This afternoon my friend and I were discussing kindness. "I remember a few months after marrying my husband, waking up one morning and thinking I'd made a horrific mistake," she said. "So we started marriage counseling. Our therapist said he didn't know if we'd make it or not, but that really that wasn't even the point. The point was that no matter what happened, we needed to be kind to one another."
Then my friend went on to describe how she'd taken that advice to heart and had made her husband a cup of tea in this silly snowman mug that he liked and it made him really happy. "I felt something shift," she said. And after that things became steadily better.
Our conversation got me thinking about kindness. It's a word you hear a lot these days. There are few people who, if questioned, wouldn't identify themselves as kind. I mean, we've all heard the anecdote that Hitler was allegedly a vegetarian; which I suppose is meant to illustrate that somewhere buried within the monster was a molecule of consideration for another being (just not human beings).
Which then raises the question, is having a molecule of consideration for another being the definition of kindness?
Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines kindness firstly as a "favor" and secondly in its archaic form as "affection." While the Oxford dictionary states it's "the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate." Though friendly and considerate generosity seems vital to kindness, I'm not sure this is what my friend was getting at with her story. I think it was something even deeper; a way of being that was other-centered rather than self-centered. Or at least as much as this is possible for the ordinary inherently self-centered human being.
The Buddha, of course, would disagree with my last sentence. He taught that each of us carries Buddha nature (returning to the Hitler quandary, the Dalai Lama has said that even Hitler had Buddha nature) meaning that our base nature is limitless love and we're all therefore capable of enlightenment.
I've studied Tibetan Buddhism for nearly 20ty years now, but I remember when I was first getting to know my lama. At the time, my life was in the throes of a lot of change. I had just divorced a man with whom I was still in love, moved from my beloved New York City to Michigan, and written my first novel. I was roommates with a woman who had also recently divorced and moved from Manhattan to Michigan and had just written her first memoir. Uncanny similarities, but the differences -- starting with our exactly polar opposite birthdays -- were too numerous to count. In my eyes she was wildly beautiful, witty, had heaps of money, guys lined up to speak to her, and... she got a book deal before I did. And not only did she get a book deal, she got-a-lot-of-money-and-a-lot-of-promotion book deal. I was waiting tables.
I sank so deep down into the muck of my jealousy I didn't know how I would ever find solid ground again. When I spoke with Rimpoche about it, he listened attentively, then said, "Make her a salad." A bit of context here: I was into raw foods back then and made some of the most magnificent salads imaginable and somehow Rimpoche knew this. But still, make her a salad? Although his advice was not the sort of rarefied Buddhist insight I expected and I didn't really understand it, I was clear that my jealousy was potent enough that I couldn't make her a salad. Rimpoche said, "Then make her a salad in your head."
It took me a while to register the brilliance of these words. What he was saying was be kind to her. That in the midst of her having everything I wanted, I should give to her the very best of myself that I could. Over the years I've learned this is the antidote to far more than jealousy. It works with anger and sorrow and the rest of the emotional gamut.
Of course, the salad making wasn't only for the benefit of my friend. It was for my benefit as well. By increasing my friend's happiness I was also increasing my own. So in a strange way by being other-centered I was also being self-centered and according to Rimpoche that's okay. "You can't take care of others until you know how to take care of yourself," he's always saying. "You must first generate loving kindness toward your own being, otherwise how will you know what to offer others?"
By the way, the salad trick worked. While my friend and I have had our ups and downs, we seem to understand each other in a particular way that probably wouldn't have occurred if I didn't make her that first salad in my head and a few subsequent ones in real life and if she undoubtedly didn't do her own version of salad-making toward me.
So, then, is this kindness? When my friend made the simple gesture of offering her possibly horrifically ill-chosen husband a cup of tea in a snowman mug was she in effect making him a salad? And by doing so, was she learning what to offer to herself?
In the end, perhaps kindness is the sort of word for which a definition is unnecessary. You know it when you give it and you know it when you receive it. Maybe it doesn't need anymore fine tuning than that.