Kindness First

How do we overcome the persistent feeling of isolation and loneliness in modern life? By first extending a hand, an ear, an olive branch…whatever we can muster…

“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
– 
Carl Sagan

Random acts of kindness kindle authentic trust! (#rakKat)

This week is random acts of kindness week culminating in random acts of kindness day on February 17th, a day first observed in New Zealand in 2004. Many claim the concept originated back in 1982 when writer Anne Herbert scribbled the words “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” on a placemat in a Sausalito, CA restaurant, a phrase she coined in opposition to the well-known “random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty”.

In 1993 a book called Random Acts of Kindness was published and as a result, media coverage in the U.S. ensued. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation was founded in 1995 to provide a resource for individuals and groups interested in spreading kindness in their communities. And RAK week was born…

cat and birdKINDNESS STARTS WITH ONE – We all struggle. We all stress. But thankfully, we also all love (aww). And we’ve all had that moment when we feel like maybe what we are doing doesn’t make a difference. But we’ve discovered the loophole to that dilemma! Being good to others. Kindness really does start with one—one person, one act, one place, one city, one county, and one movement with one goal in mind: To make our world a kinder place one act at a time. And, every single one of us can play a part in this mission.

This movement is a counterbalance to the loneliness and isolation in the world. Kindness connects us with one another and creates deeper meaning in our lives. This is what’s missing in our lives, this is what the #rakKat is all about! Let us spread joy and love this week, and every week, and every single where that you GO!

To get you started, here are a few of my favorite kindness action resources:

Kindness Action Communities

Research Centers

Podcasts, Books & Other Experts

Products

The health benefits of kindness are undeniable!

RAKWeek_kindness_health_facts

So get out there and run a #rakKat!!!
Happy RAK Week everyone!

And So This Is Christmas

Christmas is an age-old tradition steeped in heart-stirring sentiment, yet embattled by debate. Even so the declaration of a “War on Christmas” appears to be old news. These days we can’t seem to agree on the intent of a simple song – Is ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ ‘a little rapey’ or innocuous?

And so, I don’t celebrate Christmas. What is there to celebrate?

But before I get into the many reasons against the season, might I suggest a reset? What if? During the deepest darkest hours of the year, we were to serve those in need in our communities? How about Merry Kindmas or Happy Caringdays? Ok, I know these are corny catchphrases but hear me out. Christmas has run its course! And wouldn’t it be a wondrous and miraculous gift if we could replace our argument and indulgence with a compassionate embrace?

Years ago I thought I’d write a book on Christmas calling on Christians to abandon the holiday. I devoured books on the topic including Christmas in America by Penne L. Restad and Consumer Rights: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays by Leigh Eric Schmidt.

After review of my detailed notes, and in true Dickens fashion, let me fly you through the ghosts of Christmas past, visit a few of the ghosts of Christmas present, and ponder the ghosts of Christmas future. What will become of the controversial holiday?

The Ghosts of Christmas past…

Did you know there was an ancient war on Christmas?
December 25th as the official day of Christmas dates back to a proclamation of the church of Rome in 336 A.D. This dating of Christ’s birth to the day of winter solstice countered two pagan feasts – Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Historians assert evidence of a war on Christmas in the 3rd century between Sol Inustitiae (Sun of Righteousness) and Sol Invictus (Mithra). In the feast of Saturnalia, celebrated from Dec. 17th to Dec. 23rd, slaves were allowed liberty and presents were exchanged accompanied by a great deal of eating drinking, and lewd behavior.

Throughout history, Christmas began to blend the natural, mythic, and civic traditions and religions of the day.

The first American war on Christmas

puritan-christmasPuritans rejected the church’s notion of Christ’s birth on December 25th and opposed the celebration of Christmas altogether. In fact, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. The Puritan war on Christmas lasted well into the 18th century, until it became recognized as a federal holiday.

A raucous carnival
Christmas in Europe had long been a drunken revelry and European immigrants to the New World happily brought their raucous customs with them. Mummers, wassailers, and revelers with their callithumpian bands shouted their dissatisfaction and merriment all across early America shooting guns in the street and demanding gifts and food from wealthy homeowners.

“Here we stand before your door, 
As we stood the year before;
Give us whisky, give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.”

It wasn’t until Christmas was “recast to fit the essence of a Christian home venerating Jesus and honoring children” that nights became silent and calm.

An object of commercial profit and exploitation

coca cola santaEnter Santa – or the modern version of Santa as derived from Knecth Ruprecht and St. Nicholas, to the elfish Kris Kringle, and finally to the modern day rotund and rosy Santa Claus. In the home, he provided parents a way to teach children about the rewards and punishment of good and bad behavior. In the marketplace, he fueled the growth of consumer commerce. Santa was first used as an advertising tool in 1830-1840’s and quickly became a central figure of the holiday, the modern archetype arising out of a 1930’s ad by Coca-Cola.

In 1870 Congress declared Christmas an official federal holiday and by the 1880’s Americans had reinvented Christmas altogether, fashioned by the moods of modern industrial life complete with Santa’s workshop and the making and distributing of toys to the masses. Shopping for the season trended earlier and earlier in attempt to stimulate recovery after the great depression. In 1941 President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last to the second to last Thursday in November to extend the shopping season. Christmas became the “merchants’ harvest” – a festival of consumption accounting for the majority of annual retail profits. 1924 marked the first Macy’s day parade with “Santa as the guiding spirit of the Christmas bazaar” and department stores supplanted churches in holiday ornamentation.

A few unfortunate accidents
By 1900 one in five Americans had a Christmas tree in the home. Unfortunately, before electric lights, newspapers reported accidental deaths caused by the flames of unwatched candles!

A means of social stratification
Presents were a way to express status and position in society. New Years’ was the original time of gift giving, to convey good wishes for health and prosperity in the coming year. Gift giving didn’t become commonplace until the early 19th Century. And when it did, it soon became clear that Santa preferred rich children over poor children instead of good children over bad ones supporting the mounting social value of materialism over morality.

And a harmful lie
Psychologists frowned on the idea of teaching children that Santa is real, fearing kids would become disillusioned when they realized he is not. Robert Jay Lifton coined the term desymbolization – the loss of human capacity to understand the difference between a symbol and the reality that it’s meant to portray.

Early concerns about Christmas centered largely on issues of social order and decency.

The ghosts of Christmas present

Modern concerns caution selfishness and greed, especially amongst children. What was once a season of innocent indulgence encouraged by imaginative merchants is now a grand festival of consumption monitored by Wall Street as an indicator of economic health. Would we plunge into recession without Christmas?

The modern war on Christmas
The mid-1900’s brought the debate to a boil with lawsuits challenging the constitutional legality of nativity scenes and other religious symbols in the public domain. Allen vs. Hickel (1970) sued the National Park Service to end its annual Christmas pageant of peace with its life-size nativity scene. In 1992 a coalition of Protestant and Catholic ministers issued a proclamation against the commercialization of Christmas. “We have seen the spirit of Christmas reduced to a carnival of mass marketing. Consumption has taken on an almost religious quality; malls have become the new shrines of worship. Massive and alluring advertising crusades have waged war on the essential meaning of the spiritual life, fostering the belief that the marketplace can fulfill our highest aspirations.”

A device of unjust discrimination
The 50’s and 60’s brought complaints about X-mas to an all-time high. The social unrest of the decades caused a shift in women’s sentiments, and many began to voice concerns over their dominant role in organizing all the elaborate trimmings of the season. African Americans protested Christmas as an all-white season. Jews criticized it as exclusionary, and more.

A mental breakdown
At about the same time, psychiatrists began to diagnose the first cases of the holiday blues.

A stress-induced illness
And studies since have found a large percentage of workers call in sick as a result of stress over the holidays.

A serious health hazard
For still somewhat unknown reasons deaths spike around the holidays referred to as the  “Christmas Holiday Effect.”

An opportune crime spree
And rates of criminal activity also spike during the holidays, especially robbery and larceny.

It deprives children of creativity
New studies show kids who are given more toys are less creative and more distracted.

It clutters our lives and minds
Research also shows that materialism is linked to lower levels of well-being and happiness for people of all ages and walks of life.

It presents a financial risk
And yet Americans have a troubling tendency to go overboard! In a 2016 study, 65% of consumers took on holiday debt unexpectedly with an average of $1,003 up from $986 in the year prior. Most predicted they’ll need four months or more to pay it off!

A simple inconvenience
It turns out most employees would rather avoid the holiday Christmas party.

It expands our waistlines
Of course, with the opportunity to overindulge “guilt-free” we’re often left with New Year’s resolutions to shed extra pounds. Not to mention what the added sugar consumption does to our metabolism, immune system, and overall health.

And encourages a return to debauchery
New traditions of revelry have emerged. SantaCon, a kind-of Halloween of Christmastime, is now celebrated in 397 cities and 52 countries!

I could go on and on…but I wonder

What will the Ghosts of Christmas Future bring?

elf on shelfWe all know the elf on the shelf is up to no good! I predict a continued slide to the streets in a return to drunken revelry marked by increasing levels of stress and dissatisfaction.

Is all the harried scurrying about worth it?

Why not turn away from traditions of the past and use the end of the year (the deep of winter and our darkest hour of need) to support one another, volunteer, and spend time in reflection and planning for the year ahead?

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Volunteer time to support local charities
  • Write thank you notes to those who’ve made a difference in your life this year
  • Take time to clear the cobwebs in a ritual cleaning, give what you don’t need to charity and make space to imagine a bountiful New Year
  • Reflect on what you’ve accomplished this year, where you could improve, and what you hope to achieve in the New Year
  • Set goals for continued personal improvement
  • Spend quality time with friends and loved ones
  • Make a healthy meal for a person in need instead of bringing cookies and candy to the office
  • Call someone you haven’t talked to in years to catch up and let them know you care
  • Give money to causes you care about in areas of need
  • Commit to random acts of kindness during the month of December
  • Recognize the good in everyday life, and help me record it here!
  • And find other ways to give and serve

Let’s admit, we’ve outgrown Christmas! It’s time to stop lying to innocent children and instead start teaching them and reminding ourselves of the values of charity, kindness, and compassion.

Could a new festival of kindness be our light at the end of the year? And so I wish you a Merry Kindmas, Happy Caringdays, and a blessed New Year!

 

Widening the Circle

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to enhance all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
— Albert Einstein

The problem is: if we perceive the universe to be an unfriendly place, we tend to also see unfriendly people in it. The media that dominates our culture reinforces the notion that all that is bad. It preys on sensationalism elevating emotions of fear and alarm desensitizing us over time. Our image of a depraved world, accurate or not, causes us to retreat to the small circles that we know and trust.

So how do we find and extend compassion to others, let along strangers, in a world filled with widespread fear, anger, and hate?

Through the lived experience of our own suffering.

In Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford, we learned first about the suffering that we experience in the cycle of our own self-concern.

Suffering is anything that is other than that which we want it to be and the root of suffering is our resulting psychological distress. We escalate it through habitual mental gymnastics, wishful thinking, woulda, coulda, shoulda thinking, and over analysis. By practicing self-compassion, we can shut down our default mode of blame, self-pity, and judgment.

Then we learned how to treat the self as a friend, expressing support and loving kindness.

Next we moved beyond the self toward a broader concern for others and the concept of common humanity – that “just like me” others wish to be happy and free from suffering.

In this way, our own suffering becomes the gateway to widen the circle of compassion for others. The suffering that we see and experience in the world can be a catalyst to do something meaningful about it.

Compassion is an understanding that suffering is the base of what it is to be human. It provides us an ability to engage with difficult situations as they are and respond with A Fearless Heart.

In a moment of suffering how might we gain the greatest peace? At times a fierceness is needed to combat the impacts of dehumanization. When we forget our common humanity, conflict and violence find space to emerge.

Compassion looks beneath the action to the actual person, acknowledging our humanity without endorsing bad behavior. Compassion does not condone immoral behavior. It is not blanket forgiveness. Nor does it always lead to reconciliation. It is not an unconditional acceptance or approval. It is simply an ability to be with the TRUTH of suffering without turning away.

Compassion brings our shared humanity back into view. Whether realized or not, there is a universal responsibility in our interconnectedness. Whatever happens to one happens to others. By living equally for ourselves and others we can find a more lasting joy and peace.

Finding Our Common Humanity

you are not the only asshole

So, the truth is…you’re not the only asshole. We’re all human! And we have a terrible tendency to make snap judgments. But we can’t help it? It’s ingrained in our instinctive nature toward self-protection.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re always asking: are you friend or foe?

Susan Fiske, renowned social psychologist most known for her work on stereotypes and prejudice, identified two universal dimensions are unconsciously used to evaluate others – warmth and competence. These simple factors lead us to move toward or turn away, sometimes in complete disgust, from others. Those who are deemed incompetent, without the necessary skills or abilities, AND cold or unfriendly (i.e. the homeless, drug addicts, mentally ill, etc) are placed into the dangerous lower left quadrant leading to dehumanization. We turn a blind eye to these people seeing them as “other than” rather than human.

universal origins of empathy

We’re all guilty of passing-by to preserve our limited energy, feeling as if what we do doesn’t really matter. Research on the bystander effect, shows we’re less likely to respond to those we perceive to be different than us.

Engaging in difficult situations is risky and exhausting. If we were to recognize every sorrow of daily life, we’d end up in an emotional tizzy? That’s because empathy activates the same regions in the brain as those associated with pain.

Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, Italian neurophysiologist and professor, discovered mirror neurons that fire both when acting and observing an action, proving that witnessing something can be very much the same as experiencing it directly. By empathizing too deeply we run the risk of falling right off the cliff with the very person we’re trying to help in a state of empathic distress (a heightened emotional state felt in response to the suffering of another). Too much empathy is harmful to your health!

Good news: mirror neurons apply not just to empathy, but also to compassion. And there’s a distinctly beneficial difference between them. While empathy is linked to pain centers in the brain, compassion lights up the same areas as love (the Compassionate vs Empathetic Brain).

Compassion is the remedy to empathic distress. It enables us to see others who appear different and embrace suffering even when suffering is all there is and nothing can be done to “fix”, “change”, or “help” the situation.

This week in Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford we’re learning to cultivate a broader sense of compassion for strangers and for the difficult people in our lives. We’re “re-humanizing” those we dismiss and those who disappoint by acknowledging that “just like me” this person wishes to be happy and free from suffering.

king network.jpg

In a TED talk religious scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, calls for a return to the Golden Rule. Her Charter for Compassion asks that we bring the spirit of vulnerability and humility to our shared experience. Here are a few techniques to help in bringing our interconnectedness and common humanity back into view:

  • Look for opportunities to appreciate and thank someone you may have overlooked.
  • Look for opportunities to reinterpret your reaction to a disappointing situation.
  • Just listen!
  • Go further and employ the practice of radical listening as coined by, Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist, author, teacher and, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication.
  • Look for the human in everything by observing all parts of day-to-day routines – from the barista to the coffee beans!
  • Stay curious and open-hearted.
  • Challenging stereotypes and seek to discover commonality.
  • Open up and be willing to be vulnerable yourself!
  • Remember “just like me…” all people wish to be happy and free from suffering.

In all things, give it your best to do unto others…in order that we may find peace.

The Compassion Contagion

Viruses are made up of core genetic material, DNA or RNA – the very same elements that make us human. They naturally invade host cells, getting inside and using the cells own machinery to replicate. Viruses exist to reproduce!

But what if this replication process applied to kindness? Imagine that an act of kindness witnessed by another could get inside that person, warm a heart, and inspire others to act in kindness as well. What if a compassion contagion grew around the world spreading loving-kindness through individual supportive acts and intentions?

heart

It can, and it does! I just finished a 6-week online course through Stanford Continuing Studies with Kelly McGonigal on the Science of Compassion – covering everything from the definition of compassion itself to what happens when it goes wrong, compassion fatigue. The most inspiring part, to this unabashed optimist, was the part where we learned that doing good really does DO GOOD!

A large and growing body of research demonstrates that giving compassion leads to greater well-being for the giver, receiver, and ALSO for the casual observer! One study found that people who volunteer more frequently are both healthier and happier than those who do not. A number have shown how spending money on others or giving to charity vs. spending on oneself yields improved measures – decreased blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and greater connectedness. Yet another illustrated how witnessing a person perform a good deed elicits helping behavior in the observer.

The course gave a cursory understanding of how compassion manifests – in relationships, in our own bodies, and how to cultivate it and optimize its potential for healing in life.

Before we go any further, a quick definition: COMPASSION literally means to suffer with, it is…

  1. An awareness and recognition of suffering
  2. A feeling of concern for and connection to the one who is suffering
  3. A desire to relieve that suffering
  4. AND a willingness to respond

Compassion changes your perspective! When you activate your own intention to alleviate suffering, you change the way you see the world and your role in it – you now have something to offer! Experts coin this the helper’s high: that we are happier when we are less concerned about our own happiness. Another phenomenon is called moral elevation: an emotional state that individuals experience after seeing or hearing about a virtuous act.

The more we accept and reach out to greet suffering with compassion, the more receptive we’ll become to the compassion that is available in the world around us. In this way, compassion starts with the self, with an individual awareness and acceptance. Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion, urges us to give to ourselves the same kindness and support that we give to our closest family and friends. At her Center for Mindful Self-Compassion you can take a test to gauge your level of self-compassion. We are all too often far too unkind to ourselves.

As we forgive and accept our struggles, and offer support to others, support becomes available in a virtuous cycle where compassion provides strength, it can be a source of willpower. And where, as individuals, we can truly be a source of the good in the world that we seek!

Compassion motivates us to connect with others and help. It boosts immunity, releases stress, and reduces prejudice. It supports balance and resilience. In holding compassion, we begin to recognize that pain and suffering are part of the human experience, which allows us to share in a common humanity – a place where like me, all others desire happiness and freedom from suffering.

In A Fearless Heart, Dr. Thupten Jinpa recommends setting a daily compassionate intention, by asking:

  1. What is it that I value deeply
  2. What in the depths of my heart, do I wish for myself, for my loved ones, and for the world?

With this frame of mind, we enter a frenetic world with the intention of spreading joy and love, where positive actions can inspire and infect others to act in compassionate ways. Let’s start a compassion contagion in order  to interrupt anxiety and bring greater connection and collective purpose to life!

Beyond Our Fractured Feminism

We’ve come a long way since Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1848 Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. Yet in the long view of human evolution and development, women’s liberties appear on the scene in a New York minute. For most of existence, women were protected by men. As a result, they were property of men, silenced by men, and worse.

we_can_do_itIn the United States, women were granted the simple right to vote less than 100 years ago (here’s a great timeline of women’s rights from the National Women’s History Project). Birth control became widely available in the 60’s. Title IX provided equality of education in the 70’s. While in Switzerland, women weren’t able to vote until 1980! And today, in many parts of the world, women continue to be abused and pushed aside.

In truth, there has never been a singular women’s movement. Women’s rights first emerged in the western world, but have slowly been given credence in other regions. Women all over the world have faced off against varied oppressors. The movement has witnessed peaks and valleys of second-wave, third-wave, and now a fourth-wave feminism. There’s liberal feminism, lesbian feminism, even ecofeminism – and what do you know, the word feminism was coined by a MAN! – 19th-century French philosopher Charles Fourier. We’ve been labeled, insulted, dissuaded, and beaten back. We’ve often disagreed, but that’s OK – disagreement spurs dialogue.

Remarkably, out of our disparate struggles and different experiences, arose the largest protest in U.S. history, the Women’s March – a passionate sea of more than 2.9 million men and women of diverse backgrounds gathered at sites around the world to send a message that we stand together for all rights!

And now it’s time to rise above the pussyhats, crude jokes, pop aphorisms, and biting criticism of the “other” side. This very radicalism is partly responsible for our deep divisions.

lady-justice-blindfolded_55d3389af74020f6

The feminist movement is not a power struggle; it is a platform for justice. Lady Justice embodies divine order and moral courage. She does not slander; she does not shout from a megaphone and make demands.

We should NOT sit back and accept catcalls and blatant disrespect, but it’s dramatic to say that we live in a rape culture. We live in a highly sexualized culture. And there’s wisdom in a measured response so that when a more severe one is needed it can be taken seriously.

The gender gap is real, but we have to stop and realize that women have only been in the workforce in significant numbers since the late 60’s/early 70’s. It is up to us to Lean In to leadership (for heaven’s sake more men named John run large companies than women). More female voices in leadership and governance around the world are essential in order to have true equality of opportunity.

In all pursuits, it’s important that we find ways to Thrive.

Our passion is unmatched. Our spirit is unassailable. Our time is now.

Nevertheless, as we persist: may we strive for impartiality in our judgements, generosity toward others and the past, and a steadfast commitment to justice.

After all, our rights are human rights!