Twice in the last week I have been in conversation with others about communication and the concept of “censoring” oneself so as not to upset another has come up. Both times it was offered as a less than desirable option. Once because some people are hyper-sensitive and there’s really nothing the person can do about that. The second time as a way of making the point that authentic expression is important and if a truth needs to be spoken, then perhaps rattling a few cages is a good thing.
I can’t really argue with either of those reasons. They are accurate. Sometimes, no matter how much care and mindfulness we bring to an interaction, there is hurt in the other and we are simply likely to trigger into it. This is true. It happens. And sometimes difficult, uncomfortable, and challenging truths need to be spoken – for our own health or for the health of our society. And sometimes these are the reasons we offer when it’s easier than confronting a less compassionate impulse. When it’s more comforting to fall back on our “inalienable right” to speak our authentic truth, because our culture values personal freedom over kindness.
The truth is, any sincere practice of kindness commands deep levels of self-control and restraint from the practitioner. It also requires quiet, reflection and a calm pace. And, practitioners must learn how to be sensitive to and careful with both their own vulnerabilities and those of others, while also learning appropriate levels of responsibility for reactions to those vulnerabilities. We are specifically biased against all of these qualities in our culture. These very valuable spiritual skills are referred to as “censoring” oneself when really they are examples of self-possession, good will and generosity.
It may surprise you to find these five assumptions are at work in your own spirituality, but I urge you to please keep reading. You may not recognize yourself in all of them, of course. However, you might just discover that these five cultural biases are influencing your spiritual practice of kindness in ways you are not even aware of.
1. Extroversion is a highly valuable asset.
Our society over-values bold, dynamic, outgoing energy and under-values the quiet, reflective, and calm. Extroversion is put forward as a gold standard in our
culture. Most of us aren’t as naturally extroverted as our cultural bias suggests we are. Therefore, we interact in a way that is becoming increasingly inauthentic and less mindful, draining the resources we need for wisdom and kindness. We become less and less aware of our natural tendencies, not to mention, less and less likely to develop the spiritual skills necessary for an effective practice. As a result we move through interactions at the pace of a falsely-inflated extroversion instead of the pace of kindness.
To be certain, kindness isn’t always quiet, but it has, as its motivating core, a calm and introspective stillness. Learning to truly appreciate an introverted approach can teach us a thing or two about our spirituality.
2. High performance is the benchmark of success.
Honestly, the bias towards high performance in this culture is becoming a sickness in of itself. Everywhere we look there are tips and tools on how to generate new levels of health, vitality, activity, and youth.
We are supposed to be optimized, energized and maximized – all the time! It’s not real. It is a massive cultural delusion and it is sucking the life out of our practice of kindness.
Life exists in natural cycles of expansion and contraction. It becomes incredibly difficult to appreciate the contracted, quiet, still, yes even stagnant, periods in our development because of the cultural bias against this pattern. We judge what limits and weakens as undesirable. Judgment and fear of limitation, contraction, and weakness hums below the surface of this bias. Without even being aware of it, we have placed much of our spiritual practice in the service of avoiding this truth. To be human is to live within an inherently limiting and finite condition. By focusing so much on what is eternal and limitless in our spirituality, we deny much of the beauty and value of this limited and temporary experience. We also buffer ourselves against taking responsibility for our impact upon it. Our capacity for activity or functioning isn’t as useful a measure of our success as our cultural bias indicates. Our capacity for kindness, however, is.
3. Personal freedom is manifest destiny.
Freedom is a powerful currency in this culture. The concept of self-determination is woven into our society’s founding principles. Our craving for freedom, authentic expression, self-actualization, utter satisfaction, and the right to live our truest life’s purpose (and nothing less) have become insatiable. And yet, human rights still need to be legislated because freedom is not inherently granted and protected to all peoples.
Human rights charters could be considered legislative acts of kindness, commanding equality where freedom only requires self-interest. Yes, enlightened self-interest in some cases, but to value freedom (whether personal or cultural) without a deep appreciation of kindness is to invite a devaluing of others when a conflict of needs arises. And since conflict in human need is inevitable, without the practice of kindness, an over-valuing of freedom will always lead one to devalue the needs of another.
To lead a spiritual life, centered in Love & kindness, is to realize that the fulfilment of our personal needs (desires, interests, intentions etc) is, quiet often, not the most important thing going on in any given situation. Often kindness requires that we listen for a deeper truth and allow ourselves to be moved by generosity, wisdom, and wholeness – without any concern for freedom.
4. Mechanical thinking is the key to understanding how everything works. (The subtext of this bias often being, ” … and making everything work for me.”)
In western spirituality linear cause and effect thinking is very prominent. Traditionally, it yielded a system of reward and punishment handed down by a deity personally invested in the outcome. In modern teachings, the system becomes a “scientific method” of spiritual manifestation or deprivation brought on by impersonal laws that effect everyone equally. Other cultures teach a causal plane that is an interwoven matrix of relationships – interconnected and all dependent upon one another.
Mechanical thinking engenders unintentional callousness and a lack of compassion. It focuses on results and the scientific method needed to create those results. Feelings, or any aspect of a person’s complex and interconnected experience, become mechanical parts in a linear system of manifestation. This is why so many people hear messages of blame, failure, and rejection in the teachings of western spirituality (modern or traditional), when that is far from the intention. Kindness and compassion can be lost in translation when the message must pass first through the mechanical thinking bias of the teacher and then that of the listener.
5. Participating in the consumer economy is good citizenship.
While examples of defining a person’s worth based on their economic value to society is as old as our culture, to find examples of spiritual consumerism one need only look as far as the emphasis on prosperity within western teachings. Modern teachers go so far as to offer spiritual laws and formulas for financial acquisition and material success.
Is it not obvious that in a culture obsessed with wealth and financial freedom, kindness takes a back seat? Can we not see that when our spiritual teachings tell us it is our inherent divine right to live in prosperity and lay out a formula for doing so, that we might also believe greater prosperity is the only valid foundation for kindness – that we should get ourselves to a prosperous place first and then focus on all the kindness we can share? Because, won’t we be in a position to do so much more good?
How often do we sacrifice the opportunity to practice kindness because of a bias towards consumerism? How easily do we project others into a role in the production of our prosperity? How deeply do economic (what we often refer to as “practical”) drives take priority over every kind of human tenderness? How hungry are we for all that we identified as our divinely appointed good – and how far do we separate ourselves from those that might detract from our experience of that good? Is the practice of your life shaped by kindness and coloured by compassion or has your spiritual citizenship been taken over by your desire for “more?”