Sometimes it takes a child to teach us about our natural instinct for kindness. Something we could all use a little more of these days.
One late summer morning I was making a cup of tea in the kitchen. Thinking I was the first one up I was surprised when I spotted my daughter, about 12 years old, sitting stock-still by the bird feeder like a garden gnome. Oddly, she was wearing winter boots. They were sprinkled with birdseed. Sure enough, a chipmunk scurried over her toes and a bird paused momentarily on her knee. She remained stationary. This lasted a good 15 minutes, which is a long time for a kid who can’t sit still.
“What was that about?” I inquired when she came in.
“I was waiting for Charles” she said.
I often reflect on my daughter’s focus that morning in her attempt to befriend the garden creatures. It was if she was experimenting with a combination of being mindful, curious, and kind. Short of being a Snow White, she was like a kindness magnet. Ever since then I have held the image of the garden as a metaphor for growing a kind mind.
It’s not a new way of approaching the mind, of course. Sages, poets, mystics, and scientists have been drawn to the natural elements to render our subjective life, too. It’s apt. We all have a natural capacity to cultivate empathy, love, generosity, kindness, and joy. In fact, we are wired with a caring circuitry from our head down to our toes.
Kind by Nature.
Discoveries from a broad range of disciplines including neurobiology, evolutionary sciences, psychology, and education have now shown that not only are we wired for kindness and compassion, but that we can foster this natural circuitry with our mere desire and attentiveness to do so, just as we can cultivate a garden to grow through attention and care. I call it kindfulness. And in today’s world, ripe with blatant negativity and meanness in the public discourse as new kind of normal, fortifying our compassionate hearts really matters.
Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist and director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has devoted his career to bringing attention to our kinder nature. In his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, Keltner highlights a lesser-known aspect of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, namely, that sympathy is our reflexive social instinct, and it is stronger than self-interest or self-protection. This compassion instinct developed out of the necessity for the constant caring of human babies, who require years of nurturing before they are launched into the world. Keltner writes:
Our babies are the most vulnerable offspring on the face of the Earth. And that simple fact changed everything. It rearranged our social structures, building cooperative networks of caretaking, and it rearranged our nervous systems. We became the super caregiving species, to the point where acts of care improve our physical health and lengthen our lives. We are born to be good to each other (Keltner, 2012).”
But while kindness, sympathy, and compassion are a natural part of our evolution, the new neuroscience of neuroplasticity teaches us that every experience we have results in bursts of neural activity that fire in different parts of the brain, strengthening various connections.
Any positive or negative mental activity – sensations, thoughts, and feelings – that you habitually focus on eventually shapes the inner landscape of your brain.
That means as you engage in your day-to-day life and expose yourself to new learnings and ideas, neurons will fire and new connections will grow; conversely, neurons related to the things you no longer pay attention to will be weeded out and recede. While it is also true that paying attention to negative impulses, such as the emotions arising from stressful situations – anger, irritation, or numbing – can similarly strengthen neural pathways you may not want to empower, it’s helpful to know what we can control where our attention goes and focus more on the positive behaviors that lead to calm and happy states, healthy bodies, happy relationships, meaningful work, and caring communities.
So how does kindfulness apply to everyday life?
Cultivating kindfulness is a continual practice for everyone, even for the most well-adjusted and happy person you can think of!
If you want a kind mind and a kind life, don’t wait for the world to change, start with your own actions.
Here are a couple ways you can start:
1. Surround yourself with kindness.
This could mean establishing safety and support in your living environment, talking to a trusted friend or family member, setting personal boundaries, practicing mindfulness and meditation and other self-care activities, finding community, or doing things that inspire you. Tending to yourself in the company of other compassionate people amplifies the caring circuity.
2. Be kind on purpose.
Do something intentionally kind every day. The more kindness you exude towards the outside world, the more you’ll cultivate in your own heart and mind, and the more will come back to you in return. This could mean volunteering, calling someone out of the blue to say hello, smiling at strangers, spending time with pets, donating to charity, or even picking up a piece of trash that isn’t yours. After all, kindness is contagious.
3. Let kindness sink in.
Sometimes we take for granted our own generosity or that of others. Take a moment to acknowledge the tender, thoughtful, and kind moments and let them imprint in your brain. If you make it a habit of asking yourself every day “How did kindness show up for me today?” then you’re more likely to see positivity, health, and happiness thrive.
The heartening news is that the mechanism of positive neuroplasticity and our innate wiring for sympathy and caregiving provide all the necessary ingredients for living a happy life. It is up to us to transform these raw materials into moment-by-moment kindfulness. Over time, that process will become second nature, and life itself will flow with greater ease. Wait and see: One day you’ll wake up and be a kindness magnet.