Tag Archives: forgiveness


The Habit of Kindness

IMAGE: Tiny Bouquet, a miniature bouquet of wildflowers a dear friend gave me in Italy. (Prints available)

One of the initial challenges for starting a practice of meditation and mindfulness is, paradoxically, it seems too easy. At first pass, sitting still and not thinking about anything while focusing on breathing sounds like something anyone can do: simply exist quietly for a while. I quickly learned that it is actually the opposite of zoning out or contemplation. Being able to sit with both a full and clear mind is the culmination of everything else done in life to get to that place, and it is a lifelong challenge that changes you as a person.

In his revelatory “An Essay on Landscape Painting,” the 11th century Northern Song Dynasty painter and scholar Kuo Hsi described his father readying himself to paint:

On a day when he was to paint, he would seat himself by a bright window, put his desk in order, burn incense to his right and left, and place good brushes and excellent ink beside him; then he would wash his hands and raise his ink-well, as if to receive an important guest, thereby calming his spirit and composing his thoughts. Not until then did he begin to paint. Does this not illustrate what he meant by not daring to face one’s work thoughtlessly?

Approaching life with balance and mindfulness is the essential preparatory work to sit with a clear conscience, to find joy and peace in meaningful meditation rather than feeling trapped with anxiety, daily frustrations or confusions, regrets, or the mental and spiritual equivalents of a cluttered desk or dirty hands. Instead of receiving an important guest, we are meeting ourselves, in a wordless conversation about existence between the world and our spirits. To be in a moment, to fully inhabit it, we have to be a full self. That starts with being honest, being aware, and being kind.

New Forest – Lichen and moss provide the foundation for new plant growth on a fallen tree, continuing the cycle of renewal and regrowth in a forest. (Prints available)

Cultivating an instinct of kindness every day makes a habit of compassion. It is too easy to ignore or compromise the internal voice that suggests, “This is wrong,” or, “I should help,” instead telling ourselves we can’t be late, we need the money, other people treated me the same way, or the most discouraging, “I can’t do anything to change that.” I have always believed it takes extraordinary courage and intelligence to be truly kind as an adult, but it’s an instinct every person has once the conscience develops. It is crucial to keep society from suppressing it and to cling to hope and the belief that our conscience is telling the truth, to know that old Jiminy Cricket feeling of uneasiness should be heeded.

Perhaps the most powerful tool in kindness is empathy, or feeling with another’s heart. It is not enough to ponder how we might feel if something we see happening to someone else were to happen to us – we need to understand how that person feels in the actual situation we see. It starts with observation without judgment, objectively listening and gathering information before we start trying to solve other people’s problems or tell them why their feelings are wrong. It seems common to tackle large issues like racism or poverty with a sketchy and vague sense of the issues, but I don’t often see people stop to ask, “How does that feel?” I think we can be too quick to dismiss the validity of political, spiritual, or personal beliefs because they don’t make sense with how we approach the world. We brush them off instead of trying to wrap our heads around them, which is ultimately an unkind thing to do. Expanding our sense of willingness to inhabit another person’s experience is an act of profound kindness, and if we make it a habit, we gain different lenses with which to understand our own experiences.

Seaside Goldenrod – (Solidago sempervirens) is uniquely saltwater tolerant, a cheerful display of bright yellow flowers at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Jersey. (Prints available)

A second key to kindness is integrity. We should not offer kindness because it makes us look good to other people or gains an advantage of indebtedness. Like anything worth doing, being kind is its own reward. It is important to be consistently kind if it is to become a habit, and to be kind to everyone, not just those people we think are currently most “deserving.” I regularly examine my thoughts for often-unconscious stabs of unkindness: wishing for someone to fail, enjoying hearing about the misfortune of someone I don’t like, feeling relief that I am in a better situation than another person, or dismissing people I don’t understand with disdain or pettiness. It can be hard to break the habit of cruelty that we learn from a young age because it is rooted in competitiveness and the American notion of “winning” or success. Redefining success away from money, material possessions, titles, accolades, appearance, or esteem goes against everything we’re socialized into believing, but it opens the door to far greater rewards.

My goal in life is to be kind to every person I meet, to make life easier or more pleasant for others when I can, to open people’s eyes to thoughts or moments of beauty they may not have seen, and to leave everyone a little more loved than I found them. I know that the only way I can do that is with an uncompromised habit of kindness and compassion, but I’m only human. It is a lifelong project.

Weathered Hydrangea, slightly faded by summer rains, perhaps all the lovelier for it. (Prints available)

That brings me to the third critical tool of kindness: forgiveness. We cannot grow or help others if we cannot forgive. I include forgiving oneself, having a sense of compassion as deep for one’s own missteps as those of others when forgiveness is earned. When I want to comfort people, I usually say some variation of, “It’s okay,” or, “Hey, that happens to us all.” I don’t typically hold grudges when a friend says something unkind in a bad mood, so I am trying to forgive myself the same way, rather than cringing every time I relive a moment when I blurted out something rude instead of a compliment or when I wished someone ill because my feelings were hurt.

People sometimes do unkind things, but most aren’t fundamentally unkind. Often they are not paying attention, they are preoccupied with worry, they are afraid, or they are proud. I am learning that understanding what people are going through makes it much easier to forgive these shortcomings, and instead see them as opportunities to help. My own lapses and times of unhappiness are helping me grow, but only if I let myself. That starts by forgiving mistakes and acknowledging that everyone always needs to grow. None of us were born perfect, and none of us stays kind without effort.

Spray of Pink, flowers in front of a peach-colored wall in the Cinque Terre, Italy. (Prints available)

As I continue on this path of mindfulness and nurturing compassion, I am keeping notes on experiences and moments that bring me clarity or deeper understanding. It is kind to be generous with what we learn. The most important tool in kindness that I’ve found so far is awareness: of the self, of the world, and of others. We cannot grow or change, nor help others, if we don’t start by making ourselves aware of where there is hurt or suffering, or where we have a chance to do better. It can be truly painful to be aware, especially in recognizing how we impact others, but it’s imperative.

Once our eyes are open, we see these challenges everywhere. It can be overwhelming, but it’s okay. It happens to us all, and we have each other to help.

Walking Lightly

Music has a tendency to find me when I need it. I can’t count the amount of times a song has come up on shuffle, and it was like sunlight unexpectedly bursting into a room. Or when a band I love puts out a new album and I rediscover a song on an older album. I find I am suddenly in exactly the right state to fall in love with it, and it becomes a new favorite that acts like a beacon to pull me past whatever I’m going through.

That was the case a few years ago when I mentioned José González‘s brilliant album Veneer on a date (seriously, don’t you want to lean your head on someone’s shoulder, look at the stars, and listen to him sing “Heartbeats“??). When I got home I excitedly listened to his band Junip‘s new album. The song “Walking Lightly” came on, and it was like an auditory cathexis – all other sound and experience dissolved into soft focus and there was just this intensely beautiful song opening my heart and filling it with light and a sense that everything would be okay. It was the soft blanket wrapped around me when I most needed it, and I listened to it around the clock, hoping my coworkers didn’t realize it was literally on repeat for hour-long stretches sometimes. I saw Junip perform at (le) poisson rouge about a week before my beautiful Smokey died, when I knew he was nearing the end but still couldn’t accept it. I think that concert and seeing that song get put together live is one of the only things that preserved my sanity during that time, and it gave me whatever it was I needed to keep functioning and get through losing my honey.

Not surprisingly, it broke my heart to listen to Junip for years afterwards, no matter how much I still loved their music. I think everyone goes through that with the songs that get them through a loss or break-up, and it’s a tremendous feeling to be able to listen to them again and see that enough time has passed to have healed some, where the hurt has turned from an acute stab to a dull ache; it reminds you that eventually it will fade back into pure love.

One of my absolute favorite things to do is walk around and think. I recently read a new-to-me article from 2014 discussing some of the health and psychological benefits of purposeless walking, and I thought about how important walking and running is for clearing my head, processing experiences, working out artistic ideas, and reconnecting with the present tense. When I really need to mull something over, I can only effectively do it in motion, even though I don’t completely follow the prescribed method in that article (or the countless others I’ve read about running). I tend to listen to music because New York can be relentlessly loud and full of conversations I don’t want to overhear. Also because I am obsessed with music, but you knew that part already.

The other day I was in a specific kind of terrible pain that precluded running, but I knew I would feel better if I walked a few miles in the sunshine. I went to the amazing track in my neighborhood that’s across the street from Yankee Stadium so I could just get lost in my head. I used to despise track running, feeling like I was on a 1/4-mile long hamster wheel, but there is enough general activity at this one (this time it was an excellent soccer tournament) that I don’t even mind routinely being mistaken for a high school or college student by guys eager to show off how much taller and fitter they are. I really like the Bronx.

Walking around and around, I started thinking about the non-linear shape of time, picturing the layered loops on the MapMyRun app as a metaphor for our daily routines and the repetitions we make over time. “Walking Lightly” came on my shuffle, and I started to think through some of the experiences I wish I’d handled more gracefully in the moment and the way those missteps reverberated forward through time, often irrevocably damaging friendships and relationships. I also thought about past hurts, and the way holding onto grudges kept hurting me every time I thought about them with anger. As Salman Rushdie put it in his latest book:

“In the end, rage, no matter how profoundly justified, destroys the enraged. Just as we are created anew by what we love, so we are reduced and unmade by what we hate.”

I’d read an article earlier that day that someone had posted about the health benefits of forgiveness (apologies if you’re the one who posted it and I’m not crediting you – I really can’t remember how I got to it). Like a lot of people, I have a pretty firm policy against dating people who speak badly about their exes or parents, and I am always uneasy when friends still carry anger toward former friends or acquaintances. And yet, I am weapons-grade stubborn about holding grudges and I know it takes me a problematically long time to forgive and move on, especially when I know the person who hurt me doesn’t feel any remorse. I did a little mental inventory and realized, yeah, I still have some stuff, and I don’t want to keep carrying it anymore.

© Dr. Joerg M. Harms, Riboworld

Time isn’t a neat spiral or coil moving cleanly upwards or directly toward something. It’s a blobby, amorphous tangle of experiences that are shaped and colored differently as we go back and forth through them. I picture it like a complex protein. We think we are just shuffling along with minimal baggage, and then our secondary alpha-helix loops back around on a moment from long ago. Memory is a creative process, and if the past emotions haven’t been resolved they stick out and radiate energy that demands attention each time we remember them, like repeatedly stubbing a hurt toe. If the experiences are ugly or upsetting enough, they act like intramolecular forces that keep us reattaching and tangling ourselves back up in the same emotion every time, grasping that hot coal and getting burned over and over.

Memory is a strange form of transportation, and I think your mind really does bring you back and forth through time. It’s like this Tweet that describes the surreality of reading a book as, “you stare at marked slices of tree for hours on end hallucinating vividly.” If the mind truly is traveling back to that time and place that hurt, why do we feel compelled to keep reliving the painful memories? Is the brief satisfaction of a hateful grudge more important than letting the mind move around in peace?

I started to picture an alternative, of smoothing over the rough edges in my past by seeking understanding and compassion (however much I’m inclined to say it’s undeserved), and I made the decision to really forgive and move on, for my own sake, and to hope the people that I have hurt can do the same. I realize the only way out is through, so I need to find another way of feeling.

I believe that if I am careful and walk lightly, my amorphous blob of experience can stop tripping me up and flattening down into a terse spiral. Instead I can start stretching out, looking up instead of back, and grow in previously unimaginable directions. It is completely up to me to fill my own conscious experiences with light, to let the music back in, and stop giving the bad stuff so much power, until eventually it loses its sharpness and fades.

From here forward, I intend to be created anew with what I love.