Kindness Deconstructed

The most practical, everyday way of working to increase kindness in this world, is to work with the opposites of loving kindness, with our own habitual patterns and disturbing emotions. We can also resolve to be fearless, to leap into actions that contribute to the greater good, actions that very directly help ourselves and others. The practice of loving kindness involves a certain sense of risk. Great compassion involves great risk. You have to leap.

When you make good money on a stock, you may earn big money in a short time with only a small investment. But to earn that big money, you had to make an investment involving great risk. If you prefer to make a low-risk investment, you can do that too, but the gain will be small. In the same way, if you want to develop great loving kindness, you have to be fearless to take that risk.

When you finally let go of your usual speculations and just take the leap to be kind, then kindness is a wonderful experience.

We usually think of loving kindness as benefiting others. That’s a big problem actually, because if we think it only benefits others we have a hard time stepping fully into the practice of kindness. We think, “But what about me? Is this taking me away from my own immediate needs and responsibilities? Am I taking this kindness thing too far?” That’s the problem. We keep thinking, “This is benefiting others too much. I cannot afford to ignore myself and my own needs. I cannot ignore the people in my immediate circle.”

We think our loving kindness is helping others to transform, let’s say, a life of poverty into a better life. We think our kind acts only help others and not ourselves.  But the reality is that acts of compassion have the power to transform the giver in unexpected ways. Usually when we consider doing something kind for someone, we anticipate their other’s benefit and we forget all about the potential for our self-transformation. But there are unanticipated ways of transforming, of benefiting oneself. In the end, our acts of kindness are helping us more than others. That’s the secret of kindness, but don’t tell anyone. Oh no, did I just tell the secret? I need to make a note to myself: “Don’t tell the secret of kindness to others.”

When we think our kindness only benefits others, we’re like a prankster who finds out they are the object of the prank. Not only is our practice of kindness helping others, it also has great benefit for ourselves.

We have this very strong sense of self-identity which is a cornerstone of our western cultural development. As we can see, not only in western psychology, religion, and philosophy, but throughout our modern culture today, there is great importance placed on individualism––on an individual identity or concept of self. After so many years living in the US, I finally have begun to understand this a little bit more clearly. It helps to look at the history of western civilization, to see how the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment played a big part in developing this sense of an individual identity.

But despite all of this emphasis on individualism in our modern culture, it seems we have evolved quite a bit. If you look at pre-renaissance and post-renaissance history up until present day, we have made a great deal of improvement. You can see how our basic sense of self has improved, as people from different countries and backgrounds having greater respect toward each other. You may not get that impression by watching the news, that we have improved in this way––you may still see that we have more room for improvement––but at the same time, some progress has been made. Our sense of self, our sense of individual identity, has changed a lot through the generations, as slowly, slowly we have come to our present understanding of the world and our place in it.

Does our sense of self need an upgrade?

Our sense of individualism, our sense of self, may not be the most up-to-date self we can possibly reach. There may be a better version of that self, so we may need an upgrade. We may need to download Self 10.0. Otherwise we may be stuck in Self 9.3. And eventually we may need to upgrade further, to Self 10.1.

If you are a smart device user, most of the time when you upgrade to the next OS, you can see a lot of improvements in your new operating system. But it comes with a bug. Then shortly after that, you will download a patch for that new system. Now you have Ah! What a relief––some of the problems are gone. Not all, of course, so the developers keep providing more and more patches until some kind of perfection is reached in that particular OS.

Don’t you think our notion of a self needs an upgrade? Don’t you think it’s a little too old? It’s like we’re running DOS on a Windows system. You are an analog type of person walking around in a digital world. That’s how our current version of our self is––clunky and outdated.

It’s time for our notion of self to be reconfigured. It’s been reconfigured since the beginning of time, so why not now? Our sense of self, of who we think we are, has evolved so much. Through the efforts of all the eastern and western philosophers, it is now vastly improved. But we are stuck in this world of one version––so it’s time to upgrade!

It’s time for us to be more innovative and make the leap to transform ourselves. We have to take this leap, actually change our way of understanding who we are––our idea of self or no-self––so that we find a genuine sense of identity. Practicing loving kindness can help us bring about this transformation.

So here is my warning to you. Here’s the fine print: the practice of loving kindness and compassion may change your self-identity. It may transform you on the spot. So you have to be prepared for that. It is entirely possible that one day you may be surprised. You may be just scrolling along on your phone and suddenly feel a genuine sense of kindness toward someone who used to irritate you, someone you used to habitually dislike or ignore. It can happen.

Kindness isn’t a complicated technology, and yet it can transform our old self-identity. We can seize the opportunity now, we can get the upgrade, just by relating with each other on a basic human-to-human level, without getting blocked by four-letter words and concepts. We need to go beyond those ideas and connect with each other at the fundamental level of our common human suffering, acknowledging our common human neurosis, and on that basis, simply care for one another. This is the most practical technology available to us, and it’s a free upgrade.

Kindness Upgrade: An Exercise

Let’s get a free upgrade to our sense of self! You can try this exercise for a little inspiration.

1. When was the last time you had an opportunity to be kind — by saying an encouraging word, offering your help, or just smiling at someone?

2. Did it feel awkward, or natural, to extend your loving kindness? If it felt a bit awkward, do you wish that kind action had come more easily?

3.  Think of a simple act of kindness you would like to do. When and how will you do it? Will you invite someone else to join you?

4. Imagine you have just done this act of kindness. How do you feel, in general? How do you feel toward the person you were kind to? How do you feel toward yourself?

5. Almost daily we are presented with situations that challenge our kind intentions. If what we see on our mental screen is keeping us from being kind, we can always refresh! How? Simply by generating a feeling of positivity toward ourselves and others. Try it!

5. Plan to do just one act of kindness and then . . . keep going.


The teachings that appear in this article were given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at a retreat in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 2017.

Read more: The Myth of the Self