Why Small Acts Of Kindness -- Not Big :)
Jun 23, 2018
All of us have one very important practice in common -- do small acts of kindness. But why not big, gigantic acts of service that help the maximum number of people?
It’s important to look deeply into the nuances of a small act.
When we serve anyone in anyway, like whoever did this beautiful artwork in the center of our circle, we are saying to ourselves, “I am doing this for someone else.” In that moment, we are shifting our consciousness from "me" to "we".
It's a tremendous shift. If our brain is a forest of many neural paths, these “we” moments build little pathways that we can then use again and again. Moreover, we slowly start to notice that beginnings and ends of those paths aren’t strictly inside of us. What is seemingly outside affects our inside, and what is inside of us affects the outside. Our innate interconnection then becomes a lived reality. Awakin Circles are very clear example of this principle at play. How many times have we all heard, “Wow, I just shared my question with everyone in the circle, and I don't even have an answer but still, I feel lighter.” Even if it's not a question, whatever I share now feels held by everyone. By the very virtue of our interconnection, we can hold others and others can hold us, and we’re all stronger because of it.
This is the beauty of me to we -- that we organically fall into this profound connection. But its ripple effect actually goes much deeper.
In that state of inter-connection, there is a sense of satisfaction. There’s a much lesser need to engage in mindless distractions. You just relax into yourself, and the mind quiets. It’s like that feeling of coming home after a long walk of struggle. (I very much remember walking through Baroda in that way. :))
A quieter mind unlocks new capacities in us. Previously, we might’ve been stuck in all these sub-conscious grooves. Like when we feel an emotion, we have no idea what's actually happening under the hood. For instance, when we feel angry, maybe our blood pressure goes up, breath turns heavy, heart starts pumping fast, we start sweating a little bit and a thousand other things. As we serve, our experience of interconnection quiets the mind and deepens our awareness. Over time, that awareness lifts us from previously unconscious, self-destructive, selfish patterns. It frees up an immense amount of energy. That inner energy combines with our material gifts to emerge as our own little superpower. :)
The more we serve, the more aligned we become with our unique offering to the world. It’s not unique in the sense that it’s solitary, but it’s unique in that it took your entire lineage of conditions to allow you to do that small act in a skilful way.
Greater our inner and outer alignment, higher our bandwidth of connection with the object of our service. If we’re self-centered, distracted, and unaware, we have no choice but to get by with a dial-up connection -- when we are actually capable to 3G, 4G, fiber optics connections and beyond. :)
Every small act of kindness has an external ripple effect, but it also has this profound inner ripple effect. It drops us from me to we, which then quiets our mind, deepens our awareness, unlocks new energy, aligns us to our uniquely positioned offerings, and expands the bandwidth of our connection.
With a higher-bandwidth connection, service feels more and more like common sense. You would actually have to work hard to be selfish, because it’s just not natural to our being. And in that sense, this becomes a virtuous loop. Richer your connection, you more you want to serve.
As we decipher this inner ripple-effect of a small act of service, few things change about our outer act. It still is indifferent to its manifest size -- big, medium, small, whatever -- but its skilfulness improves, its momentum multiplies, and its quality expands.
With skilfulness, you become like the seasoned acupuncturist who knows precisely where to place a small needle to create a cascading effect across the whole ecology. With momentum, I imagine it to be like playing tennis in the wind. I remember, when I used to play a lot, I could really nail some aces when I was serving with the wind! Like that, high-bandwidth acts of service might be small in size, but they carry an enormous momentum because the winds of nature are behind it.
Most significantly, though, quality of that act of generosity changes radically. An act of service, borne of that fiber-optic, higher-bandwidth connection, becomes much more multi-dimensional -- and that changes everything.
Low-bandwidth expression of generosity looks like sympathy. I have and you don't have; I am peaceful, you are angry; I am rich, you are poor; I am smart, you are not. So we give out of sympathy. That’s not all bad. Some of you here go clowning. That’s beautiful. You have happy lives, and those elders in the senior center are lonely and you cheer them up with your clowning. Sympathy is one of the most natural gestures; it activates one of the oldest parts of our brain. If I’m that elder, I’m surely glad to see you there. But the downside to sympathy is that only a part of us giving. I remember, from my experience, when I got a job in college and I started giving money. Bunch of us friends organized a little “Donation Club” where we would pool small amounts of money, and essentially give hundred bucks to three good causes every month. It was quite beautiful. But after a while, I felt like I was giving leftovers. I took care of myself, my needs, my meals -- and then I gave from what was left. At that time, I didn’t think very intellectually about it, but my heart called me to give more. So I did. I gave more money, and when money ran out, I gave my time; and when time ran out, and I still wanted to give more, I started to give of myself. But without journey towards a higher-bandwidth pull, I would’ve been left with sympathy -- partly giving out guilt, sometimes giving out of gratitude, and mostly unaware of the inner process.
Deeper expression of generosity is empathy. With sympathy, our experience is very one dimensional. In reality, as that Mother Teresa story concludes, there are multiple forms of poverty and multiple forms of wealth, and they’re all at play in any moment. It’s much more multi-dimensional. One aspect of that is to feel into assets each one of us has, and another is to feel into the suffering of others as well. It’s like our left-hand is injured and our right hand is going to help. Part of the same body, right? There’s no need for drama around “I have and you don't have” and all of that. Many times I’ll walk into a restaurant and I’ll just feel the pain of the waiter serving us food and I’ll start tearing up. We all have those experiences, and many professions like nursing and teaching and anchored around this sensitivity. Even when I was 18, I remember volunteering at a hospice and being with cancer patients and getting a phone call that one of my patients just died. Next time I’m with another patient, I would want to try harder to help them, but how far can I really go? Can you actually imagine if we were to tune into the suffering of every single person in this circle? I mean, we are all kind-hearted here and still the sum of our internal knots would be quite an undertaking. And then imagine multiplying that with the world at large. It is completely overwhelming. If sympathy is about seeing the pain of others, empathy invites us to feel the pain of others -- but the huge downside here is it can burn us out. Lot of nurses and teachers are profoundly empathetic, but they will be the first to tell you about burn-out.
Most profound expression of generosity is compassion. Sympathetic giving is like beggarly giving, often borne out of circumstances; empathic giving is like neighborly giving; but compassionate giving is like kingly giving. I remember my mother asking me one time, after a local circle, “This person is so rich. Why should we give to him?” We had a beautiful conversation, and the crux of it was: “When you visit a king, you are treated like royalty not because of who you are, but because of who the king is.” Compassion is unconditional, like a flower gives its scent. And because it is regenerative without residue, it is inexhaustible.
Neuroscience sheds some fascinating light on this. Sympathy, empathy and compassion all activate very different parts of our brain. In 2004, Tonia Singer’s landmark paper showed how empathy actually ignites certain pain centers in our brain -- you are literally feeling the pain of others! When Tibetan monk Mathieu Richard was recently being tested, he got exhausted when triggering the empathy part of his brain -- but when his compassion was activated in the prefrontal cortex, he joked, “I could do this forever.” :) Science knows that empathy and compassion are different, but they still don’t know exactly how they’re different. Buddha, however, was very explicit in identifying compassion as our resident state, beyond the field of all mind and matter.
In practice, my go-to quote is a proverb that says, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Anyone who has done even basic amount of inner work knows the distinction between physical pain and mental anguish. This, I feel, is the foundation of Compassion 101. Compassion, quite literally, means sharing in the suffering of others. That is to say, we have to be caring enough to hold someone’s hand while they suffer, but detached enough to trust their own bio-intelligence to handle the pain. That distinction isn’t easy to untangle. To complicate matters, pain and suffering aren’t static dileanations -- it’s constantly evolving, from moment to moment! So, any compassionate response actually has to be a dynamically lived experience.
Now, when we do a small act of service, let’s ask ourselves -- how much of this act was motivated by sympathy, how much was empathy and how much was compassion? What’s the percentage breakdown? If we haven’t done any inner work, or paid any attention to the inner ripple effect, we simply won’t know. It all may feel like “compassion”, but it’s hardly so.
Back to our original thesis, when we say “small acts of service”, we only use small to shift emphasis from outer ripple effect to its enormous inner ripple effect. It’s small on the outside and huge on the inside -- because the tiniest of acts changes the eyes through which we look at the world, forever. That’s massive. As we proceed, though, there’s no real need for that adjective of small. It’s neither small nor huge, or it may be small or huge. There’s nothing wrong with a vast external ripple effect -- it happens, like in the case of Gandhi, but his orientation stayed internal. And even further down the virtuous loop of high-bandwidth generosity, there’s no real need to even call it service. It would make more sense to label selfish acts, since most of our acts would naturally be in service. :)
Thank you for living into all this through your practice of small acts of kindness. Some of my heroes of such service are sitting in this circle today. It’s a great privilege to be on this journey of deepening our awareness and connection through serving others.