Monthly Archives: January 2014

Kindness is a Strength

by Kim Childs, CPPC

Once, when asked to name my religion in an online dating profile, I wrote “Kindness.” While it sounded kind of flirty at the time, it’s still what I truly believe in and practice as DChitwood_NoActOfKindnessoften as I can.

Kindness touches the soul, transcends language, and connects people on a primal level. Growing up in a Catholic family, I heard a lot about the Golden Rule—treating others as we’d have them treat us. And who doesn’t want to be treated with kindness and compassion? The hard part is doling it out on a regular basis when we’re feeling stressed, hurried, defensive, or judgmental.

And that’s why I’m a sucker for people who go out of their way to be kind.

I used to struggle with depression and, while it no longer overtakes me, I’m still what they call a highly sensitive person on the planet. Some days I just feel things very deeply and inhabit a tender place, emotionally. Sharp words, like sharp objects, feel wounding on those days, and being dismissed can hurt.

When someone takes the time to be kind to me, however, it feels like a big deal and pierces through the emotional haze like Cupid’s arrow. It might be the barista who compliments my earrings while making my latte, the driver who lets me cut into the long line of traffic, the woman with the umbrella who escorts me to my car in the driving rain, or the gas station attendant, smiling and wishing me a great day when all he needed to say was “Thanks.”

There’s a popular saying that goes something like, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.” These days I see kindness as a strength, and those who consistently practice it as my role models.

When my former husband moved to the United States from West Africa, he arrived with a duffel bag and a knapsack. He’d given nearly everything away to friends and family before emigrating, but among his few possessions was a pair of slightly tight work boots given to him by a caring friend.

As his funds were limited, my husband took the boots to a shoe repair shop for stretching. The Ugandan man behind the counter welcomed him to America with a 1,000-watt smile, unlike some of the strangers he’d already encountered in Boston. “I have something for you, my African brother,” the cobbler said, handing my husband a snazzy pair of shoes that another customer had abandoned. It was a memorable gesture of kindness during a time of traumatic change.

One day, I dialed the yoga center where I sometimes teach and left a message. Moments later, I got a call back from a man in New York with a nearly identical phone number. “Namaste from Brooklyn,” he said into my voicemail. “You dialed the wrong number and I didn’t want you to think that no one returned your call.”

Namaste, indeed, I thought, for being considerate enough to let me know that my call had misfired.

A real king of kindness in my mind is Narayanan Krishnan, a talented chef turned social worker who started feeding the homeless and destitute in his Indian hometown. The astonishing part is not the gourmet meals that Krishnan delivers, but the love that he feeds to his people—cutting their hair and bathing and hugging them, even though his caste rules forbid it. As Krishnan says, “We all have 5.5 liters of blood,” no matter our race, class, or bank account balance.

Choosing to be kind isn’t always easy, especially when others seem unkind. That’s when I have to remember that I can’t really know what pain lies in the heart or mind of another person. That guy who cut me off at the rotary may be facing a layoff, or worse. The woman who let the door shut in my face may be worried sick about a sick child.

“If you’re gonna make up a story, make up a good one,” a friend of mine used to say when I’d get all twisted up about a perceived slight from someone.

Good idea, and certainly a kinder way to be.

And so I try, and sometimes fail, and try again to be kind to those around me. It helps when I remember to start with myself, because practicing self-compassion makes it easier to feel loving-kindness toward others.

I like to think that practicing kindness creates ripples of goodwill and good behavior that extend far beyond the original gesture, but perhaps the most motivating reason to be kind is that it benefits both givers and receivers. In the words of Swami Kripalu: “By making others happy, you make yourself happy. The key to your heart lies hidden in the heart of another.”

Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life,  Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or over the phone.

(Note: this essay was written for Thrive, the blog of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and also appears here).

Could You Just Listen?

Each spring and fall, I lead support groups designed to help people recover and express their passions and creativity via The Artist’s Way. The process involves a fair amount of listenpersonal disclosure, as students identify their desires and explore what’s in the way of living them.

In the first session, I distribute a handout called “Could You Just Listen?” to set the tone for our interactions. It begins, “When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving me advice, you have not done what I asked. When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.”

That may sound harsh to those of us who’ve occasionally dispensed unsolicited advice and tried to talk people out of their feelings. The author of this passage (who remains anonymous) goes on to say, “When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.”

Hmmm. I had to roll that one around in my brain several times when I first read it. After all, it’s hard to listen to someone who’s struggling and not want to help, right?

But listening is helping, as the author explains, because, “…when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational, then I can quit trying to convince you and get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.”

As I’m learning in Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology program, good listening can benefit relationships of all kinds, workplace dynamics, and even physical health. Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers cites active listening as a growth experience for both listeners and speakers. “When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on,” Rogers says. “It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.”

I know that some of the most healing moments in my own life were spent with people who sat quietly beside me, opening their hearts to receive what mine had to share.

Eager to be a better listener, I once joined a book group to study The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction, by speech pathologist Rebecca Shafir. We met weekly to discuss obstacles to listening, which typically include our judgments about a speaker, our impatient desire to respond, and, of course, our incessant internal chatter. Sometimes, even when we appear to be listening (maintaining eye contact, nodding our head), we may actually be composing our to-do list, formulating our reply, or thinking about anything but what the speaker is saying.

I fully admit that I can be an impatient listener, especially when someone is spinning tales or talking circles around a subject. “Cut to the chase,” I’m often thinking in such moments (and, unfortunately, sometimes saying with body language). In these instances, Shafir might tell me to imagine that the speaker is a fascinating movie character. I’ve tried that, with mixed results…

On the other hand, when someone is sharing deep truths and heartfelt emotion with me, I’m hooked through the final credits.

These days, I’m keenly aware of how often people talk at each other rather than with each other. I frequently feel rushed in conversations and hear myself saying to chronic interrupters, “What I’m trying to say is …” I’ve actually stopped greeting people with “How are you?” if I don’t have time to hear the answer. “Good to see you!” feels more authentic.

Ironically, I think I’ve gotten so used to people not listening attentively that I sometimes feel uncomfortable when they do. I find that kind of … sad.

Deep, empathic listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone, and one of the greatest gifts we can receive. It’s an opportunity for greater intimacy and connection, and aren’t we all hungering for that?

Could it be that that our attention spans have shrunk in proportion to the number of screens and smartphones out there? We’re expressing all over the place, but is anyone really listening? Tweets, texts, sound bites, and instant messages fuel our desire for instant gratification, but they leave little room for cultivating the inner stillness that’s required of a good listener.

It’s still my intention to get better at listening, and so I will keep practicing. I believe it will make me a calmer person, which can only help, well, everything. And if I want to be deeply heard, which I believe I do, it’s only right that I give others the same opportunity.

(Note: This post was written for The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and also appears here.)

Moving Into Happiness

By Kim Childs, CPPC

It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I’m a yoga teacher who dislikes exercise. To be more precise, it’s the thought of exercise that turns me off, because I usually do feel better afterward. I’ve long considered exercise a chore that takes time away from other things walking-featurethat I need or want to be doing. What I’m starting to know in my bones, however, is that moving my body is essential to uplifting my mind.

Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, says that exercise is the “single best thing” we can do for our brains to boost memory, learning, and mood. “It works on anxiety, on panic disorder, and on stress in general, which has a lot to do with depression,” Ratey says. “And it generates the release of neurotransmitters—norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine—that are very similar to our most important psychiatric medicines.”

Obviously, I need to reframe my view of exercise if I want to thrive. Or maybe I just need to have more fun with it.

Last spring, I arrived at Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology (CIPP) immersion week and saw that Let Your Yoga Dance classes were on the daily program schedule. For three days, I resisted, claiming fatigue or preferring to meet friends for lunch. Finally, I decided to give it a try.

During the one-hour class, instructor Megha Nancy Buttenheim led us in dancing, prancing, swaying, singing, and celebrating our bodies—and each other—with glee. When the class ended, I was glistening with sweat and delirious with joy. Every part of me was buzzing and I was in love with the world. I asked Megha why I felt so good.

“By moving through the energy centers of the body, you were experiencing a lot of things at the same time,” she told me. “You had an aerobic experience, which is good for cardiovascular health, and your brain was firing because I was teaching steps that you had to follow and words that you had to sing. When people are sitting in programs for most of the day, it’s exhausting on many levels. So the class was a huge wake-up call for your body and brain.”

That’s a wake-up call I could use more often.

Megha, who has developed a “healing through joy” curriculum, says that many CIPP students have cited her classes as essential to “landing” the teachings of the course through the body. “If it’s happiness we’re seeking, the body needs to be included,” she says. “My desire is for the entire Positive Psychology movement to include movement, because it’s not an adjunct component. It’s a crucial one. After all, the brain is the body.”

Among the thousands of books that offer Positive Psychology practices for greater happiness, almost none focus on the body, notes CIPP course director Megan McDonough. This is an oversight, she says, because well-being must include the whole person. “The physical is there, whether you acknowledge it or not,” she says. “We’ve heard how, when we feel depressed, our body will fold in. We’re now looking at the opposite with researchers like Amy Cuddy showing us how the way we hold our bodies can affect our emotional well-being.”

Cuddy’s popular TED talk focuses on how certain “power poses” (e.g., mountain pose with arms raised) can change the body’s biochemistry and affect our emotions. Standing in postures of confidence, even when we feel insecure, can alter testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain and prime us for intimidating situations like job interviews, presentations, and confrontations.

Martin Seligman, a cognitive psychologist and pioneer in the modern Positive Psychology movement, has stated that psychology has traditionally had a limited, “neck-up” perspective on mental health. After seeing the compelling research on exercise and brain health, Seligman and his team at the University of Pennsylvania’s Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program added physical exercise to their lives and course curriculum.

With all these voices in my head, and volumes of research proving the ability of exercise to boost health, mood, learning, self-esteem, and creative thinking, I need no more reasons to exercise. I just need to overcome my resistance to doing what’s good for me.

Right now I’m going to stand up, move away from the computer, stretch, and go for a long, brisk walk. It’s my preferred form of exercise because it puts me in nature, connects me to my community, and lets me listen to podcasts.

And, nine times out of 10, it makes me quite happy.

Kim Childs is a Certified Life and Career Coach specializing in Positive Psychology, creativity, retirement and spiritual living. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or via phone or Skype.