I am seeing more and more trainings on kindness these days and find myself hoping to discover that the most recent understandings from affective neuroscience are emerging in way that might influence how those of us in the field approach this topic. Yet, I continue to see approaches to “teaching” kindness that are completely devoid of any understanding of how these human virtues are actually cultivated. Yes, cultivated. Not taught, trained, conditioned, or practiced. Human virtues that have been celebrated since the long ago and spoken of throughout all wisdom traditions are cultivated!
So what does this mean? Well, it means we can take a deep breath, slow down and stop working so hard at interventions that attempt to cognitively teach qualities that can only emerge when certain physiological, biological and emotional conditions are met. Phew! As my colleague and good friend Marla always says, “we don’t need to be working nearly as hard as we think we do.” I find this comforting and a gentle reminder that we are not the orchestrators of human development. It is not some mechanistic process that we can make happen by saying the right things and providing the right information. It is a profoundly sacred process in which a person recovers their own sense of vulnerability and in doing so regains their capacity to consider context and to read and response humanely to the suffering of others.
Kindness, care, and compassion are fruits! They are fruits of the developmental process in which we come to know ourselves and are able to navigate the complex emotional terrain of our relationships with each other. In order to truly develop these virtues we must have first experienced the luxury of being able to care about things in our life. This is the first step on the journey to becoming one-heart and one-mind. So many of us could not afford to care because we were exposed to environment in which caring meant being wounded. The result? A loss of caring feelings and the development of a hard exterior. We must first be able to bear the vulnerability of caring for something despite the fact that caring does render us open to inevitable hurt. If caring feelings have gone missing then this is the first step in restoring caring feelings. This cannot be nor should be done directly. Especially when working with those who have suffered the impacts of intergenerational trauma.
Recovery of caring emotions must be done indirectly in the context of a caring relationship with at least one other person in which we can recover and express our emotions. This can be a long and winding road and we may have to weather the stormy weather of frustration, alarm and grief before our caring heart can be felt again. Indigenous cultures provide so many beautiful ways of softening the heart in the context of our relationships with each other, the land, ancestors and elders. We only have to seek out our caring alpha elders who will take us to their side and lead us in the dance of recovery our caring hearts.
Once care is restored, this must intersect with the capacity for consideration. This is a fruit of the maturation process and takes a very long time to emerge as part of our developmental journey to becoming a whole person. Yet, without the capacity to stop, reflect, and consider the context of any situation we cannot respond in an appropriate manner regardless of how much we might care. Imagine the 2-year-old excited to hold their newborn baby sibling for the first time. They are bursting with caring feelings and yet they simply do not yet have the maturity to enact that care and keep that baby safe. It will be many years before that capacity develops and this process requires patience and faith in nature. So many of us have not had the luxury of developing this capacity either. If we have had to survive a wounding childhood it may be that this capacity got put on hold while we were taking care of business surviving! This process needs time and space to develop and is ideally accomplished in the context of a caring relationship with an alpha elder who is wise and caring. The relationship offered by an elder provides an ecology much like a chrysalis in which we can transform safely. Relationships are the context in which we become fully human….kind, caring and compassionate!
Compassion is a result of a caring heart intersecting with our ability to read a person and the situation, and then to respond empathically to what is happening. Empathy alone is not enough. Empathy is the capacity to read emotions. Many a bully has empathy and can read another’s emotional state easily. However, they are moved to exploit this vulnerability, not to care for it. Compassion is the fruit of care, consideration and the right response.
These three powerful forces move us in the most beautiful ways, and it is something we should all aspire to. However, they cannot be taught. We must be moved, cracked open, hearts touched, and we must recover our soft hearts. This takes monumental courage and yet it is the only way. It is indirect, gentle work that needs to be led by those of us who have the sensitivity to lead others into this vulnerable terrain. Not by talking about it or teaching about it but through inviting people into a safe relationship in which their emotions can come to surface. We need relational spaces in which grieving can happen and we can find the courage to take the risk to actually care about each other again.
In short, we cannot think our way to kindness, care, and compassion. We must feel our way there—in the context of our safe relationships.