Mask up. Eyes down. Get in, get out. Those were my internal directives early last March, when fear of the pandemic was raging on the island where I live in the Pacific Northwest. I was making my first big foray into the grocery store. What is normally a cheery, busy place — our sociable town center — was eerily silent, with few shoppers. No one was making eye contact. Acquaintances, even friends, pretended not to see one another.
I was pretending too, and it felt terrible. No talking, no smiles, no sharing of life events. It felt like we were all suspicious of each other. Just get in, get out, I reminded myself. And then I broke my own rule: I looked up. The man who stacked the vegetables in artistic arrays, the one who always had a sunny smile and tip about the best buy on the best veggie, was clouded over, withdrawn, clearly sad and scared. That did it.
“Hey, Mark!” I said, standing at a distance. “What looks good today?” Mark brightened a tad and pointed to the Romanesco, the elegantly weird fractal vegetable that’s a marriage of broccoli and cauliflower. “How do you cook it? Why would you cook it? Have you ever cooked it?” — I peppered him with questions.
Pretty soon, he was telling stories about discovering Romanesco in the farmers market in San Francisco, where he was going to art school and supporting himself as a part-time caterer. He tried the new veggie, liked it, and cooked it for the documentary film crew he was feeding. Who knew?
Romanesco now in my cart, I said goodbye. “Take care, Mark, and thanks so much for sharing your great stories!” Mark stood taller. His eyes sparkled. Happy crow’s feet radiated like sunbeams, evidence of a broad smile beneath his mask. As I wheeled my groceries away, I heard him greet another customer: “Morning! Have you ever tried Romanesco? It’s on sale and tastes amazing.”
Passing by the dairy section, this thought popped into my head: There’s the frightening contagion of coronavirus and how it makes us feel and respond; and then there’s the warm contagion of kindness and how it makes us feel and respond. We may not be able to easily clear the feeling of fear by acknowledging or befriending it, then letting it drift away, but we always have the choice to respond with kindness. It’s that simple.
My teacher, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, often talks about kindness, whether he’s unpacking Buddhist philosophy or offering examples of ways to extend kindness to others in our daily lives. He started the Go Kind campaign in 2017, and I find it a helpful reminder, an easy tagline to carry with me throughout my day.
Daily, Simple, Kindness Practice
Here’s how I practice “going kind” — whether I’m shopping or anywhere else — in case you would like to try it.
- Mask on, eyes up! Look at people — your family, friends, strangers, the man stacking vegetables. If they seem sad, then pause for a moment.
- Take a deep breath or two to settle yourself, then Go Kind. Choose kindness and do what feels right to you: Offer a warm smile — people can tell you’re smiling even when your mask is on; ask them sincerely how they are doing; stop and listen if you can, etc.
- Remind yourself that kindness isn’t about “fixing” anything. It is an offering from your heart to theirs.
- Notice how being kind feels inside you. I often feel warmth, relaxation, a lightness. See what it feels like for you and where the sensation resides in your body. What happens to your breathing? And check in with your mind! “How is my mind right now?” is a great question to stop and ask yourself, especially after an act of kindness, generosity, patience or other positive action or practice.
- Watch how kindness spreads, from you to another and beyond. It’s that simple.