Kindness as an Antidote to Fear
“Fearlessness also comes from benevolence and goodwill in the face of whatever oppresses you. You are afraid, but instead of fighting what faces you, you embrace it and accept it—you develop loving-kindness as a direct antidote to fear.” Sylvia Boorstein
Calling on the power of kindness in the face of fear takes tremendous courage. It means we shift from automatically reacting in ways that intensify the fear towards responding to the fear in ways that help us stay present and openhearted. This is Mindfulness and Compassion in action. And it is this shift that helps us respond with wisdom to what are often challenging and painful situations.
This is is from an interview between Krista Tippett and Naomi Shihab Nye, on the power of kindness. Naomi states, “In the aftermath of September 11th, so many people had the sense that “everything had changed” — and I wrote of the necessity of really questioning and interrogating that feeling. I said, “We can continue to remind ourselves of what is important and try to live in ways nourishing for human beings and continue to nourish our ability to grow in our perceptions to more than we used to know, to empathize with distant situations and sorrows and joys.” That doesn’t have to change.
Being kind, generous, loving, compassionate, towards others is essential to our well being and the well being of the world. That doesn’t have to change. Kindness is an important part of the spiritual path and it is an integral par of the Buddhist path. It is what the Buddha taught. Yes, the Buddha taught about suffering; that there is suffering in life, there are the causes and conditions that bring it about, there is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering and there is an end to stress dissatisfaction and suffering. And throughout the teachings the Buddha teaches kindness, through his words, teachings and actions. It is through wisdom and compassion that healing and connection with what matters most happens.
It is in inclining towards kindness that wounds are healed, hearts are mended, defenses and limiting beliefs shift. Kindness is sometimes the only thing that gives meaning to life; that takes us outside of living in a small contracted self. And it’s the antidote to fear and quite a powerful one.
I remember when I was going through a challenging time in my life. My son was struggling with depression and while I knew he was sad, I had no idea that he was depressed, nor the depth of the depression. Being a therapist, the cycle of judgement, shame and intense fear arose and while I tended to my son and was able to get him the help he needed, internally the inner critic was out of control. The inner dialogue was full of shoulds, coulds, woulds , if only, if then and on and on it went. It was like being on an emotional roller coaster. And at the time I was enrolled in a Yoga Teacher training and the day after I talking to my son, I was supposed to go to weekend teacher training. I didn’t want to go! I just wanted to crawl under the covers and stay there until the pain and terror lifted. I knew this wasn’t helpful, but felt lost and overwhelmed. When I called the teacher to tell her about what happened and how I was going to stay home, her response was one of profound kindness. She said, “come be with those who care about you, let us love you.” And even though it was hard, I went to the training. I’d also learned about loving kindness practice and on the way to her house I just kept repeating the phrases as a way of helping me stay present in the face of tremendous fear and sadness. And it wasn’t just towards myself that I was sending the phrases, it was towards my son, my husband, and all the people who in that moment were also suffering and who just like me wished to be free from suffering. It was a movement towards acceptance of what was arising in that moment and a holding the fear in a space of kindness. For me this practice was a safe refuge from the emotional storm within.
It is very close to the description given by Brother Phap Dung, a senior monk and teacher at Plum Village, the Buddhist community founded by the Zen master and author Thich Nhat Hanh on how to meet fear with kindness.
He says, “We see the mind like a house, so if your house is on fire, you need to take care of the fire, not to go look for the person that made the fire,” Dung says. “Take care of those emotions first, because anything that comes from a place of fear and anxiety and anger will only make the fire worse. Come back and find a place of calm and peace to cool the flame of emotion down.”
And this is a profound act of kindness, when we are able to be present for what is challenging and meet it with kindness. Whether it is ourselves or others who are facing struggles, it’s essential to meet life with a kind heart.
The Buddha taught the monks to practice loving kindness as an antidote to fear. A Buddhist discourse on this practice is found in the Karaniya Sutta, where the Buddha teaches the monks the practice of Loving Kindness; how to open the heart to fear and meet it with kindness and friendliness. The monks having goine out to meditate in the forest, as they often did during the rain seasons, encountered resistance from the tree spirits (replace deities with any resistance or reactivity that you encounter in daily life) that resided there. As the story goes…” the tree deities harassed them in diverse ways, during the night, with the intention of scaring them away. Living under such conditions being impossible, the monks went to the Buddha and informed him of their difficulties. The Buddha then instructed them in the Metta sutta (phrases of loving kindness) and advised them to return equipped with this practice for their protection. The monks then returned to the forest, and practicing the phrases of loving kindness, permeated the whole area with their radiant thoughts of loving-kindness. The deities so affected by this power of love, allowed them to meditate in peace.
And yes there is myth in the story as good stories often do. Still the message is real, that in life we will encounter fear and when that happens, we can either react in ways that intensify the fear or we can shift towards the wise qualities of mind and heart that help us stay present and respond in ways that are healing and kind; that kindness becomes an antidote to fear.
I love the poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that speaks about Kindness. There is a true story behind the poem that speaks to the power of kindness in the face of loss and fear. She says, “My husband and I were on our honeymoon in Popayán, Colombia. We had just gotten married one week before and we’d planned to travel in South America for three months. At the end of our first week there, we were robbed of everything, and someone else, who was on the bus with us was killed. (He’s the Indian in the poem.) And it was quite a shake-up of an experience…And what do we do now? We didn’t have passports. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have anything. What should we do first? Where do we go? Who do we talk to? And a man came up to us on the street and was simply kind and just looked at us — I guess he could see disarray in our faces, and he asked us in Spanish, “What happened to you?” We tried to tell him, and he listened to us, and looked so sad. And then he said, “I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened,” ; and then he went on. And then we went to this little plaza, and I sat down, and all I had was the notebook in my back pocket, and a pencil. And my husband was going to hitchhike off to Cali, a larger city, to see about getting traveler’s checks reinstated —And this was worrisome to us, because, suddenly, we were going to be split up. I was going to stay here, and he was gonna go there. And as I sat there alone, in a bit of a panic, night coming on, trying to figure out what I was going to do next, this voice came across the plaza and spoke this poem to me — spoke it. And I wrote it down.
And here’s the poem…
Before you know what kindness really is
You must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
May kindness follow you everywhere like a shadow or a friend…
P.S. Please join us for one of our mindful events, where we explore these healing and heart opening practices together. Join our meet up group at West Broward Mindfulness-Meet Up. Or join us for our upcoming 5 day Residential Mindfulness Retreat at the Casa San Carlos Retreat Center in Delray Beach Fl. It takes place from August 23rd-27th. More information can be found at EventBrite-West Broward Mindfulness Retreat