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Cultivating Grace: Fierce Acceptance :: Cultivating Grace: Confession and Forgiveness

Cultivating Grace: Kindness

Several years ago I awoke in the middle of the night – that silky, peaceful time when human psyches are slumbering quietly. It was the sixth night of a ten-day meditation. My mind was serene.

I could see the ceiling fan, window curtains and other items in the darkened room. At the same time, an after-image of a dream was as clear and bright as if it was projected on a screen hanging beneath the ceiling fixture. It was as if I was awake and asleep at the same time. Perhaps I was. I knew if I so much as wiggled my little toe, the sensation could wake me and the colorful image would vanish. But I was comfortably still.

The image was of vast mountains covered with deep, smooth snow that flowed up one mountain and down the next. The scene was not from this world or this universe. Yet it felt familiar. And beautiful.

Gradually the scene shrank, moved off to the side, and was replaced by an image of a forest. The plants were not of this earth. They were lovely.

This image shrank and moved aside to be replaced by another and another, faster and faster – each of a different world. Each felt like a memory.

Soon they flickered by so quickly they blurred together.

Suddenly I was outside all of them, suspended in the vastness of space between thousands of universes. A bright blue translucent river of light flowed toward me from an impossible distance. The river was a mind-stream carrying memories and impressions from countless beings who had lived in all those worlds and in all those universes. And it flowed into me as faint pictures from millions of lives. When I died, my memories would mix with that river and flow into another life.

Existence has no beginning. It just is. Millions of universes have expanded and contracted for eons. This mind stream extended back in time farther than I could imagine.

This made my current life less than a footnote on a footnote. All my struggles and dramas were insignificant compared to the breathtaking expanse of time. In this life, whether anybody remembered me, valued me, despised me, treated me well, or treated me poorly mattered little. This life was less than the blink of a lightning bug.

Normally I have well developed skepticism. But lying in that darkened room seeing those visions, I knew they were true. I had no doubt.

I also had no doubt that the vision and my confidence would fade. So I asked what would be most helpful to remember when my normal consciousness returned.

I saw that kindness is more important than anything else. What I say or do matters little as long as it is guided by kindness. Over the span of thousands of years and thousands of lifetimes, kindness is the force most able to make a difference and most able to move toward freedom, peace, and wellbeing.

Knowing that my confidence in this simple truth would fade, I made vows. I don’t remember the words if indeed there were words at all. I vowed to let kindness guide my life. I vowed to follow that vision even when I forgot it.

After a half hour, my finger moved slightly. It was as if I took a tiny step back out of the vision. I could still see it; but I was looking at it rather than living inside it. Maybe it was just a crazy idea. Who can know? My capacity to doubt and question was returning. The vision was still powerful, but I was moving toward my normal state.

Years later, I don’t believe any of it. Yet I know it’s true. And those vows are still alive. I feel their texture. Those images remind me of the vastness of time, space, and consciousness, of this life being a footnote on a footnote, and of the value of kindness. I don’t live those vows fully. I forget them at times. But they continue to move through me, releasing old tensions, and releasing the pull this world has on me.

 

Cultivating Grace



I’d like to talk about kindness and grace. This is the second in a series on cultivating grace. Grace is anything we enjoy that we don’t earn. The peacefulness of a river, the sweetness of a mango, the calm of an open heart: we can’t earn these, but we can enjoy them. They are grace.

We don’t always drink in the grace around us. Kabir wrote, “I laugh when I hear the fish in the sea are thirsty.”

This morning I’d like to talk about cultivating kindness as a way to become more receptive to the peace, sweetness, calm, and water of life that surround us. I’d like to explore what kindness is and how to take vows of kindness if you so choose.

 

Life Review

Before we get to these, I’d like to back up. I started with a vision of a river of consciousness flowing from one life to the next. I grew up with skeptics who valued critical thinking and scientifically verifiable proof. There is no way to ascertain if that vision was literally true or a metaphor or just hyper-imagination.

So let me start over. Rather than reviewing millions of lifetimes, let’s review one as a way to get a handle on kindness.

I first heard about life reviews when I was in kindergarten: we die and walk up to the Pearly Gates where St. Peter opens the Book of Life and reviews everything we’ve done. Then he or God passes judgment and allows us into heaven or shoos us off to hell.

As kindergarten-ish as that sounds, there may be seeds of truth in it. Only we’re the ones who judge ourselves and create our own heaven or hell.

Let me tell you a true story.

Steve had a severe asthma attack that tightened his lungs until he stopped breathing. Without respiration, his heart stopped. Steve was dead.

Death sets off processes whereby various cells begin to degenerate. It takes a while. If the heart and lungs can be jump-started soon enough, and the condition that caused the death can be fixed, sometimes the person can be resuscitated.

Steve was brought back to life.

Sam Parnia is a physician who specializes in medical resuscitation. His book, Erasing Death[1} describes many cases including Steve’s. Up to 20% of resuscitated people remember the time they were dead. There are common themes that run through these accounts: being out of the body, meeting a being or presence that is loving, comforting, and reassuring, and a life review. Steve described his life review this way:

Everything was surrounded by this light blue grey color. There was a being beside me. I could feel his presence. It was a comforting and reassuring presence. I felt things were alright.

Then I began a review of the key moments of my life. At the same time I experienced it from other people’s points of view. That was a stunner because you feel their pain, you feel the sting, you feel the hurt [of your actions]. It was a horrifying realization that I wasn’t the person I thought I was.

At that point the being sent me messages to explain, “It’s alright, that’s what humans do, humans make mistakes.”

I wasn’t just watching the events; I was actually reliving them. At the same time I was experiencing the actions from other people’s points of view. I was them. I was also experiencing a higher reality – the truth of the matter.

I saw the lies and self-deception I had used to convince me that doing certain things was okay because people had deserved it.

I [felt] the emotional impact it had on other people. I felt their pain. I felt the shock on them. At the same time I also saw that they have their own lies and self-deceptions.

The result was that I felt like a failure as a person. I wasn’t the person I had thought I was. It was humiliating. I felt really dreadful and it was completely humbling.

The judgment came all from myself. It was not from an outside source. But then this being that was with me was also sending me comforting messages – thank goodness! – and one of them was it was alright as I was only human.

The entire experience gave me a second chance to live a more meaningful life. I felt I had a chance now to change things so that the next time I get back to the life review it wouldn’t be the same or at least they would say, “He tried.”[2]

Years later ii was clear that the experience changed Steve’s life. He was more caring, truthful, and humble. He was kinder.


I suspect that anything we do, say, or think is recorded somewhere in our being. Anger, meanness, selfishness, and unkind actions leave us tight. We try to push unpleasant things out of our minds. We may forget what we did or said. But the tension remains.

Then we have a near-death experience – fall off a high ladder or lose control of our car and think we’re going to die. Our whole life flashes before us. Or maybe we actually die and are brought back. In the interval all those deeply stored memories flash to the surface.

 

Perfect Memory

What if we didn’t have to wait for a death to remember all we had done and it’s impact on others? What if we never forgot anything?

A few people have perfect memory even in normal life. The condition is called “hyperthymesia”: near perfect recall. Some of you may have seen a 60 Minutes TV show about a half dozen of these people.

We can give them a date – say September 3, 1983 – and they’ll say, “I had a spinach salad with mandarin oranges for lunch that day. The local news was about Frank Rose’s lost dog. It rained in the morning, but was dry enough for me to mow the lawn in the afternoon.” And so on. Anything they have ever done or said seems to remain accessible. Remarkable.

At the end of 60 Minutes , reporter Leslie Stahl asked what it was like to live with perfect memory. Louise Owens, a violinist in New York City, said it could be difficult at times. She rarely loses arguments because she remembers exactly what the other person said. In primary relationships this can be intimidating.

When asked if, on the whole, she was glad she had it, Louise Owens said, "I am. I mean, sure, there are times when it's difficult. But it makes me live my life with so much more intention and so much more joy."

Asked what she meant by “intention” she said, “I know I’m going to remember whatever happens today. I’ll remember forever. So I want to live with intention.” She lived with joy and kindness.


What if you could remember everything perfectly? How would you live the rest of this day? How would you treat others? How would you treat yourself? How would you speak?

I suspect we’d be kinder. We’d be friendlier in our actions and speech. We have little control over the thoughts that drive our speech and actions. When spite or frustration spawn unkind thoughts, before we spoke we might reflect, “Is it really true that Frank is a total jerk?” or “Sarah is hopelessly selfish?” Rather than just say it, we might look deeper and more empathetically. After all, what if we said something unkind and it was wrong? We’d never forget. We’d want to live with more intention and kindness.

 

Gentle Presence



Let’s shift from the importance of kindness to what it is.

We know what it is. Take a moment and feel it in your heart…

Kindness is simple. Love can be complicated. It can be confused with everything from selflessness to greed. But kindness is simple. It begins with gentle presence: truly being with another person or creature.

Then it flows out from the heart. When we’re present with someone feeling good, kindness flows out as friendliness. When we’re present with someone feeling bad, kindness flows out as compassion. When we’re present with someone feeling peaceful, kindness flows as a quiet emanation.

From the outside, kindness may look as soft as patting a kitten or as fierce as a mother bear protecting a cub. Kindness can be as humble as retiring from a hopeless argument or as courageous as running into a burning building. Kindness can be as soothing as cool water on parched lips or as sharp as a knife lancing a boil.

Kindness cannot be measured externally. It can’t be defined by specific actions. We alone can know for sure the quality of our heart. Still, when it is genuine, it is palpable.

Years ago I was crying in our family room. My four-and-a-half-year-old son, Damon, walked into the room, saw me, turned around, and ran upstairs to his room. A moment later he came down carrying a piece of rabbit fur he’d gotten at school. It was soft and soothing. He didn’t say a word. He just handed it to me.

To this day, I don’t remember what I was crying about. But I’ll never forget the kindness that flowed through that soft gesture.

 

Staying Power

My mother was very kind unless I was feeling sad, depressed or discouraged.

When she was 16, her father went into the basement, put the barrel of a rifle into his mouth and pulled the trigger. She was at church choir rehearsal at the time. She learned of his death from a neighboring running into the church yelling, "it's not contagious, it's not contagious! You won’t kill yourself.”

My mother's mother was of a generation that didn't believe in talking about these things. No one helped my mother process her father's suicide or the hysteria of a frightened, well-intentioned neighbor.

So she remained reflexively frightened of depression or emotions reminiscent of suicide.

As a child I didn't know all this. All I knew was that she was very kind unless I was feeling very sad. Then she was distant with fake cheeriness. I felt close to her unless I was sad. Then I felt alone.


For kindness to have depth and staying power, we need the ability to be gently present with powerful feelings: sadness, anger, fear, and pain.

Adrienne Rich writes:

… gentleness is active
gentleness swabs the crusted stump
invents the more merciful instruments
to touch the wound beyond the wound
does not faint with disgust
will not be driven off
keeps bearing witness calmly
against the predator, the parasite
I am tired of faintheartedness.

All of us have kind hearts. And all of us have areas where we become fainthearted.

In what situations does your kindness flow freely and easily? In what situations do you lose touch with gentle presence? Does kindness flow easily when someone is sad? When they are deeply hurt? When they are angry with you? When they have stupidly mistreated you? When you are attacked?

When your kindness is blocked by fear, annoyance, or righteousness, can you gently be with your own heart?

 

Vows

This brings us to the final aspect of this topic: vows that deepen and strengthen kindness in a larger variety of circumstances.

A vow of kindness is not something we’ll be punished for breaking. If we vow not to throw rocks straight up in the air and do so anyway, the rock does not land on our head because we broke our vow. It whacks us because of the law of gravity.

The vow reminds us that throwing rocks straight up is dumb. And if we break the vow, we don’t beat ourselves up. We just say, “Duh, that’s why I took that vow.” And we take it again: “I’ll never to that again!”

So a vow of kindness is a reminder of what’s wise.

If we are self-flagellating, kindness reminds us, “Be gentle with yourself. You’re only human.”

If we are about to yell at someone, kindness asks, “What are your intentions?” Speaking loudly to someone hard of hearing may be kind. Doing so to an upset child may be mean. “What are your intentions?”

A vow of kindness reminds us to recognize when we are off, forgive ourselves, and come back.

Here is what such vows could look like:

I vow to be kind to myself and other living beings.
I vow to let kindness guide my life in all things.
When I am unkind, I vow to investigate to see what threw me off balance so I might learn.
I vow to let kindness illuminate my path.

Vows are more powerful when they come from a heart with clear intentions.

To prepare for these, remember the importance of kindness:

We humans kill in the name of love. We maim in the name of righteousness. We start wars in the name of holiness.

But kindness resists distortion. It is so simple, humble, wise, and close to the natural heart that it can send ripples from person to person across years and across generations. Long after our bodies have fallen into dust and memories of us have vanished, subtle waves of kindness may quietly call someone back to sanity.

Sincerely taking vows of kindness deepens our lives and sends it into the world to touches people we may never know.

So if you feel drawn to take vows of kindness, bring up the feeling and then say whatever words capture it best for you. Again, here are ones that resonate with me:

I vow to be kind to myself and other living beings.
I vow to let kindness guide my life in all things.
When I am unkind, I vow to investigate to see what threw me off balance so I might learn.
I vow to let kindness illuminate my path.


Cultivating Grace: Fierce Acceptance :: Cultivating Grace: Confession and Forgiveness

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Notes:

1: Sam Parnia and Young, Josh (2013). Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries

2. Sam Parnia (pp. 132-134) The transcript was edited and shortened for clarity.