For the past many years, I have taught an introductory counselling theory course to second year Child and Youth Care students. As part of their course work, they are asked to take on a personal change project. In the past, students have accomplished amazing things in a 12 week semester – a former student who took up jogging is now running marathons, another quit smoking cigarettes and remains a non-smoker, others have taken up a spiritual path and so on. It is a privilege to bear witness as students come to understand that such an assignment is designed not only to increase their own personal well being but also build empathy for the change we ask others to do in the helping field. For all these years, I have also participated, choosing a different project each semester. This is based on the words of a former mentor who told me “never ask a client to do something you wouldn’t do yourself” (thanks Greg!). I have translated this to my teaching and believe it important to model taking on the challenge of change.
For this year, my change project was kindness. You might pause and ask “what is so difficult about being kind?” In fact, I was a little embarrassed to tell my class this was my project for fear of them thinking I was deficient in kindness. But I think we can all agree it is easy to hit the send button, respond to being cut off in traffic, respond to a family member, or turn away from an outstretched hand on a street corner without kindness. If I knew what not being kind was, how would I define kindness? I decided that kindness meant living with an open heart.
In taking on this project, the task was both kindness to others and kindness to myself. In fact, the whole project was inspired by a serendipitous collection of events. The first was continuing my training in Radically Open Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (RO-DBT) which posits the motto kindness first and foremost. The second was when I was checking out of my hotel at the last RO-DBT training, a couple in the lobby asked if I was going to the airport to which I answered yes. They offered to drive me as they, too, were headed to the same destination. While my mother would never advise driving with strangers, and my mother in-law would lose sleep knowing I had done this, I happily took them up on their offer. I learned about why they were in the area (planning their daughter’s wedding), what they hoped for their daughter and her fiancé and their perspectives on parenting. In this sense, their kindness was a gift of free taxi fare but also a gift of human connection. As an anxious traveler, I was especially grateful for the kind company.
In looking through the lens of kindness, opportunities to be kind to others were abundant. I had one exchange where a street camper gave his last pierogi to my well-fed dog. I returned with soup and socks. I practiced “random” acts of kindness, often inspired by http://www.lifevestinside.com/category/the-daily-kind/ At the same time, I became more cognizant of when I was not acting out of kindness or when I extended kindness with an expectation of some return – surprising areas for self-exploration!
Kindness to self, however, is sometimes a much more daunting task. I often ask my clients, “would you talk to your best friend the way you talk to yourself?” And the answer so far is no. What does this say about our capacity for harsh judgement, criticism and guilt directed inward? I have written more extensively about this here: https://www.celcis.org/files/4914/8663/8201/2016_Vol_15_3_Little_J.N_Cultivating_human_beings_not_human_doings_Challenging_discourses_of_self-care.pdf
But what I will say in this blog is that being kind to ourselves, or receiving kindness is often blocked by a secret shame that we don’t deserve the kindness being extended. Or, that somehow being kind will lead to uncontrolled hedonism! In my counselling practice, there has been no data to support this fearful hypothesis. Instead I have seen people improve their relationships to self and others in profound ways. Part of how people get there is through random acts of kindness but also cultivating daily loving-kindness meditations. There are several on the web and I encourage you to experiment with them.
I will end with the words of Tara Brach, whose work inspires me daily:
We wish you well as Spring unfolds! Cole and the IFC Family