samniyama-indriya-gramam / sarvatra sama-buddhayah, te prapnuvanti mam eva / sarva-bhuta-hite ratah
Those who are able to control their senses, have equanimity of mind and rejoice in contributing to the welfare of all creatures are dear to me.
– Bhagavad Gita XII.4
In the month of November, my teachers chose the relationship between inner-peace and outward kindness as the Jivamukti Focus of the Month. This came at a most auspicious time in my own life, as I have lately wondered when kindness itself can lead to more harm, as in when it causes us to step away from efforts to create a better world, for fear of offending or seeming too radical to be peaceful.
We get the clearest account of kindness and compassion in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Although there are several key passages on kindness (1.33 and III.24), the juiciest parts are in the second chapter, the portion on the discipline of yoga.
Take note: yoga is a whole discipline, of which kindness is a piece. The discipline is intended to cultivate a disposition reflective of both curiosity about the world and a deep and abiding faith. To be disciplined we must have faith that the method works; but if the discipline is to remain relevant, we must, as the ancient yogis did, question the world in which we live.
Patanjali offers ashtanga yoga (the 8-limbed path) as one method to achieve enlightenment.
It is where we get the yamas and niyamas, the ethical observances having to do with our relationship to others (the yamas) and to ourselves (the niyamas). The yamas in particular are very much about kindness, instructing us to lead non-violent lives (ahimsa), to not lie to others (satya), to not steal from others (asteya), to not sexually abuse and exploit others (bramacharya), and to not hoard things we don’t need or will never use (aparigraha).
Although the practice of each of these will be difficult at times—indeed, that is why their observance requires practice—the definitions are quite clear. Each one is a form of kindness to others, of not doing something that we may wish to do (usually out of selfish desire) precisely to do so would cause harm to another living creature. The yamas are not about inner-truths or self-affirmations.
The niyamas are the substructures of the yamas, the actions that support our efforts to be kind to others.
They generally have to do with our relationship to ourselves and to God. What we learn from the sutras on ashtanga yoga is this: kindness is not merely an outgrowth of peace of mind and the experience of yoga. Rather, it is an integral part of the practice that leads to peace of mind and the experience of yoga.
The yamas are also the framework within which we can understand what a practice of kindness actually looks like.
I have recently joined the throngs of individuals worldwide who are on Facebook. (Yes, yes, I am rather late to the party and it’s all Instagram and Snapchat these days anyway.) Perhaps it is because I am steeped, blessedly, in a community of yogis, but I cannot help but notice the daily postings by so many people of affirmations and platitudes about things like peace and, yes, kindness.
Like many, I often feel inspired by the words of others as I go about my ordinary life, trying to be and do good, but so often failing. So I am sometimes grateful that others take time to offer inspirational words.
And yet, we must be careful—I must, anyway—to not be lulled into believing that the consumption of others’ affirmations is sufficient for kindness as a practice.
Here are some general thoughts about the shape kindness should take, thoughts that have coalesced from much time spent reading and writing about two important yoga philosophy texts, the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita. They are not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative. I wish only to begin to point us in a different direction for thinking about and for being kind.
1) Kindness requires that we be keen observers of the world around us and that we constantly sharpen our capacities for fine discernment.
This will take the form of an active practice, not the mere consumption of pleasant passages about how to be a better person. We must come to truly know what a particular action—say, the unnecessary taking of another life for our own nourishment—actually amounts to, what it really means (one wants to qualify, morally) when we do something that contributes to or amounts to the suffering of others.
Judgment will be necessary, and this judgment shouldn’t take the shape of nagging moralistic finger-wagging, but rather should be deliberative and pleasurable even, because it is the blessed result of putting to use one’s faculties of both reason and compassion.
2) Kindness is not the same as being nice.
It requires conviction in a way that being nice simply does not. It requires truthfulness (satya), and the courage to call others out for hurtful actions or speech, to buck trends and stand on the side of justice and decency, and not just when doing so is easy or comes with its own reward.
It also requires that we go beyond charitable yoga. Teaching or taking part in a donation-based class, the proceeds of which might go to an excellent cause, is a form of niceness and it is well and good. Carving out time in your life to show up for people and animals in need—that is, to spend time with them, to create a space in which they can feel welcome, to care for them, to allow yourself to be cared for by them—is a form of genuine kindness.
3) Kindness draws on an imaginative capacity that is reflective of a rich inner-life.
To love others truly and wholly, one must fully understand the difference between authentic love and its many false forms (infatuation, self-love, idolatry, etc.). (I am grateful to the philosopher Raimond Gaita for helping me to understand how important this is to our moral life.)
To be in possession of such an imaginative capacity is to know that the value of certain virtues has nothing whatsoever to do with human nature in a bio logistic sense. It has to do with the sort of people we can and should become based on deeply held and shared beliefs about goodness.
4) To be kind is to cut a path somewhere between being at home in the world and being willing to affect change wherever needed and whenever possible.
In other words, kindness doesn’t amount to an “it’s all good” attitude. It goes without saying that it isn’t “all good,” and to adopt such an attitude is to engage in the worst kind of self-delusion and mindless consumerism. The yogi must learn when it makes sense to let things go in a moment and when it makes sense to seize a moment and say, enough is enough.
5) Kindness isn’t always easy; in fact, it’s often very hard.
So if it feels really easy to you, consider the possibility that you’re not quite doing it right. I do not say this in a mocking tone at all, but rather to remind you and me that kindness as a practice of yoga asks us to make tough choices precisely because it requires us to be the sort of people who not only understand that the world is a complicated place but who are willing to wade into the murky waters and actually stand on principle.
In order to move beyond simplistic and banal affirmations about “being kind,” one must engage in quiet reflection (often reading longer tracts on things like ethics and morality, even!), be able to articulate principles and to defend them when necessary, and, above all else, have the courage to live out those principles, even when doing so is hard and the choices we make entail some loss.
As Sharonji has said, shedding the limits of kindness will often mean expanding our ideas of who is deserving of compassion (hint: all living creatures). But sometimes this will take a different form, namely being honest with others and ourselves when we have been merely nice to keep things comfortable and in so doing have managed to avoid the harder, but much more rewarding, work of being truly kind.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.
Like elephant journal on Facebook
Assistant Editor: Terri Tremblett/ Editor: Rachel Nussbaum