As you might have guessed, the word kindfulness is a hybrid of kindness and mindfulness. On its own, mindfulness is simply present-moment nonjudgmental awareness, often practiced in meditation. The dictionary says kindness represents the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. Brought into meditation, these qualities can enhance what might otherwise seem dry or even self-centered. An act of kindness involves connectedness—with oneself as well as others. There’s a lot of research that confirms the benefits of kindness and mindfulness to our overall health and well-being.
Mindfulness needs kindness to help befriend the fragmented parts of ourselves—especially the parts we don’t like, parts that may feel limited, separate, or unworthy. The practice of mindfulness brings you into a state of awareness of the need for kindness. Mindfulness can intervene when you are about to react with fear or anger. It provides a pause or an opportunity to become grounded and gain a different perspective. Like the partners of yin and yang or shakti and shiva that play and dance together, cultivating kindfulness can transform meditation into a moment to moment everyday lived experience.
Suppose you are about to encounter someone whose actions in the past have enraged you. Pause and mindfully step back to observe and assess your feelings—with kindness. The result may enable you to act with compassion rather than wrath.
Mindfulness helps you become aware of stress in your life that may show up in your body—as tightness in your stomach or shoulders, headache, a racing heart. These are all messages that something is out of balance. Kindness offers comfort; it may help you find ways to reduce or eliminate stress and the damage it does.
Kindness’s side effects
David R. Hamilton, PhD, is the author of numerous self-help books including “The Five Side Effects of Kindness,” which has this “caution” on its cover: “This Book Will Make You Feel Better, Be Happier & Live Longer.” He writes that a “side effect occurs alongside what’s intended. When we intend to be kind, we may not expect anything else to happen, but many things do happen.” These are the side effects of kindness that he discovered. It 1) increases happiness, 2) is good for the heart, 3) slows aging, 4) improves relationships, and 5) is contagious.
Hamilton says that humans have two ages: chronological (years since birth) and biological (apparent age of our body). Only about 20–30 percent of our longevity is determined by genetics. Science has shown that by regularly performing acts of kindness, we can slow processes of aging such as muscle degeneration, reduced vagal tone, weakened immune system, and inflammation.
It’s well known that mindfulness can relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also lower blood pressure, reduce pain, and improve sleep. Performing acts of kindness—as well as being the recipient of such acts—has similar benefits. But in addition—like most pharmaceutical antidepressants—kindness stimulates the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter and one of the feel-good hormones that calm you down and make you happy. Your brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up when you are being kind to another person—and when someone is being kind to you.
Another feel-good hormone, also called the love hormone, that is activated by kindness is oxytocin. Oxytocin helps lower blood pressure and improve overall heart health; it can also increase our self-esteem and optimism. We are wired to help one another as part of our human survival. The uplifting feelings we get from being kind are often referred to as the “helper’s high.”
I am likely to offer help (or kindness) to someone who has a clear need when I know that I have the capacity to fill the need. I use mindfulness to go inside myself and quietly, nonjudgmentally reflect on my inclination to help. If positive feelings arise (which can happen instantly or after a considerable amount of time), I know I am doing the right thing. And when I don’t find clarity or positive feelings, I can back off from trying to fill a need and simply be kind. You can never go wrong with kindness.
Some acts of kindness might be viewed as selfish or as having ulterior motives that help the giver more than the receiver. But who’s to say who benefits most? Inspired by my gardener mother, I honed my own gardening skills by kindly offering to cultivate gardens for friends who couldn’t do it themselves. I get “high” fulfilling my passion, while they get a lovely garden. Mindfulness also plays a part in my gardening; tenderly nurturing the growth of flowers and beautifying a small part of Mother Earth are a meditative experience for me.
Seeds of kindfulness
I love the idea that kindness is contagious. Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, said, “Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” Sometimes a seed sprouts far away from where it fell carried by the wind or a bird. This reminds me of a popular saying in environmental circles: a butterfly flapping its wings can impact the weather halfway across the world.
Paramahansa Yogananda said: said: “Kindness is the light that dissolves all walls between souls, families, and nations.” What if we practiced kindfulness not just with people we perceive are in need, but also with people who are unkind? It might soften a sharp edge of their unkindness. Realizing that everyone experiences life challenges, we can reframe our perceptions of unkindness. In 2008, researchers started bringing Tibetan Buddhist monks to MIT to see how the discipline of meditation had changed their brains. When one monk was asked how he handles things that happen in his day, he said he re-narrates each circumstance. To the question “What if someone cuts you off in traffic?” he responded that he would imagine that in the backseat of the offender’s car there was a woman delivering a baby.
As American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote: “Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.”