Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. ~ Dalai Lama
Today I approached a four-way stop in my town where a large truck had arrived just before me. I waited a moment for the truck to go, but it did not move. When I looked up at the cab of the truck, the driver was waving his arm vigorously for me to go. It did not take a skilled lip reader to see that he was expressing some pretty intense negative thoughts about my relationship with my mother.
A familiar feeling shot through my body, and some pretty colorful vocabulary combinations began taking shape in my mind. And then, another feeling arose. This feeling is something that I have not always practiced accessing. The feeling was compassion.
I felt empathy for how unpleasant anger and impatience can feel. I imagined that he may be stressed driving such a huge vehicle in traffic. I imagined all the other things that might be going on in his life — anxiety about money, parenting, the future…
I have been there. I have felt immediate and intense outrage that others were not behaving as I would choose. And, I have had days where I held onto to this feeling long after the event was over.
I felt a sincere wish that the truck driver might find some peace in his day. This is something that is relatively new to me. Connecting with compassion is something that I have been working on.
I spend time everyday practicing two things:
1. Resting my attention on the sensations of the breath. When I become aware that my attention has wandered to a thought, a sound, or another sensation, I practice being accepting of this and bring my attention back to the breath as gently and kindly as possible.
2. Breathing in the reality of human struggle. Opening up to the truth that we all experience discomfort and we all want to avoid it. That we all want the world to be the way we want it to be — and it often is not. Breathing out the wish for wellbeing. Opening up to the truth that we are all in this together and that each of us benefits from greater internal peace.
Daily mindfulness practice has helped stabilize my attention so that I am more able to see my conditioned reactions when they show up as well as the choice I have about how I respond.
The more that I practice, the more the choice of compassion and kindness makes sense to me. It does not stop anger, fear, sadness, stress, or anxiety from showing up, but it does give me options about how to work with these feelings when they do.
I am not suggesting I am a saint, and I am definitely capable of overreacting — ask anyone in my family. However, as a result of spending time everyday practicing mindfulness and compassion, I spend less time fueling negative emotions, I let go of upset sooner, rather than carry it into my next interaction, and I am more likely to see that the choice to be kind is not dependent on what is going on around me.
And the really wonderful part is that after some practice, sometimes compassion just shows up in the same types of situations that used to trigger anger, frustration, or resentment.
In case I sound like a mindfulness zealot, let me acknowledge that there are many ways to strengthen awareness and compassion, that sitting in meditation can be boring, filled with restlessness, or feel like a waste of time in a busy world, and that it is not a panacea or a cure for cancer.
Having said all of that, there is little question in my mind that at the heart of a good life is the conscious cultivation of awareness, acceptance, gratitude, compassion, and kindness, rather than the endless pursuit of “just right” circumstances — this practice certainly has made a huge difference in my own life.
Using modern research and enduring wisdom, Dave teaches principles and practices for creating peaceful and powerful lives, relationships, and cultures. He works with individuals, couples, teams, and organizations as a coach, speaker, trainer, and consultant. You can learn more at www.appliedattention.com and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org