Meditation teacher Tara Brach offers explorations of kindness and beauty and how to be in the stillness of their truth.
One of my favorite quotes is taped on a wall in my office: “To be kind, you must swerve regularly from your path.” I need this reminder. Like so many, when I’m caught up in my busyness, trying to cross things off the list and on my way to somewhere else, I’m not so sensitive to opportunities to be kind. My attention is goal-directed, and my heart can be tight.
A psychological study done at Princeton Theological Seminary revealed a lot about how this kind of narrow self-focus can get in the way of bringing compassion to our world. To look at the impact of time pressure on helpful behavior, the researchers told a group of seminary students that they would be crossing campus to a classroom where each would present a talk on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. As the students knew, in that story two important religious people pass right by a man on the street who clearly needs help. The only person who stops to assist him is someone who’s considered a social outcast.
Some of the students were told they had just a few minutes to get to the classroom before the session for their talks would begin. Others were told they had enough time to get there on schedule. Then they were all sent individually on a route that would take them past a man (one of the researcher’s associates) who was slumped in a doorway, coughing and obviously in need of help. Despite the fact that they were all on their way to present a talk about the Good Samaritan, only 10 percent of the students in the time-pressured group stopped to offer help. More than half (63 percent) of those in the group that was less hurried did stop.
I share this study frequently because our world desperately needs us to take care of each other, and swerving from our scheduled paths is not something we easily do. Focusing on our own concerns and stress can put us in a trance, covering over our natural sensitivity and compassion.
Over the years I’ve found a daily practice that helps my heart wake up from this goal-oriented trance. Each morning at the end of my meditation, I pray to remember throughout the day to be kind. Sometimes I simply whisper, “Please, may I be kind,” and I often scan to see whom I might be in touch with that day so I can stay attuned to kindness when I’m with them. At the end of the day, I reflect back to see if I was openhearted with others. There is a sense of gladness when I see that I was. And when I realize the times I didn’t swerve to be kind, I am accepting of this with compassion and with gratitude that I noticed. This allows me to then deepen the resolve that my heart may continue to awaken.
Can you recall situations during this past week where you did swerve from your path to be kind? Situations where you wish you had swerved? You might ask yourself every morning: “Today, what will help me remember to be kind?” And then check in each evening, reviewing the day with self-compassion, to support the awakening of your heart.
When I teach lovingkindness meditation, students sometimes stay after class and let me know how healing it was to reflect on the goodness of their loved ones. After one such class, I was so moved by what I heard that I decided to ask my friends on Facebook to write about their experiences of seeing the basic goodness in others. What arose was a wonderful, heartwarming sharing! Parents talked about the curiosity and wonder in their children, partners offered vignettes about each other’s playfulness and generosity, a few people told stories of witnessing the wisdom and selflessness of their elderly parents, and several wrote about receiving kindnesses from people they didn’t know.
It happened that my birthday came up not long after that sweet exploration. Inspired by my Facebook invitation, a dear friend sent me a greeting card with a list of the ways she saw that basic goodness in me. This deep expression of her love brought tears to my eyes. As her generous words touched my heart, I was filled with awareness of her basic goodness, and I opened to the vast, loving heartspace we share together.
The experience reminded me of something I had read from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton tells the story of a profound realization he had one day. It was not during prayer or in the monastery but on a busy street corner in Louisville, Kentucky, when he was suddenly flooded with the sense that he loved everyone around him. “They were mine and I theirs,” he writes. His description of what he felt is one of my favorite quotes about the possibility of truly cherishing each other:
I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depth of their hearts where neither sin nor knowledge could reach, the core of reality, the person that each one is in the eyes of the divine. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.
If we can see beyond the changing moods, behaviors, and personalities of those who share our lives, we will recognize the light of awareness that is their essence. What a joy to pause and behold that basic goodness and to see how it shines through each of us as compassion, intelligence, aliveness, and creativity. In the moments of seeing that secret beauty, we fall in love with all of life.
Excerpted from Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness by Tara Brach. Copyright © 2021 by Tara Brach. Cover & Interior Illustrations © 2021 Vicky Alvarez. To be published by Sounds True in June 2021.