I have often thought that the world could be divided into two types of people. The ones who have trouble practicing kindness towards themselves, and the ones who experience difficulty practicing it towards others. I happen to be among the latter, which has advantages and disadvantages.
The major advantage being that at least I don’t beat myself up over stuff. Instead, my default position is to look for someone to blame, which keeps my inner life nice and tidy. Of course, it happens sometimes that I am confronted with the fall-out of something I did wrong, and I will have to look inside for answers, and for apologies. But I am not the kind to assume by default that things are my fault. There is inner confidence that I’m generally capable of doing what is best for whatever problem is encountered, and that the intention is there to do good, and that that is all I can do.
The disadvantage is that I am somewhat prone to view the outside world as hostile, whereas it may very well be me that is hostile. By expecting the world to fail me, I will rather lash out at my surroundings, than examine where I might have contributed to any bad outcome.
Of course, the people who have trouble practicing kindness towards themselves have the advantage of being somewhat more clear about the role their environments play in their successes and failures, making them far better judges of people. These people generally have a clearer understanding of how the world works, and of social intricacies that can be harder to fathom by self-absorbed types like myself.
The main disadvantage haunting these people is that their sense of self is in some way hostile territory. Self-judgment, self-recrimination, rumination, combined with an inflated sense of responsibility leads to heaps of stress that can be difficult to live with. For these unfortunate people, there is no escape, no rest in relaxation, no sojourn in the inner voice that tells them to keep going, to keep striving, to keep doing something, anything, in order to just not be alone with one’s thoughts, with one’s insecurities.
Regardless on which side of the divide you find yourself, whether you are one of the summer, or one of the winter people, one of the light-bringers, or a harbinger of darkness, one of the fluffy bunnies, or a ragged old reptile, regardless… you are not seeing clearly. You are out of balance, a few cards short of a full deck, in other words, quite deluded. You are suffering from the one fundamental delusion of our times: the delusion of separation. You feel like there is a you in here, and a world out there, and never the twain shall meet. A curious delusion, because in actuality, they meet all the time.
In order to fix this fundamental delusion, it can be useful to practice meditation. And when it comes to the subject of being kind, there really is only one relevant meditation.
In Buddhist meditative circles, metta bhavana practice is well-known. We extend kindness to ourselves, loved ones, neutral people, those who are difficult, and ultimately to all living beings. It is a wonderful practice, and if you start doing it intensively, you might find yourself practicing it all the time, not just when seated in formal meditation practice.
This practice will soon cure you of your fundamental delusion, seeing as kindness, properly applied, really has no borders. Even if you only do one level of this practice – kindness towards loved ones, say – you can’t help but influence the kindness you extend to yourself, neutral people, and even to difficult ones. That is because kindness, again: properly applied, is a greedy process that does not respect your neatly categorized boundaries, such as “inner” versus “outer.”
But what if the different levels of applied kindness appear to contradict eachother? What if your kindness practice towards loved ones exhorts you to forgive them for the hurt they unknowingly cause you, because you are failing to define your personal boundaries in the relationship? What if your kindness directed at yourself exhorts you to finally start feeling the anger, anguish, and sorrow you have been bottling up due to all this smilingly accepted hurt that has been heaped upon you for so long? Surely, you can’t be both angry and forgiving at the same time, about the same thing?
It is exactly when conflicts such as this happen, that you know there is work to be done. In this case, you have been cheating both your loved ones and yourself by bending over too deep, for far too long. Likely out of fear, or anxiety, or self-consciousness, or insecurity. You have not been kind to either “level,” and that needs to be resolved in order to find both a deeper inner peace, and a deeper sense of connection to your loved ones.
It is rather counterintuitive: with regards to kindness, conflict is not a problem but actually an ally. Conflict is the way love is made.
In the kindness-towards-self arena, conflict shows you where you are not being true to yourself. In the kindness-towards-loved-ones arena, conflict shows you where you are preventing yourself from being known and loved, where you are hiding, and where you can strengthen the relationship by showing up more. In the kindness-towards-neutral-people arena, conflict shows you where you are either too naive, or too suspicious of others. And in the kindness-towards-difficult-people arena, conflict shows you where you are holding on to pain, and in what way that holding on still serves you in this moment.
Conflict is good, it is healthy, it is love. Conflict is kindness itself. Because it shows you where you are afraid. Because it shows you where you are holding onto sadness, anger, or pain.
Conflict is how you get to know other people, well and truly. Because conflict communicates boundaries. If other people don’t know where your boundaries are, they will keep trespassing, and you will encounter all kinds of emotions that are related to those trespasses, but if you don’t communicate this, it will only continue. And you will be robbing your loved ones from the chance to get to know you better. You will be robbing yourself from the opportunity to form deeper, more meaningful, more human connections with the people you love the most. Even worse, you are robbing yourself from the opportunity of getting to know yourself better, which means stasis, lack of development, and an emptier, less meaningful life. In case you needed further prodding, such a life is also less attractive to others.
Instead, by standing behind your boundaries and initiating conflict, you are giving your loved ones a chance to glimpse your vulnerability, to relate to your boundaries, and to learn to respect them. Not because you are SOOO deserving of respect, but because that is why they love you: to know you better, and for you to know them better. Initiating conflict implies the courage to share your vulnerability, which is far from weak, but rather a sign of proper social adjustment, and a good measure of ego strength. You are figuring out, with each and every social interaction, what you will and will not tolerate, who you will and will not surround yourself with, and who you are becoming in the process. Because you are never static, always in development, towards a richer, more meaningful, and yes a more attractive existence.
And this is just a propos the example we opened with. Conflict is the crucible for ever deepening insight into self and world. It is a necessary corrollary of kindness, if kindness is to lead to any sort of personal or spiritual development. Metta practice without conflict either tells me you’re a highly enlightened being, or (more likely) that you’re doing it wrong.
Find the conflict, find your edge. It’s no use practicing something that just makes you feel fuzzy inside. Find the place that makes you queasy, that makes you gag, or reel, or go faint. Practice nosebleed metta, for the love of everything that is dear.
Practicing nosebleed metta puts you on a fast track to seeing through the fundamental delusion. It has the effect of properly defining your personal boundaries with the sole purpose of being able to move beyond them, into a post-egoic framework, where apparent separation is no longer the default way of experiencing yourself and world, but profound, underlying unity is.
At a certain point in practice, more subtle levels than self, other people, and world will open up for you. There will just be “experience,” however it is. Being able to hold your each and every thought, bodily sensation, and sensory perception in a field of kindness, clues you in to the artificiality of concepts such as self and world, inner and outer. They are concepts that are overlaid on momentary experience, habitually worn lenses you see through in order to understand and manipulate that experience, but they don’t have to be. This moment can be experienced without such extraneous overlays, in its unitive, peaceful, and timeless nature.
How to get there? Keep practicing nosebleed metta, resolving conflicts as you go, until you find that there is nothing in momentary experience that is not being met in kindness. Make its practice the focal point of your life for a few weeks, from the moment you rise until the moment you go to sleep, never straying far from it, and this first insight into the fundamental delusion can be yours. Even if it takes you a little longer than a few weeks, you will still arrive at a much expanded sense of harmony with yourself, and the world around you. That can’t be a bad thing, right?