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.

Seize the day

Good time management can help most of us avoid a lot of stress. Setting goals, planning out the day ahead of time, and working during our most high-energy hours can lead to greater productivity, less time pressure and a calmer life. Sometimes, though, it’s best to let serendipity win out over planning.

Case in point: yesterday was a gorgeous day. It was one of those days where the sky is a completely cloudless, brilliant blue. The day was warm, but the humidity was low. It was the best day we had had, or were going to have, this entire week.

So when my friend said to me after a morning yoga class, “What are you doing today? Let’s get something to eat and then take a long walk – it’s so beautiful today!” I barely hesitated. It’s true that thoughts of my to-do list, and the vague commitments I had for the day did cross my mind. But I quickly realized that there was nothing so pressing that it couldn’t be done later in the day, or even the next day.

The word “serendipity” is a difficult one to define and translate, but it essentially means discovering something by accident while looking for something else, or finding something wonderful when we weren’t looking for it at all.  It’s possible to let serendipity play a role in daily time management, just by being aware of, and open to, the opportunities and beautiful moments that might turn up in the course of the day. Michael Olpin and Margie Hesson, in their text on stress management, suggest ‘split-page scheduling’ – dividing your planner page with a line down the middle, listing your plans, activities and appointments down the left side, and leaving the right side blank until the end of the day. Then you use the right side to record the unpredicted moments that arose during the day, such as “a new acquaintance, a fresh idea, a child’s question, an unexpected opportunity, a friend’s need, a chance meeting, a beautiful sunset.”

By opening ourselves to a certain amount of spontaneity in the day, we have the possibility of becoming more creative, experiencing life more fully, and even choosing to take new directions. We allow ourselves to enjoy the journey more, while not losing sight of the destination.

Yesterday, I spent a few lovely hours with my friend, walking and talking. We learned more about each other, enjoyed the fresh air and exercise, and came home hungry and tired. Even with my sore feet (lesson learned: don’t walk 4 miles in flip-flops), I still felt invigorated when I got home. I was able to get some of my work done, I enjoyed the process of preparing dinner more than usual, and I slept well. It felt like a day well-lived.

Look to this day!

For it is life, the very life of life.

In its brief course

Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:

The bliss of growth;

The glory of action;

The splendor of achievement;

For yesterday is but a dream,

And tomorrow is only a vision;

But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,

And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day!

“Kalidasa,” ancient Sanskrit poem