Preview of Coming Attractions: A YEAR OF LIVING KINDLY – the Book!

“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” (Dalai Lama)

It was just over three years ago when I started this blog. My intent at the time was to spend a year learning all I could about kindness—about what it is and isn’t, how to live a kind life, why to live a kind life, and the science behind it all. My hope was that at the end of 2015 I would be a kinder person; if so, I would consider the effort to have been successful.

I’m happy to say the year was life-changing, though the changes may only have been evident to myself. I have not become a paragon of kindness. I can still be bitchy and cranky and oblivious, but those occurrences are less frequent. I am kinder, and I am so much more aware of kindness all around me. I am also happier.

While he’s never actually admitted it, I believe my husband hoped when I wrapped up 2015 I would set a different intention for 2016: a year of learning to vacuum or a year of reading all the books I buy and surround myself with.

Many of you, who’ve been following this blog since the early days, encouraged me to continue writing about kindness. A few of you even suggested I take it a step further and write a book. I ignored my husband and listened to you—and for that, I thank you!

It’s taken some time, but I am thoroughly elated to report that A YEAR OF LIVING KINDLY—the book—will be published in September 2018! I have signed with a wonderful publisher, She Writes Press, and am working with their amazing team to produce a book that I hope will contribute in some small way to spreading kindness and restoring civility on this planet we all share.

Whether you’ve been reading this blog since day-one or only since last week, I want to thank you for being a part of this journey. Those of you who have written comments or engaged in conversation with me have helped me to explore and refine my thoughts about kindness. You’ve challenged me to lean in and to dive deeper, and your presence has held my feet to the fire on more than one occasion.

As our worldwide need for kindness becomes critical, I look forward to sharing with you a continued commitment to kindness. We can counter the incivility, cynicism, and unkindness that pervades . . . one action at a time, one choice at a time.

A year of living kindly is not something one does and then moves on to the next thing. Kindness turned out to be a path, not a destination, and it’s a path I want to continue to follow up until the day I breathe my last, probably surrounded by books.

“The way we live our life is our spiritual practice—no more, no less, nothing but, nothing else.” (Robert Corin Morris)

The Heart of Gratitude

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

attribution: Donna CameronIn the United States, we talk about gratitude a lot during November. We celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday, often spending it with family, friends, and food—lots of food.

It’s lovely to have a day specifically designated for giving thanks, but ideally that would be only one of many days we pause to express our thanks. It seems churlish and small-minded to discard gratitude as merely a quaint holiday tradition. Gratitude, like kindness, is not a weakness to be dismissed or derided, but a strength to be claimed and exercised. Plus, there’s a cornucopia of scientifically-based reasons why gratitude is good for you.

Gratitude is Heart Healthy

Several recent studies have shown that patients suffering from cardiovascular disease experience measurable—often significant—improvement when they engage in a simple, regular gratitude practice. It could be keeping a gratitude journal, or pausing daily to think or meditate about what one is grateful for, or taking time as a family to share experiences of gratitude. The outcomes of such simple gratitude awareness practices include stress reduction, reduced depression and fatigue, confidence in one’s ability to positively influence personal health and wellbeing, and reductions in systemic inflammation.

In one study, patients with heart failure were asked to keep a gratitude journal in which each day they noted two or three things for which they were grateful. A control group facing similar levels of heart failure did not keep the journal. Both groups continued to receive their usual medical care for their condition. After two months, those who engaged in gratitude journaling showed reduced inflammation and increased heart rate variability (HRV). Increasing HRV is an indicator of disease improvement.

Gratitude Improves Our Sleep 

In recent years, sleep has been increasingly recognized as an essential restorative for physical and mental health, as well as for heart health, longevity, and personal wellbeing. Sleep deprivation has been shown to cause accidents, increase errors, and to cost U.S. companies more than $400 billion each year in lost productivity, according to a 2016 Rand Corporation study.

One way gratitude improves sleep is by increasing our positive pre-sleep cognitions (thinking about the pleasant things in our lives), thus inducing sleep. Gratitude also decreases the negative pre-sleep cognitions (critical thoughts and worries) that impede our ability to fall asleep. In one study, people who kept a gratitude journal slept an average of 30-minutes more, woke up feeling more refreshed, and stayed more awake and alert throughout the day than those who didn’t journal.

Gratitude Counters Feelings of Excessive Entitlement

There’s entitlement—the belief that one is deserving of certain privileges—and then there’s “excessive entitlement”—the belief that one deserves a disproportionate share than others. Those who feel excessive entitlement are rarely satisfied with what they receive—be it attention, pay, or praise. They always want more. Excessive entitlement can lead to toxic and destructive behaviors in relationships and in the workplace.

If one always feels entitled to more, there is little room for gratitude. Where gratitude is encouraged and practiced, we see an increase in positive emotions—joy, enthusiasm, optimism—and a decrease in such destructive emotions as envy, greed, resentment, and blaming. In a study entitled “A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart,” researchers led by psychologist C. Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky, found that people who experience gratitude are 20-30 percent less likely to be annoyed, irritated, or aggressive.

What’s Keeping Us from Feeling Gratitude?

With so much evidence pointing to the positive benefits of gratitude, why aren’t we all looking for things in our lives to appreciate and finding abundant ways to express our thanks?

In an article in U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Robert Emmons attributes our failure to sustain—or sometimes even muster—gratitude to:

  1. A materialistic and consumption-based society that fosters both a sense of entitlement and a sense that we can never have all that we deserve. Says Emmons, “We believe the universe owes us a living. We do not want to be beholden.”
  2. A lack of humility in our culture. Those lacking humility, Emmons says, succumb to the myth of self-sufficiency. They hold the illusion of being self-made, discounting any dependence on parents, friends, colleagues, the government, or a spiritual foundation. With humility, we readily see our interconnectedness, and for that . . . we are grateful.

I believe there is a third reason for our all-too-frequent failure to feel or express gratitude: we simply aren’t paying attention. We are rushing too fast, preoccupied with our technology, or simply oblivious to our surroundings. We don’t notice the woman who holds the door for us, or the car that slows so we can merge, or the autumn colors that would take our breath away if we could just see them.

There’s no question that there are many great reasons to implement a gratitude practice. Whether we take five minutes to jot our gratitude in a journal, spend our last few moments before sleep recalling all the good things that happened during the day, or take time at the dinner table to share appreciation, these simple practices can be life-changing. If you have a favorite gratitude practice, please share it in the comments below.

Welcome to November, and to perpetual thanksgiving!

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” (William Arthur Ward)

To Give or Not to Give

“Wherever there is a human in need, there is an opportunity for kindness and to make a difference.” (Kevin Heath)

Attribution: Donna CameronOver these last couple of years of writing and talking about kindness, a consistently controversial topic of conversation has been whether or not to give money to panhandlers and homeless people. I know people who always try to carry a stash of dollar bills to hand out when they can. An acquaintance keeps socks and hygiene products in her car and offers them to people who appear to be in need.

I also know people—good people—who are vehement that such handouts are wrong-headed and counter-productive. They say the people seeking our dollars are just lazy; if given money, they’ll use it for drugs or alcohol. We’re just enabling them, they tell me.

While attending a conference in Washington, D.C., several years back, I was walking to dinner with a colleague after a long day of meetings. We were stopped on the sidewalk by a young man who asked if we could help him out with any spare change. I reached into my wallet and handed him a dollar. He walked on and so did we. However, for the remainder of our walk and well into our dinner, my friend scolded me for giving the man money. She said he was probably a freeloader who didn’t want to work and made his living conning and begging tourists and bleeding-hearts like me. How did I know that he was really in need, or that he wouldn’t spend the money on drugs or alcohol? She said I was just making the problem worse by handing him money on the street. If he was really in need, there were social service agencies that could help.

I was surprised by her vehemence—I knew her to be a very kind person. She was a nurse, for heaven’s sake! I may have tried to defend my action, but mostly I was just embarrassed. Not embarrassed to have given money, but embarrassed to be scolded like a school-girl. I think I would be more assertive and confident in my reply today.

Nonetheless, I am somewhat chagrined to admit that since that evening I rarely give anyone money when I am in the company of a friend, a business colleague, or even my husband. I’m not proud that I have allowed my fear of embarrassment to inhibit my kindness. I’ve even rationalized it to some degree: this way, when I give someone money, I am freer to stop and exchange a few words with that individual and I don’t have to feel rushed or worry that I’m delaying my companion, or making them uncomfortable. It is a rationalization, though. I fear judgment.

My friend Nancy recently sent me an editorial from the New York Times Opinion Page, entitled, “The Pope on Panhandling: Give Without Worry.” It quotes Pope Francis as saying that it’s “always right” to give to those in need.

When questioned about people who may use the money for drink, Pope Francis said, “[If] a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s OK. Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” (I confess, Your Holiness, it’s chocolate.) He also explains that those of us who are “luckier”—who have homes, and families, and jobs—have a responsibility to those less fortunate. Clearly, this is a view not held by all, but it’s one that fills me with hope.

Further, the Pope explains, what counts as much as giving is how we give. It’s not a matter of dropping money into a cup or quickly handing over a dollar and rushing on, but “looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”

It’s also exchanging a few words. Even if our own pockets happen to be empty, we can always give the gift of seeing someone, respecting them, and acknowledging our shared humanity.

A couple of years ago, I attended a weekend conference in Pittsburgh. It was late May and the weather was glorious. I had a free afternoon, so I walked to a nearby park and sat on a bench with a book. I divided my time between reading and appreciating the sights around me—children playing on the lawn, couples strolling hand-in-hand, squirrels, dogs, flowers, and endless varieties of trees and birds. I remember feeling the overwhelming sense of how fortunate I was to be able to experience it all. For a time, gratitude filled every pore.

After a while, I walked to a local restaurant and ordered lunch, still able to watch the activity of the park and the busy street outside. I asked the waitress to box up my fruit salad and the remaining, untouched half of my sandwich, thinking they would make a fine dinner. Walking back toward my hotel, I felt the fullness of my life and the amazing privilege of when, where, and how I am living. A block or so from my hotel, I noticed an elderly man slumped in a wheelchair. At his side was a can with a few coins in it and a small cardboard sign with lettering that said, “Please Help.”

I stopped and greeted him. Then I said, “I have a half a turkey sandwich here and some fruit salad. Would you like them?”

His eyes widened and he said, “I surely would.” I handed the restaurant bag to him and also reached into my purse for a couple of dollars, which I also handed him. We talked for a minute or two and I noticed how his eyes held a lively twinkle. When I resumed my walk toward my hotel, I felt even lighter and happier than I had before. My brief interaction with the man had felt good. While I’m sure he appreciated the sandwich and the few dollars I handed him, I sensed that even more, he appreciated being seen. He was used to people averting their eyes, ignoring him as they quickly walked by, even occasionally dropping some change or a couple of dollars into his can, but then rushing off without a word.

I think my own gratitude that day opened me to extending a kindness and offering not just the gift of food or money, but the gift of my genuine attention. I received a cherished gift that afternoon.

And maybe that’s a way of thinking about the question of whether or not to give to panhandlers and homeless people. Does your small gift of money, kind words, or attention offer you a gift, as well? Does it make your heart just a little bit bigger…and do you hear it sing just a bit sweeter?

What are your thoughts on giving to street people and the homeless?

“A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives the rose.” (Chinese Proverb)


Revisiting Gratitude

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

gratitude-book-coverStill very depressed by the election, and in anticipation of Thanksgiving, I dug out Oliver Sacks’ gorgeous little book, Gratitude. It’s composed of four lovely short essays, one written just before his 80th birthday and the other three following his terminal diagnosis a short time later. Each of them explores the richness and complexity of being human and convey Sacks’ gratitude for the privilege and gift of life. I thought I’d read one a day leading up to Thanksgiving, but just as I am unable to limit myself to one piece of See’s chocolate if I am given a box, I was not able to ration Sacks’ essays either. I read them all at one sitting—greedily and contentedly. And then I meandered through them again to savor his writing, which is both simple and elegant, and to revisit certain passages that had especially touched me.

Along with my wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving, I’ll share a few favorite Sacks’ quotes here, some from this book and some from other sources.

And, in case you’re looking for a gift for yourself or a special friend or family member—one that might help put the world in perspective—you can’t go wrong with Gratitude.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

“There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

“To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future; the freedom to get beyond ourselves…in states of mind that allow us to rise above our immediate surroundings and see the beauty and value of the world we live in.”

“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

What Comes Next? YOLK Welcomes 2016

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as you can.” (John Wesley) 

Attribution: Donna CameronOne of the big lessons of kindness I talked about last week was that kindness isn’t something that I can adopt for a single year and then move on. I’ve come to the conclusion that my #1 job is kindness. That’s what I’m here for. I may not be very good at it yet, but I want kindness to be my lifetime pursuit, and one about which I can say on my very last day, “Yes, I lived a kind life.”

So, no, dear husband, rest assured 2016 will not be “a year of living bitchy,” nor—to your great disappointment—will it be “a year of learning to dust and vacuum” (after all these years, it’s time to let that one go, Sweetie).

I want kindness to remain central to my life and I will continue to practice it and follow the path on which it leads me. I want to continue to write about kindness. I am one of those people who, like Joan Didion, write to find out what they are thinking.

So, I plan to keep the blog going, but I will certainly be less obsessive about posting every week at exactly the same time. I have truly enjoyed blogging, and the knowledge I’ve gained and the remarkable people I’ve connected with have exceeded any expectations I had a year ago. I will continue to write when I have something to say or share. I will also continue to compile the quotes and other resources that I’ve been collecting on the Resources page.

Since writing has always been a central passion in my life, I also plan to write about plenty of other things in 2016 and beyond.

A few people have very kindly asked me if I might turn these musings into a book, and that is something I would certainly love to do. I don’t know how to go about it…but I’m eager to learn. At this point I’ve written more than 62,000 words about kindness (can you say verbose?), so I hope there is something to work with here. I’d also like to speak about kindness and hope to make some opportunities to spread the word in an inspiring and enjoyable way.

The beginning of 2016 marks another big change in my life, as—after more than 30 years—I am stepping down from working day-to-day in association and non-profit management and opening myself to what comes next. I’m not calling it retirement—I still plan to consult with non-profits—but there are a boatload of other things I’m eager to try, as well. I may tell you about them here as I discover and explore what’s around the corner and waiting in the wings.

Even though I’m not going anywhere and I plan to continue blogging, I do want to take a moment to thank all of you who have been reading YOLK—whether you started with me way back in January of 2015 or you just came aboard this month. I can’t begin to tell you how I have appreciated your kind and thought-provoking comments and your encouragement. You often inspired me to think more critically or dive deeper into ideas. Some of you are my dear friends, and some have become friends—even though we’ve never actually ”met”—that’s one of many really cool things about blogging and the blogging community. Thank you all for your kindness.

For any of you who may have joined our kindness community later in the year, I invite you to read earlier posts. They are launched from this home page.

A closing thought about kindness for 2015: we always have the choice to interrupt the cycle of unkindness by letting it stop with us, and we have the choice to deliberately extend kindness wherever we can. Sometimes it’s hard, and we won’t always make the right choice. But if we do our best and keep our intention in front of us, we can—little-by-little—change the world. And that’s pretty awesome.

Finally, because I like symmetry, it feels most fitting to end this year of living kindly with the same Neil Gaiman quote I used to open the year. I hope you like it as much as I do, and I hope it will inspire you to make 2016 your year of living exactly the life you most want to live. My blessings and grateful thanks to you all. 

“I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you’ll make something that didn’t exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.” (Neil Gaiman)

Big (But Quiet) Kindness Lessons

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” (Rumi)

ttribution: Donna CameronI have encountered so many lessons during this year of living kindly. So many that I can’t name them all. And even if I try, I couldn’t do it in one blog post. So I thought I’d divide them into two posts and call one “Small Kindness Lessons” and the other “Big Kindness Lessons.” However, the more I thought about it, I see that there are no small kindness lessons, just as there are no small kindnesses.

We never know how far our kindness will reverberate. Will the smile we extended to the bus driver cause him to greet each passenger with a kind word, and will each of those people, in turn, extend a kindness that they otherwise might not have, and will one of those kindnesses—or a further kindness—mend a heart, lift someone from despair, or even save a life?

No, there are no small kindnesses. And likewise, the lessons of kindness may seem small, but they could extend far beyond our imagining.

That being said, as I think about this year of lessons in kindness, I see that some of them were quiet ahas, and others were cacophonous eurekas! Today, I’ll share what for me were some of the quiet ahas, though they are by no means small. Next time, it will be the thunderous eurekas. Where applicable, I’ll provide links to the post where I explored the idea.

Being kind and being nice are not the same thing. They’re not.  link

It takes patience to be kind and kindness to be patient.  link⇒

Curiosity can lead us to kindness. If we look for what’s behind unkindness, we will often reach a place of understanding.  link⇒

Kindness is an evolution, not a sudden transformation. Like most of the best things in life, developing a life of kindness is a gradual process. Kindness is a path that is its own destination.  link⇒

Being able to accept kindness is as important as being able to extend kindness.  link⇒

Kindness begins with me. A life of kindness begins with self-kindness. If I don’t think I’m worthy of my own kindness, how can I be consistently kind to others?  link⇒

Sometimes the kind thing to do is nothing.  link⇒

There’s no such thing as selective kindness. The person who is kind to you but unkind to the waiter is not a kind person.  link⇒

Kindness and gratitude go hand-in-hand.  link⇒

I can take kindness seriously without taking myself too seriously.

Like all things that we want to become good at, kindness takes practice.  link⇒

We teach kindness by modeling it, not by lecturing about it.

The kinder we are, the more kindness we experience.

Kind people are not without occasional bouts of pettiness, envy, anger or impatience, but they are able to rise above their impulses and express kindness. link⇒

If I am unable to see a way to express kindness I need to look more closely or broaden my field of vision.

All of these little ahas comprise a recipe for a kind life. None are terribly difficult, though practice is essential. If we can keep them in our hearts and in our awareness, we can not only enjoy a feast of compassion and connection, we can change the world.

These are just some of the hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

“It’s all a matter of paying attention, being awake in the present moment, and not expecting a huge payoff. The magic in this world seem to work in whispers and small kindnesses.” (Charles de Lint)

Gratitude: A Companion to Kindness

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

Attribution: Donna CameronThe American Thanksgiving holiday is just over a week away. It is an opportunity for us to pause and acknowledge all we have to be thankful for. Ideally, we should be doing this every day of our lives, but sometimes business and busyness crowd out gratitude.

Throughout this year of living kindly, I’ve noticed over and over that kindness and gratitude go hand-in-hand and also bolster one another. When I am in touch with my gratitude, kindness flows naturally and effortlessly. And if kindness feels hard to summon, taking a moment to appreciate my surroundings, my friends and loved ones, or little things that fill me with delight, inspires a surge of kindness.

I’ve come to see that there are many ways that kindness and gratitude together produce almost alchemical results:

Slowing Down

Both gratitude and kindness ask us to slow down. Slowing down isn’t always easy in our overscheduled and over-active lives. I often feel like I’m rushing from one deadline to the next, one obligation to the next, ruled by a lengthy to-do list. But slowing down is essential if we are to notice and appreciate the sunrise, the mushrooms growing at the base of a pine tree, the birds circling overhead like ice-skaters with wings. And slowing down is essential if we are to notice the smile on the cashier’s face, the door held open for us, or the myriad opportunities before us each day to extend our own kindnesses.

An Open Heart

When I experience gratitude, my heart feels open. It is an experience of abundance and sufficiency. This is all I need. It is also a feeling of presence—what happened five minutes ago doesn’t matter, and what will happen five minutes from now doesn’t matter. I am in the moment.

Likewise, the experience of kindness—whether given, received, or even just witnessed—opens my heart and allows me to feel fully present in the moment. For that brief moment, kindness is all that matters. It reminds me of one of my very favorite quotes, by Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

Abundance, too, is a byproduct of kindness. If we believe we are enough, we can easily believe we have enough. Both of these beliefs help us to reserve judgment and extend kindness. And that sense of abundance, whether related to gratitude or kindness—or most likely, both—inspires us to be generous, with our time, our words, our deeds, and our resources.

Negative Emotions

I think it’s difficult to be angry or fearful when one experiences gratitude. I was surer of this last week that I am today, given the horrific events in Paris this past weekend. Those attacks surely brought fear and anger, not just to the people of France, but people all over the world. While there may also be gratitude that one’s family and friends were spared, can gratitude wipe out the fear and anger? I think not. But maybe there can be moments when gratitude at least overrides fear and lets us see that there is much to appreciate even amidst the horror of an attack such as this, or amidst the devastation of a natural disaster, or a personal catastrophe. Maybe it’s gratitude that helps us recover from the worst things that can befall us.

Kindness is also our answer to fear and anger. If we can recognize that our impulse to be unkind or say something unkind is a response to our fear or anger, we can often overcome it. If we can recognize that another person’s unkindness is their response to feeling fearful, we can often respond with kindness through that understanding. Fear often inhibits us from acting kindly—fear that our action will be misunderstood, fear that we will be rejected or embarrassed. Choosing kindness over fear is an act of courage.

Service to the Planet

When we are grateful for something, our instinct is to protect and defend it. If we stand in awe at the edge of the ocean, or if we marvel at the canopy of trees above us as we hike through the nearby hills, our natural desire is to shield them from harm, to assure that they will always be there for us and for future generations to appreciate. Our gratitude puts us in service to life—what could be more important?

Kindness, too, places us in service to life. It’s our acknowledgment that the ultimate kindness is to honor the Earth and our fellow inhabitants—human and otherwise. A healthy planet and sustainable practices is the kindest gift we can offer our planet and the generations that follow us.

Gratitude Practices

It’s lovely if gratitude comes to us frequently and effortlessly, but that is not always the case. Gratitude, like kindness, golf, or piano-playing, is strengthened with practice. The more we do it, the more we experience it and the better we get at expressing it. If you Google “gratitude practices” you will find countless suggestions, from daily meditation, to keeping a gratitude journal, to prayer. I confess that I haven’t yet established a consistent practice, but I try to spend a few moments each morning before I get up thinking about the things I have to be grateful for (the first is always that goofy guy sleeping beside me).

There’s another splendid gratitude practice that I love and practice sporadically. The wonderful physician and teacher Dr. Rachel Remen teaches this; she learned it from anthropologist Angeles Arrien. It takes very little time:

At the end of each day, sit down for a few minutes and answer these questions:

  • What surprised me today?
  • What moved or touched me today?
  • What inspired me today?

Your answers can just be a few words. What you’re trying to do is summon the memory of something that moved you.

As Dr. Remen describes: “The most interesting thing happens, then. Often people are surprised eight or nine hours after something happens when they look back on it deliberately. But [by doing this exercise] that gap shortens until eventually they are able to see in the very moment what surprises them, what touches them, and what inspires them. And then everything changes. The world has not changed, but they have begun to be able to see the world, and they can communicate that experience….It changes everything. It’s a question of paying attention.”

It’s true. At first this is difficult. You may come up blank day after day. “Nothing surprised me” or “Nothing inspired me.” But if you keep searching, you will think of something. Oh, yes, I was touched when I saw those children playing in the park. And just as Dr. Remen says, with practice you begin to notice things that touch or surprise or inspire you in the moment they happen. That creates an enduring state of gratitude—not to mention presence.

Another lovely gratitude practice: For the month of November, my fellow blogger and new friend, Dr. Catherine Cheng—whose wonderful blog, Healing Through Connection, explores (among other terrific things) fixing our healthcare system by improving communications and relationships between physicians and patients—has issued a post daily featuring something in her life that she’s grateful for. Some are things you might expect: her family, good health. Some have surprised and delighted me: Kung Fu Panda, actor George Takei, volleyball…. I look forward each day to seeing what Catherine has chosen to express gratitude for.

Catherine’s posts remind me to think about what I am grateful for—both the expected and the quirky. Whether or not we take the time to write them down, daily recognition of big and little things we have to be grateful for is a wonderful way to live in perpetual thanksgiving.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” (Melody Beattie)

Kindness and Generosity – Offering Our Unique Gifts

“Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression. We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous. We experience joy in the actual act of giving something. And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.”  (Gautama Buddha)

Flowering Cherry and Moss 2A few posts ago, I wrote about the connection between kindness and a sense of abundance.  The logical next step when one’s view of the world is of abundance rather than scarcity is to express that abundance through generosity.

I have been blessed to be the recipient of so much generosity throughout my life—from my friends, my professional colleagues, my family, and even strangers.  Their generosity is expressed through the wisdom they so willingly share, through their time, their thoughtful actions, and their kind words.

When we think of generosity, our first thoughts are likely of material gifts or donations of cash, and, of course, these are elemental expressions of generosity, but they aren’t our only gifts.

The Three T’s

There’s an adage in the non-profit world that board members need to be willing to give the three T’s: Time, Talent, and Treasure.  Treasure is usually interpreted in monetary terms—especially for charitable and philanthropic non-profits.  If board members won’t donate to the cause, it’s hard to convince others to do so.  Hence, grant applications will often ask if 100 percent of the board has made a donation to the organization.  Boards with “high-rollers” can usually easily answer yes, but if members of the board are part of the constituency the organization serves, there may be some who have little to spare in the treasure department.  That’s why applications don’t ask how much board members have donated, only if they have.  A $10 donation from someone who may have to skip a meal to make that donation is just as important—perhaps more so—than the $50,000 donation from a corporate CEO.

Being generous with our talent asks only that we are willing to share what we do best, whether that’s fundraising, marketing, budgeting, schmoozing, or baking cupcakes.  Each of us has unique talents and part of the job of being human is recognizing them and sharing them where they are most needed.

Generosity of time is an essential element in non-profits and elsewhere.  As we have explored in an earlier post, we are often so pressed for time, so overscheduled, that we blow off opportunities to extend kindness.  Or maybe we don’t even see them in our rush to meet so many deadlines.  Generosity with our time when time is limited can be a kindness beyond measure—especially if we are able to give without conveying to the recipient our stress or our inconvenience.

Other Ways to Be Generous

Beyond the three T’s, there are a multitude of other ways we can be generous:

We can be generous in deed: It can be as simple as holding a door for someone, helping to carry a heavy load, or offering a hand.  It might be bringing freshly-baked bread to a neighbor or washing someone else’s dirty dishes without grousing.  There are so many generous deeds we can offer—big and small—and mostly it’s a matter of training our eyes to look for them.

We can be generous of word: It doesn’t take much to make someone’s day with a kind word.  Mark Twain famously said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”  Of course, he is also reported to have said: “I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel they have not said enough.”  Both quotes show how powerful a sincerely expressed compliment can be.  And the wonderful thing is that they’re easy!  We can compliment someone on the great service they provided, or the astuteness of an observation, a well-written report, or how their smile brightens a room.  All we have to do is pay attention.

We can be generous of spirit:  The Buddhist practice of metta, often translated as lovingkindness, teaches practitioners to repeat phrases—aimed first at oneself, then loved ones, then acquaintances and strangers, and finally even to adversaries.  The phrases express a wish for happiness, for safety, peace, freedom from pain, and so forth.  In offering metta to people with whom we share conflict or difficulties, people who have hurt or angered us, we are, says Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, “recognizing our essential interconnectedness.”  Salzberg notes that in offering metta to a difficult person, we are not condoning bad or hurtful actions. “Instead, we are looking deeply into our hearts and discovering a capacity for lovingkindness that is not dependent on circumstances and personalities.”  We are expressing generosity not only to others but to ourselves.  That capacity for compassion is our gift to the world.

If we can give nothing else, let us at least give the benefit of the doubt.  This is easier to do with family and friends than with mere acquaintances and strangers.  If a friend or loved one says something that we find hurtful, it’s usually easy to excuse—“that wasn’t how she meant it to come out,” “I know he’s been under a lot of pressure; he didn’t really mean it.”  Why can’t we offer that same understanding to strangers when they say or do something questionable or hurtful?  Instead, we generally ascribe the worst motives and label them jerks.

In our office, we continually remind ourselves to “assume one another’s good intent.”  A simple statement, but enormously powerful.  If I ruled the world (a frightening thought if there ever was one), I’d have the phrase, “we assume one another’s good intent” printed at the top of every meeting agenda and posted on the wall of every room where people gather.  It all comes down to the simple generosity of giving the benefit of the doubt to everyone we encounter.

Generosity isn’t just something we do for someone else.  When I choose to act generously, the greatest beneficiary is always myself.  There is no better expression of the abundance in my life, nor of the confidence that I not only have enough, I am enough.  Giving creates a joyful sense of oneness with my world and my fellow creatures.

“No one has ever become poor by giving.” (Anne Frank)


On the Receiving End of Kindness…

“One who knows how to show and to accept kindness will be a friend better than any possession.”  (Sophocles)

[As I wrote this post, I had the distinct impression that this might be a gender-specific issue.  So to any men who happen to read it, take what you will, and perhaps there will be something that you can relate to.  Accept that you are wise, and handsome, and remarkably accomplished….]

Attribution: Donna CameronEven if we don’t have the resources to give all that we would like to give, we always have the capacity to receive graciously.  It sounds so simple, but it can be surprisingly hard.  Think of the times someone tried to give you something and you demurred—perhaps because you didn’t think they could afford it, or you didn’t feel worthy, or it was simply your initial reaction to an awkward situation.  Maybe the gift wasn’t something you wanted; perhaps you didn’t want to feel indebted.  Or maybe you are among the cynical who wonder what’s the catch?

Did your refusal of their offer please them, or did it disappoint?  In retrospect, would a gracious thank-you have made both of you happier and immensely more comfortable?

Giving is such a pleasurable act.  Yet we often deny our friends and acquaintances—and even strangers—the joy and satisfaction of giving by being such terrible receivers.

And the gift doesn’t have to be something material.  How often do we devalue the gift of another’s words by refusing their compliments?  We deflect kind words about our appearance by saying, “No, I look terrible!  My hair needs cutting and I need to lose ten pounds, and look, I’ve lost a button on this shirt.”  Do you really think they complimented us just to hear us point out all our flaws?  I seriously doubt it.

How much better to respond with, “How nice of you to say so,” or “Thanks for your kind words, they make me feel great!”

In his book, Imperfect Alternatives, Dr. Dale Turner quotes a friend who chided him for brushing off a compliment: “When someone gives you a compliment in words, don’t disagree or minimize what he says, for words are gifts, too.  Accept them gratefully, even though you don’t think you deserve them….. A compliment is a gift not to be thrown away carelessly unless you want to hurt the giver.”

We also reject compliments on our achievements by down-playing them.  We say, “No, it really wasn’t anything special. Anybody could have done it.  I was lucky.” It’s as if we are saying, No, you dolt. Can’t you see I’m really an incompetent nincompoop?  It’s always great to share credit—that’s another form of kindness (not to mention decency)—but minimizing the overall accomplishment serves no one.

How much better to say, “Thank you, I’m really pleased with the result, too,” or “Yes! Don’t we have a fabulous team!?”

As I pose the question of why accepting compliments is something most of us aren’t very good at, I realize this is a much larger issue for women than for men. When was the last time you complimented a man on his new suit and he responded by saying that it makes his butt look big?  Doesn’t happen.

Most of the men I interact with know how to accept compliments about their work.  Hell, they expect kudos … and good for them for having those expectations.

A lot of women were raised with the direct or indirect instruction to hide their light under a bushel.  Our mothers told us to be modest.  Our teachers encouraged humility and restraint.  Somebody else kept mumbling that the meek will inherit the earth.

Let’s Reframe Our Response to Compliments

Perhaps if we reframe our response to gifts and compliments we can learn to receive them.  Instead of questioning whether we deserve them, or fearing that we will appear conceited, or that we are getting more than our share, let’s stop thinking about ourselves and think instead about the giver.  Think about the kindness we can extend to them by accepting their gift with grace.

Why don’t we all set an intention of receiving compliments graciously for the next 21 days and see how that feels.  No demurring.  No downplaying.  No false modesty.  And while we’re at it, let’s extend some compliments.  I don’t know anyone who couldn’t use a few.  Do you?

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” (Leo Buscaglia)