by Tara Cousineau, PhD, author of The Kindness Cure
In a world so busy with endless to-do lists and pressing problems headlined by every newspaper or social feed, it’s easy to get caught up in a sea of despair. But if you look hard enough through the thick fog of calamity, you will see that the “kind” in humankind is alive and well. In fact, you would see that we thrive on it.
The trouble with kindness is that people seem to have become suspicious of it. Kindness is seen as weak or feminine at best; at its worst, kindness is seen as a thin veneer for maleficence. We have plenty of examples in popular culture. Consider Professor Dolores Umbridge in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Dressed in a pink cotton candy suit and matching pill hat, she’s the archetypal female villain. And one that many fans love to hate. She leaves us squirming in our seats as we watch the scene where Harry is summoned for a school detention. His punishment is to write repeatedly, “I must not tell lies” with a cursed ink quill. We watch in horror as these words become inscribed in the flesh on the back of his hand. All the while Umbridge smiles with evil satisfaction.
Surely it can feel that we may very well be wandering about in the world in defense of the dark arts. But as fairy tales also tell, such spells can be broken. This usually happens when what we thought was invisible becomes visible: love, kindness, courage, compassion and generosity. It is a moment of loving awareness, or kindfulness, experiencing the present moment with heart.
Easing into the Present Moment
Kindfulness practices are intentional moments when you pause to witness your own mind and body with caring attention and compassion. Using the metaphor of a camera with a zoom lens, zooming in on the breath can spark the body’s natural soothing pathways and ignite a
relaxation response. Zooming out to more expansively observe your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judging them makes you a compassionate witness to your experience. This can be done anytime, anyplace, without need for a cushion, pew, yoga mat, or an invisibility cloak, for that matter.
Here is a simple kindfulness practice to try:
Begin by finding a comfortable seat, standing quietly, or lying down. With a sense of grace and strength, start to feel the support of the earth or floor under you. Bring kindful attention to your breath, using it as an anchor, or bring your attention to your feet or your body as you inhale and exhale. Begin to notice a sense of support and ease. You may voice an intention such as “My heart is open to the whole of my experience.”
Then start to open to your field of awareness, noticing your sensations, feelings, and thoughts, how they flow before you and through you. Like a passenger on a train, begin to notice the expanse around you, swaths of experience: colors, textures, sounds, sensations, words, images. As you do this, you may encounter fluctuations or waves of sensation.
It may be quiet, still, or busy, flowing back and forth from stillness to commotion. Whatever you notice, it is just fine.
If you notice pleasant sensations, feelings, or memories, simply acknowledge them. If you notice unpleasant feelings, sensations, or memories, acknowledge them too. Experience these moments with tender and kind attention. Stay centered in the vastness of the experience. Notice how kindfulness allows you to receive, without judgment, and to be gently present to the whole of your life right now.
With practice, you become able to view your stream of thoughts, emotional states, and bodily sensations as a participant-observer—as if you were in a movie theater watching a screen and yet also in the scene. The meditation teacher Jack Kornfield writes, “In the present moment we can learn to see clearly and kindly.
See also: Five Ways to Kindle Kindness from the Inside Out
With the great power of this mindfulness, we can become fully present to the unbearable beauty and the inevitable tragedy that makes up every human life.” This happens because, over time, these simple “kindfulness” practices reveal that you are essentially okay and that deep down, under the layers of self-critique and life’s hard knocks, you are perfect and whole. The quality of presence changes, our perception shifts, and new possibilities emerge. JK Rowling wrote, “We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” Kindfulness removes the veil of separation between you and others so that you can view your own humanity with loving awareness.
Tara Cousineau, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, meditation teacher, well-being researcher, and social entrepreneur. She has received numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovative Research program and is affiliated with the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance in Somerville, MA. Learn more about her new book, The Kindness Cure and be sure to check out her Kindness Quotient quiz.