Meet the beautiful people

So I’ll confess – I’m kind of addicted to Doctor Radio on Sirius XM. The satellite radio show from the NYU medical center features programs dedicated to different medical specialties, with opportunities for calling in and talking to medical experts. But there are two programs that I don’t listen to – the plastic surgery show, and often the dermatology show – because they make me start obsessing too much about my appearance.

Screenshot 2015-11-19Recently, however, I did listen to a dermatology program because the topic was about beauty and our perception of it. One of the guests had done research using before and after photos of facial rejuvenation patients, to see if people rated the faces differently on a list of perceived personality traits. Basically, the question was, what do others think your face says about you? That discussion led to talk of other research showing that people who exhibit positive traits, such as honesty and helpfulness, are perceived as better looking. People who are smiling are perceived as more attractive than people who have neutral expressions.

It’s not news that our expressions and behaviors affect people’s perceptions and judgments. But have you thought about them as what makes you beautiful to someone else? One of the themes of the show was about investment in beauty, not by having plastic surgery or buying cosmetics, but by thinking about what’s shining out of us. Do you smile? Are you kind? Do you look people in the eye? Are you healthy and rested and compassionate?

After listening to the program, I started thinking about some of the truly beautiful people I know, and what makes them beautiful. There’s my sister-in-law, who is unfailingly encouraging and hopeful, with a wonderful, infectious laugh. There’s the friend I met at yoga class a few years ago, who chatted with and befriended literally every person who walked through the doors of the yoga studio. There’s my son’s childhood friend, who never wavered from being kind, even in adolescence when most kids are jerks at least some of the time. There’s my sister’s husband, who will help anyone with anything, at any time; whenever he comes to visit, he fixes something in my house or brings me something he thinks I need. There’s my painter, who had a casual conversation with my neighbor months ago about something that wasn’t working in her apartment; last week, when he came back, he brought her something to fix it.

These are just a few examples of people who are beautiful because of the positive traits they exhibit on a daily basis: kindness, friendliness, helpfulness, integrity and honesty.

A few weeks ago, I met a woman while I was working who was very beautiful, physically. She had lovely skin, beautiful hair and stylish clothes; I couldn’t help admiring her. But then I heard her ask a co-worker to do something that clearly wasn’t the co-worker’s job. The “beautiful” Spain-Barcelona (9)woman was exercising the power she had due to her position in the office hierarchy. My admiration for her was immediately diminished because of her behavior.

My dictionary defines beauty as “The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.” While people who possess physical beauty may give pleasure to the senses, the people I know with true beauty give pleasure to my mind. They have a harmony of spirit, and values, that transcends anything on the exterior. People often talk of inner beauty, but I would argue that it can’t exist alone; anyone with inner beauty has a beautiful outer light that shines on everyone they meet.

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Intentional living

Many yoga teachers suggest setting an intention at the beginning of a practice. It helps ground you in the moment and keeps you focused on why you are there. But an intention is not the same thing as a goal. Philip Merrill wrote about the difference in Yoga Journal: “It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are “being” in the present moment…You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.”

Life has been busy and stressful for me lately. Luckily, most of the stress is the good kind: getting ready for an upcoming vacation, planning a move. But as much as I want and look forward to those events, they have upended my life a bit, and made me anxious at times. So two weeks ago I began to set intentions as I woke up each morning. Working with an intention has helped keep the stress at bay and provide clarity about what is important.

Some of my daily intentions have been:

Joy. Waking in the morning and setting a simple intention of being joyful that day has been very powerful for me. So many times our days are spent dealing with problems and mistakes, and things that go wrong. We lose the feeling of innate joy that we are born with. Setting an intention of joy helps me laugh with people, find humor in bad situations, and stay focused on the overall happiness of my life even on a bad day.

Organization. While this sounds more like a goal than an intention, my purpose was very immediate on the day I woke and this word came to mind. I think at that moment it was about having an organized mind as much as an organized life; about acting in an organized way rather than jumping from task to task, and worry to worry.

Equanimity. Like organization, the intention of equanimity is about how I react to what’s going on in my life. It’s easy when we’re under stress to overreact, to catastrophize, to overlook the solutions or silver linings. Setting an intention to foster equanimity in my life helps me recognize that while I cannot control what happens, I can control how I react to what happens. It’s my choice of reaction that will lead to either suffering or happiness.

Kindness. It seems to me that kindness is deeply connected to mindfulness. It’s hard to act kindly without being present to what is happening around me and noticing what others are experiencing. Practicing kindness and compassion gets us out of the mind and into the heart. We forget our own problems for a while to focus on someone else. It’s a win-win for all.

Setting an intention for each day helps guide my actions. The Chopra Center quotes from the Hindu Upanishads to explain the connection between intentions and actions:

“You are what your deepest desire is.
As your desire is, so is your intention. 
As your intention is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.”IMG_0648

When we set intentions, we direct our will in such a way that all our actions take the course we have chosen. If my intention is kindness, and I choose to act kindly, then I have set myself on that path for the day. It becomes my destiny.

Winston Churchill said that, “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” In that sense, setting a new intention each day keeps us present-focused, touching just the one link that will lead to the next.

Be kind

“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a harder battle,” says the Plato quote that is on the plate displayed in my kitchen. “Be kind…be kind…be kind…” Why is it so hard to keep that mantra in my head?

For instance, I’m always baffled by how quickly after finishing a yoga class I can sometimes be not nice to someone! Whether it’s swearing at another driver, or snapping at a store clerk, it seems that my mellow mood evaporates as soon as I walk out the door. Why is that?

Like compassion, kindness is easier when the recipient is someone we love, or someone vulnerable, or someone clearly suffering through no fault of his own. It is much more difficult to practice when the other person is a stranger, or someone unlikeable, or someone who has clearly done something wrong. Being kind in that situation requires a degree of mindfulness and intention that needs to be cultivated purposefully in most of us.

Emotions like anger or impatience are always preceded by a thought, if only for a split second. That’s the moment when we have a choice of how to respond to a situation. Too often, we get trapped by our notions of how things should be, and our “choice” of response is harsh and unkind. Strangely, though, we don’t usually feel better after yelling at someone, but we do have feelings of well-being after acting kindly.

Olpin and Hesson have developed a framework of “levels of responding.” At one end of the spectrum are attachment, rightness, judgment, blaming, resistance and complaining – responses that are usually not effective and result in negative emotions. At the other end are observation (noticing without judgment), discovery (seeking to learn and understand), acceptance and gratitude – responses that are more effective and result in positive emotions. Studies conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky  and others also show that people who practiced a variety of random acts of kindness experienced an increase in happiness.

It’s so easy to make every situation personal. Why did she do that to me? Why did that person cut me off? Why is he so mean to me? It might not have anything to do with me. It might be accidental, it might be that the person is having a bad day; it might be that the person is in pain. When we stop judging, stop personalizing, and start trying to understand, it becomes a lot easier to respond with kindness, or at least with acceptance.

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.” Plato’s reminder in my kitchen makes me realize that kindness is not something to master, but something to practice. Luckily, I meet someone every day who gives me the chance to do just that.