Kindness how?

Can you learn kindness?

I’ve been wondering about this for years. I think you can get better at it and that it’s more about “discovery how” than “take this course to fix your kindness problem.” Even so, maybe a course on how to go about being kind, from a Vajrayana perspective, would be helpful?

My spouse, David Chapman, and I recorded ourselves in conversation about kindness. This feels like the beginning of a more public enquiry and I’d like us to return to the conversation at some point. Especially, I’d like to make more practical suggestions. But there are a few included here and we set the context for how we both understand kindness.

Here’s the recording. There’s a transcript of our conversation below, in case you like to follow along, or read-only.

Learning kindness skills: transcript

David: [00:00:00] I suggested this topic because I feel like I would like to be kinder than I am, and I find being kind sometimes difficult, and I think there’s a number of reasons I find it difficult. And I suspect that there’s a meaningful number of listeners who find themselves in this same position.

Charlie: Hmm. That is really interesting for me to know. I didn’t know that.

David: About me?

Charlie: Yeah.

David: Oh.

Charlie: I didn’t know that you find being kind difficult, and it’s kind of funny because when I was making a few bullet points for this conversation— I’ll read the very first thing that I wrote. You’re going to laugh. “There’s an idea that kindness is difficult, that it’s something you have to work hard at. I think that’s wrong.”

David: Right. Well, I think this may contradict the lived experience of many people, including me.

Charlie: Hmm. Well, so do you want to say [00:01:00] more about what it is that you find difficult? What goes wrong? Why is it difficult?

David: Well, there’s a podcast I re-listened to this morning with Simine Vazire, who is one of my heroes. She’s a leader of the academic psychology reform movement, which was in response to the replication crisis, but also in response to lots of other problems.

And the title of the podcast is “Kindness in Academia” and she and other discussants are talking about ways that one can be kind in academia, but there’s this short section that I find really touching, that is quite raw on her part, where she says I would like to be much more kind than I am.

And the obstacle for me, [00:02:00] she says, is that I’m so introverted. And, in order to be kind, you often have to break through a, maybe even extremely thin, but a slight layer of interactional business as usual. And so she says she’s constantly buying gifts for people because, you know, “Oh, yes, so-and-so would really like this,” and then she doesn’t give it to them because it might be awkward for them because they might feel obligated or, giving somebody a compliment, like they could take it the wrong way.

Charlie: Goodness.

David: And I feel that way too, maybe not quite as extremely as she does.

Charlie: Do you have something similar going on? Do you want to buy gifts for people or buy gifts and then not give them?

David: No, but there’s times when giving a compliment— I mean, I’ve gotten a lot better at this, to be honest. I’m partly [00:03:00] recalling how I was in past, but it’s still sometimes— It’s awkward to do things for people if they might feel some kind of unwanted reciprocal obligation, or you think this is something that the person would want, but actually they don’t, and maybe you misread that.

Charlie: So let me reflect something back to you and see whether this is accurate from your perspective. It sounds to me like there’s an equivalence between between kindness and doing something for somebody, or giving somebody something, even if that’s a compliment.

David: Well, no, actually, in my notes, I have a list of various sorts of things that are not the same as kindness, which can be confused with it, and generosity is one of them.

Generosity can often be kind, but a lot of kindness isn’t particularly generous. [00:04:00] Often it costs you nothing to be kind, and then it’s just a matter of choosing and remembering to do it.

Charlie: Yeah, I agree. I agree. So, I’m curious that the examples that you brought there are all to do with giving and generosity. And the example from Simine as well.

David: Right, yeah, I think I was following her lead.

Charlie: Yeah, well that’s very interesting because that connects to one of the things that I’ve perceived, I’m not 100 percent confident about this, but I think that this idea that kindness is difficult is mixed up with the idea that it has something to do with giving, generosity. Also that it has something to do with a kind of feeling that you have to cultivate or nurture towards others in [00:05:00] order to be kind.

David: Yes.

Charlie: And I think that’s wrong, too.

David: Yes, right. My list of things to distinguish kindness from are: niceness, generosity, compassion, empathy, warmth, charm, and good feelings, and being ethical. Each of those is interestingly not quite kindness.

Charlie: Not quite the same, but I think there are connections.

David: Yes.

Charlie: Some of the connections are significant.

David: Yes.

Charlie: So I would want to say that when I think about what kindness is, I always come back to an attitude that the kindness is based in, and I think there’s a generosity comes into that attitude. There’s a kind of an attitude, a base attitude of just simply wanting the best for everyone, sincerely wanting that wanting others to experience happiness and [00:06:00] enthusiasm and love for life and joy and peace, and it’s easy to get caught up in a worry about “Oh, can I be kind? Will I be kind? Am I doing the right thing to be kind to this person?” And that isn’t— that’s an extra layer. It’s an extra layer on top of the very simple interaction that there is underneath things.

And that concern is really all about “How do I look? How are they gonna think about me? Am I gonna do something daft and ridiculous and silly?” And the more that you can not worry too much about that, the more likely it is that you can relax into a kindness attitude, I think. I have done _so _many ridiculous, idiotic, silly things. I don’t worry about that anymore. I really don’t. We’re human beings. We’re going [00:07:00] to be calibrating with some kind of trial and error. I think it’s okay to recognize that and to take risks. So a lot of the fear around kindness is tied up with being afraid of taking risks.

David: Yeah. That makes sense to me. The phrase “kindness skills” is a framing that I’m kind of guessing that you would probably actually reject; and I have mixed feelings about that myself.

Charlie: I prefer “kindness attitude.”

David: Yes.

Charlie: I do think there are some skills involved.

David: Ah, all right, good.

Charlie: However,

David: We’re not completely disagreeing.

Charlie: Yeah. I mean, what are kindness skills for you?

David: Well , I think this is interesting in a somewhat broader context of… the kinds of [00:08:00] people that we both tend to attract and advise have a technical mindset, in which the way that you are good at something is by having a set of techniques that you have mastered. And that is at best limited and it interferes with spontaneity, which is, I think, probably critical for kindness; and taken too literally, you can try to rely on gimmicks or little tricks that you can play that you hope are reliably going to constitute kindness and make people like you or something, which is exactly the wrong attitude.

Charlie: This is really interesting because I think there are hacks. I really do think there are hacks that can help you get into the zone or the space that is going to result in being kind. [00:09:00] And I’m just thinking about this because those, the kinds of hacks, and I will come to some of those, but the kind of things that I think work , they’re actually not about interaction per se.

Whereas you might think that the kindness skills are going to be in the fields of interaction, but actually they’re more about setting up the space and the attitude and even the intent. Whereas the interactions are what can happen spontaneously and maybe need to happen spontaneously in order to change the habitual patterns that you might have, whatever those are, like maybe shyness, or reluctance to take the risk of saying something different, or to do something that is obviously unconventional, or whatever it is.

David: Yeah, you use the word “scaffolding” to refer to various hacks. In your meditation [00:10:00] teaching, you talk about scaffolding as techniques that are kind of dumb tricks, but they actually do prepare you to do the actual thing. And it seems to me that communication skills and social skills actually are a thing. And those can be scaffolding toward a more spontaneous and natural form of kindness. It’s a certain kind of “fake it until you make it” thing going on.

Charlie: Yeah. I think that can be a part of it. Kind of hacks that I’m thinking of— We have a whole Evolving Ground gathering recording on this which is around kindness rituals. It’s like a little reminder, like a mantra that you can bring to any situation that you’re finding challenging or difficult you can just relax. “What do I want for them?” Oh, yes. Yeah. Remind myself, oh, “I [00:11:00] want them to feel okay. I want them to be less stressed. I want them to enjoy life.” We tend to forget those real basic mutual desires.

Like, finding what is it that we all want here. Whenever you have, say a, I dunno, a difficult team meeting or a group interaction, which is causing some problems because people want very different things. Just remembering. Just remembering that, well, actually, we all want to have an outcome that is going to be the best for the team, or we all want to have, to feel okay by the end of this interaction, not to feel “Oh god, that was awful, I’ve got to go, you know, um.

David: Throw up in the bathroom.

Charlie: Right. And simply remembering that can just provide some space.

David: So is the ritual just that remembering, or is there something that you could do to sort of remind yourself?

Charlie: You can have like a little [00:12:00] phrase that you bring, like for example “How can I be generous?” or “Where is the space here?” Or whatever your personal little phrase is, “Remember I want the best for them.” Yeah, just something that you can just say to yourself. Another really practical kindness ritual that somebody came up with was that every time they go out the front door, or every time they’re going into a familiar situation like a conversation with a friend or moving through the door into the workspace, they say a little thing to themselves; or they just stop, breathe, relax, and then move on. Just tiny simple little things that, really, they’re all about awareness, going to awareness, reminders.

David: See whether this makes sense: I have the sense that kindness can depend on refusing to take [00:13:00] meanings seriously. That you’re aware of social expectations but you’re not bound by them, and you are aware of the meaning that somebody else is putting on what is happening, or has recently happened, or what they think might happen. You’re aware of that meaning, but you don’t consider it fixed. And also you don’t take seriously your own construction of the meaning of whatever is happening. So that creates space for spontaneity.

Charlie: I think that’s interesting. It’s quite complex. The phrase that I’m not so sure about is “taking seriously.” And first of all, there are really complex [00:14:00] knots of different sorts of meaning in any one situation. So there’s that.

“Not taking seriously” I think is your way of describing the emptiness of form, like the nebulosity of pattern or whatever, and I think it could be misunderstood.

David: Yes, I think it’s not a great phrase.

Charlie: I think I always take another person’s meaning-making very seriously, but I don’t regard it as Truth. I might see it as their truth, or I might talk with them about that and ask, “Is this a Truth? Are there other ways of looking?” Or whatever, depending on circumstances. So I think I know what you mean by “not taking it seriously,” but I would say something like having a looseness around the fixed meaning, or the understanding of the meaning, or even having a willingness to explore that [00:15:00] kind of meaning. And that in itself can, if you can do that for yourself and you can help other people do that , that can be really an act of kindness.

Again, I’m not sure about this phrase, I’ve been questioning it myself recently, but the phrase that I always used to use is “meet somebody where they’re at,” and by that I don’t necessarily mean stepping into and embodying the same space as them, and the same meaning-making, but acknowledging what that meaning-making is, and just getting it clear as well, because it’s very easy to misunderstand or to get that wrong.

So I’ll quite often just check with somebody: “Have I understood this? Have I understood what you’re saying?” And rephrase it in a different way just to check that what I thought I heard was what I was hearing; what they were saying.

David: Yeah, also in my notes, I said [00:16:00] that “Simply understanding and articulating where the other person is at can very often be a great kindness, because people very often don’t feel like they are understood.”

Charlie: And that can also just be a huge relief. You know, just provide some space. Like, hang on a minute! We don’t even have to go full steam ahead along this particular track that we’re already setting in motion here. We can just go a little bit meta and just stop. That is a relief sometimes.

David: So, I want to get back to this tension between some sense of being naturally and spontaneously kind, which “is great work if you can get it,” my first Buddhist teacher used to say. But that often doesn’t feel possible. I actually started thinking about this whole line of inquiry… We were together actually, must have [00:17:00] been well over ten years ago, in Bristol, we had this lovely flat on the water. And, we got in the elevator.

Charlie: Oh yeah. Oh, I remember this.

David: As we got in the elevator, this other couple walked in. And she was really angry with him. And she was going off about, he always does this and he never does that and da, da, da, da, da, and you just did this thing, which means that… And he said this thing, and I wish I could remember it, because it was so perfect. He just said this thing, which acknowledged her upset completely, made it clear that he understood what this was about, and did not take responsibility. He didn’t give in to her complaints. He didn’t take responsibility for it because he [00:18:00] obviously believed, and made me believe, that this was not a legitimate complaint, but he didn’t say, you’re making an illegitimate complaint. He said this thing that made her feel completely understood, and then she calmed down, and we got out of the elevator and went our separate ways, and then I forgot what he said!

I’ve been regretting this for like 15 years now, because that was so skillful.

Charlie: Was it the actual words that were skillful?

David: I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know because I can’t remember them. But at the time I felt, “Damn! I wish I could do that! I wish I had the skill that he, the interpersonal skill that he has that made that possible for him. And I’ve sort of ever since been thinking, “Whoa, how do I gain kindness skills? Well, like, what even is that? Like, what was he doing there?” I did feel that he, that he had something. He wasn’t just ” being himself” or something. He had some [00:19:00] understanding of how to deal with this situation that I would have wanted to have.

Charlie: Yeah, to succinctly respond in a way that was, rather than escalating the emotional investment and spiraling, was actually providing some space around that. I remember the circumstance very well because I remember having a whole conversation after that about “How do you do that??”

David: Uh huh. So how do you do that?

Charlie: Well, in Evolving Ground we talk about it as confidence in spaciousness and spacious clarity.

If you have that spacious awareness when you’re in interactions with somebody, whatever usual habitual hooks are thrown your way, or whatever interactive, manipulative patterns are around, there’s nothing for them to grab onto. It’s space. It can’t be pushed around [00:20:00] and pulled around or whatever. It’s just there.

And that is actually incredibly reassuring in heightened interactions. I think it’s reassuring for other people as well. It could be a little frightening. It could be a little frustrating maybe as well. So there’s no guarantee that it’s all going to work out. We’re so wound up in these interactive patterns in which we’ve learned that if we can just simply get that person to respond in the way that we think they should respond or that we’re used to, that everything will be okay.

So I think the process of learning to undo all of that can be painful and difficult and challenging. But it’s worth it.

David: I think there’s two failure modes that are opposite. One is the idea that there’s a bag of tricks that you can use to be kind. The opposite [00:21:00] wrong idea, like, there’s this common piece of dating advice which is “Just be yourself!” And for some people that could actually be useful if it lets them be spontaneous in a way that they feel inhibited from. But for other people it could be totally counterproductive.

Charlie: Actually really bad advice.

David: Yeah, terrible advice. If they are consistently running some pattern that isn’t working.

Charlie: Like, for example, if you are on the autism spectrum and you’re ” naturally,” in inverted commas, disagreeable, spiky, and grumpy most of the time.

David: I don’t know anybody like that!

Charlie: No, me neither. [Laughing] “Just be yourself!”

David: Grrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Charlie: [Laughing]


David: So it’s a [00:22:00] different self. It’s finding the emptiness as opposed to the very solid self.

Charlie: It’s finding who you can be. And it’s also not a balance. And I think it’s a real mistake to think that, oh, there’s some kind of equilibrium or some balance between agreeableness and disagreeableness, or— it’s more like you want to step into a way of being that is both appealing and a little frightening, maybe, and is not entirely yourself. You’re stepping into a possibility. It’s like a self possibility. It’s not beyond the bounds of what you can understand as being possible as a way of being, but it’s not simply going along running the same patterns, especially if that hasn’t worked, or if you’ve felt isolated because your interactions haven’t worked out so well, or whatever it is.

David: [00:23:00] I’m just amused and reminded, you used the word, the phrase self possibility, which is sort of your code phrase for translating “yidam”—

Charlie: Yeah, it’s not exactly yidam practice. Like, yidam is a very specific method. So self possibility is one of the nodes in the Fundamentals Journey in Evolving Ground, and it’s influenced by yidam, and you could say it’s the most general and informal mode of yidam practice. It’s more like, what it would be like if there weren’t yidams in yidam practice.

David: Right. . Yeah.

Charlie: But there’s definitely an influence there.

David: Right. What made me chuckle and reminded of was the observation that we’ve made, but many people have made, that when you’re doing a lot of yidam practice, you suddenly become magnetically sexually or romantically attractive to practically everybody.

Charlie: Right. [00:24:00] Or, something changes in the way that you are, it’s not even necessarily romantic or sexual, it could be to do with capacity, or the way that you’re shining or powerfulness or you’re suddenly able to fluidly move through difficult circumstances in a way that you were not able to previously.

So something changes. Something changes. Yeah. Mind you, you need a hell of a lot of yidam practice before you get there. You know, there has to be a pill you can take that would do it better!

What we’re talking about here is stepping into form in a way that is not self-prescribed. The form is arising from something that is actually coming outside of yourself, and in self-possibility, that’s from the interactive circumstances. So there isn’t this predictability of [00:25:00] quality, or characteristic, or fixed demeanor that you would have with very specific yidam practice. It’s more that you’re allowing the interactive circumstance to shape and mold the response. And that does require some confidence to try something different.

Or, be open to the circumstances giving rise to something completely unpremeditated.

David: This actually gets right at what I was wanting to discuss next, which is “Buddhist ethics,” one of my bête noires. It keeps talking about compassion and the cultivation of compassion, and I think this is a Dzogchen point of view, that compassion isn’t a special thing that needs to be cultivated by some kind of technique. It’s something that is just completely inseparable [00:26:00] from awareness. Although I have to say, I did a lot of tonglen practice at one time, which is a practice of cultivating compassion and I did find that transformational.

Charlie: What do you make of that contradiction?

David: Well, I guess it’s scaffolding, is the only sense I can make of it. But I think that’s the canonical explanation: that practices like that are path aspect, where Dzogchen is fruition aspect.

There’s something about Buddhist ethics, which I wrote a whole series of essays about how wrong it is, it has this attraction, which is— coming back to our original topic— people want to be more kind, find it difficult, and don’t know what to do. And so any set of guidelines— and the Buddhist ethics keeps saying compassion, compassion, compassion, which is [00:27:00] easy to confuse with kindness— if you have some sort of guidelines and practices that supposedly develop this, then I think there’s a very natural and healthy, wholesome desire to pursue that, because we, well, speaking for myself, I do want to be more kind.

And I think a lot of the Buddhist discourse about that goes slightly off track. And especially the Westernized Buddhist ethics is more than slightly off track.

Charlie: I agree with what you’ve said. I think there’s often an assumption in the cultivation of compassion that it is necessary to feel compassion, to have the experience, the felt sense of compassion, open heart, warm heart towards another in order to be kind. And I don’t think that’s true.

David: You can just choose to [00:28:00] be kind.

Charlie: You can choose to be kind. You can feel annoyed, frustrated, angry, wretched, miserable, depressed, grumpy, whatever— and simply choose to be kind. And that is possible. You may find it difficult , you may find it not your usual way of being, and not quite know how to do that, but it is possible.

And if you set that as a way that you want to be, then it’s more likely that you’ll be able to. Very often there’s an implicit assumption that, oh, if I’m feeling grumpy, then it’s okay to lash out at somebody else or just snark, or go off and be huffy, or whatever it is. And if you simply set yourself a standard and say, “Well , I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be like that. I’ll do my best to separate out, have some space between the way that I’m feeling [00:29:00] and the way that I am towards other people.” That’s a good start in itself.

There’s also this confusion between morality and kindness. And that gets all mixed up with being a good person. Being morally right. There’s something in that that must be hugely reassuring. It’s about, if I simply just do this thing again and again and again and again, I’ll be a good person.

David: Yeah.

Charlie: Unfortunately, I don’t think it really works like that.

David: Indeed. I mean, that’s my—

Charlie: It didn’t work for me.

David: You’re still not a good person. Despite all the hard work.

Charlie: I’m definitely not a good person.

David: I mean, that’s my basic gripe about Buddhist ethics. I think that it’s actually a bunch of stuff for looking like [00:30:00] a good person. And looking to yourself like you’re a good person; you’re your own most important audience for your playing the good guy character on screen.

Charlie: So there’s some kind of payoff there. There’s some kind of payoff about being morally superior to others who haven’t quite gotten it yet. How do you notice that in yourself? How can you see yourself doing that?

David: I don’t know of any trick or technique; I think just being aware is all that I know to do.

Charlie: Maybe it’s a phase that we go through. I’ve certainly been morally superior at times.

Actually, there’s something interesting here: it’s something to do with finding a system for the first time. People who find the thing that works for them, and it’s like a revelation, and it’s just so fantastic, and you want everybody else to know [00:31:00] that. And you want everybody else to see how amazing this thing is because it’s changed you, and they should do it too, and this is a very, very natural progression away from…

I guess you could see it in a Kegan stage framework: you could see it as just coming out of socialized mode, maybe? You’re beginning to see the value of how a system can work, and mold and change things, such that you can be bigger and better, and more skillful, and have more capacities than you were able to previously. And so there’s this sense of “It’s the one true thing!” And then you want to put that onto everybody else. Maybe that is where some moral superiority comes from.

A way that that can help with kindness is understanding that, especially as you get a little older, and you’re [00:32:00] moving into your 30s, your 40s or whatever, you’ve been through that.

David: Yeah, you can see other people do it and cut them slack for it, even though it’s incredibly annoying.

Charlie: You can actually just really enjoy their enthusiasm. You can enjoy their love of this thing. Be like “Wow, that sounds amazing! Tell me more! I want to hear about it!”