple gesture.
I personally find that the flood of information available at my fingertips undoubtedly triggers my self-preservation system. I get this panicky feeling that I will never have enough time to read all the books on my kindle, listen to all the podcasts, respond to all the messages across 5 or 6 different channels. I’ve talked elsewhere about how we are all becoming ‘fragmented humans’, our minds split in a million different directions.
This is why I feel this year more than ever that I (and probably you) will benefit from having one – just one – simple not-so-simple goal.
So if you, like me, think that being kind to your self and to other people is one of the most important simple not-so-simple goals there is, then here is what I recommend.
- Make a list of your triggers. What are the top 10 things, people, situations that really push your buttons? (i.e. make you angry, sad, anxious etc). These are your primary wounds.
- Heal those wounds in the moment when they arise: for simple wounds, the best way to heal them is to cultivate embodied awareness – or ‘interoception’. This simply means that in the moment of the trigger, or shortly after, you bring your attention to the raw sensation in your body. I encourage my clients to place a hand on that part of the body, as touch is deeply healing. Allow that energy to be there. Your job is to provide a safe passage to these previously unmet, uncared-for energies; you are cultivating a kindness towards your self. The more kind, generous space you allow to that energy, the greater the chance it will resolve itself. Now, clearly some wounds can be more complicated, and may need the support of a professional or a healer of some sort.
- Make kindess your top priority. Now you are starting to re-condition your self-preservation system, you will find you can allow yourself to open up in an authentic kindness both to your self and others. Each day, think of one person you know who is struggling or suffering, and do one kind thing for that person, even if it’s just to send them a loving message.
That’s as simple as I can make this simple not-so-simple challenge for now.
Creating the conditions for kind attention in your life – this is the most revolutionary act you can do.