the practical buddhist : essentials

compassionate kindness in the 21st century

Compassion and kindness are inextricably linked; One cannot exist alone. They are like two sides of a single coin within the currency of life. If love can be defined as life’s economy, then compassionate kindness is the currency of such a life.

In my book, Practical Buddhism: Buddhism Without the Robes & Ritual, I have this to say about compassionate kindness:

Compassionate-kindness is a two-fold expression. Compassion is a general attitude one adopts toward all sentient beings, toward nature, even toward one’s surroundings. It is largely dependent on an internal commitment to kindness.

Kindness is the external expression of compassion. It’s a decision to extend one’s highest sense of self as we interact with those around us.

Recent Experiences with Compassionate-Kindness

I spent this past week in Denver, Colorado on a consulting assignment for a client. I make my living as a technical proposal consultant to construction  firms pursuing large infrastructructure and transportation related projects. I arrived on Sunday evening and worked about 80 hours in five days.

The work is intense and when I travel it usually includes very long hours filled with clashing egos and decisions that can impact hundreds of million of dollars in potential revenue. This week was no different and I worked with a team of mostly dedicated and willing participants.

Yesterday it ended with the multi-volume proposal being published, packed in four boxes, and delivered to the owner/agency requesting the proposal. By the end of the week, I was mentally and physically exhausted. It’s par for the course in my line of work.

Reenacting ‘The Terminal’

I agreed to drop off a valued colleague at the airport well in advance of my own return flight to save him the hassle and expense of a 45 minute taxi ride. This placed me at Denver International Airport nine hours earlier than I needed to be there. I figured I needed the down time anyway and since my plans to visit a Denver-based friend didn’t work out, the airport seemed like a good place to spend the day.

It was like a scene out of the Tom Hanks film, The Terminal. I was a foreigner in a foreign land (so to speak), trapped for nine hours in an airport I didn’t know very well.  Although I had options at my disposal, I still felt trapped, unable to adapt to my surroundings and relax. I really wanted to break out a yoga mat and stretch but I didn’t.

I overestimated how tired I was and the toll the work week had taken. I found it very difficult to relax at all. I had a couple of nice meals, but in busy airport restaurants. I visited a wine bar for two glasses of a really refreshing cabernet, but even that wasn’t enough to calm the unease I felt inside.

It wasn’t until I boarded the plane back to San Jose, California that the full impact of the week hit me.  I became fidgety and felt like I had a bad case of restless leg syndrome; my left leg kept jumping and twitching. The cramped environment of the 737-700 didn’t help much.

At one point during the descent into San Jose I became aware of a hand on my shoulder. I looked up into the face of one of the flight attendants who was concerned about me.

“Are you alright, Sir” she asked?

“Yes, I’m fine. It’s been a really long week and I’m having trouble relaxing,” I said.

For the next few minutes I thought about this brief exchange and how it so kind of here to express compassion for a total stranger. When we landed I made it a point to thank her for her kindness as I exited the plane onto the ramp. She reached out and grasped my arm in another supportive gesture and told me I was more than welcome.

Compassionate-kindness in action. It’s not hard to express and  a little can go a long way in helping another person ease their suffering.

The ‘I’ in Team

While in Denver I also experienced the reverse of compassionate-kindness. In the working environment I mentioned earlier, there were times when not all team members worked together. To use a sport analogy, imagine what would happen if a football team showed up and half of one team decided just not to play according to the established rules?

Teams are only effective if all players agree to the same rules. The actions by such players stem from heightened identification with ego. Over identification with a false sense of separateness (ego) creates an environment where individuals feel the need to mark their territory and erect boundaries where none should exist. Such actions are the opposite of compassionate kindness.

Getting in Touch with Compassionate-Kindness

In my morning meditation, I take some time to cultivate compassion. I meditate on the sense of openness compassion creates and feel the warmth of that commitment spread throughout my heart-mind.  Sometimes called loving-kindness, compassionate-kindness can be the balm for the injurious nature of our self-judgements.

The practice of mindfulness brings to light many of our self-identified faults and negatives, but cultivating compassionate-kindness first begins with ourselves. Adopting an attitude of compassion toward ourselves is the foundation for expressing kindness to others.

A Recipe for Today

Here is a small action plan or recipe for cultivating compassionate-kindness. It helps me remain mindful of how important compassion is in our day-to-day life.