The art of practising kindness
In the process of being kind to the world, people often forget the most important entity who must be attended to first - oneself.
On Sunday, as we trekked through Pfelders, in the Passeier Valley, gaping in awe at sweeping vistas of Alpenrosen in bloom, I found myself veering towards the subject of kindness. It was the first time in my life that I was pursuing a somewhat strenuous outdoor activity with decent footgear.
I've gone hiking many times before, but usually, along the way, the soles of my shoes would fall apart, or, because my toes were strangled by consistent tightness, my nails would be miserable for days. My left big toenail still suffers the trauma of years of ill-fitted shoes.
As I walked at a comfortable pace, I thought about how we have been conditioned to think of kindness as a practice that is performed externally. We are told to be kind to others. Not once in my entire life, until therapy, had I been told that the beginning of real empathy is kindness to one's self.
Some weeks ago, while catching up with Partho, I began to evangelise about how kindness towards others is almost hypocritical if it doesn't stem from practised kindness towards self. It's abundantly easy to tell someone to 'take care of themselves', but as the person offering this counsel, do you feel sure that you do enough of this as part of your own self-care routine?
Within a fiercely capitalist environment, this radical notion of self-care, espoused by Audre Lorde, is marketed to us as something external to our consciousness. It is regarded as a form of 'treating yourself', or indulging your appetite, or giving oneself permission to 'give in' to a craving. Self-care routines are sold to us as something ritualistic. Once again, a word with deeply feminist and queer origins has been appropriated as part of a consumerist vocabulary.
Kindness is self-care. But what does this truism mean, how does it translate into an everyday practice? I'm still learning. But one shortcut to un-conditioning that I've found effective is to treat yourself the way you would want a loved one to treat you, or how you have been taught to treat someone you love. This is where the equation gets radical, where you really need to probe deeper.
I had been told that selflessness was a virtue, and that to even think about my own needs was perverse and selfish. If you've been raised to perform as a 'woman', then even more do you internalise that your desires are trivial, that your role as mother or daughter or wife is to make yourself subservient to others' needs. So we try to extinguish ourselves, and we don't genuinely believe we deserve any triumph that might in fact be ours to claim. We over-emphasise the role played by others in our own successes, denying our agency. The feeling of imposter syndrome, for example, believing that you haven't merited a positive outcome or feeling secretly inferior, so much of this comes from a fundamental lack of kindness towards oneself, which makes us unable to validate our strengths.
The inability to truly take care of ourselves by firmly delineating boundaries is another reason why women subconsciously tolerate so much emotional, psychological and physical boundaries. It has been drilled into us, the need to over-empathise with the other so much so that we are often simply unable to empathise with ourselves.
"Do not expect to receive the love from someone else you do not give yourself," bell hooks cautions in her book, "All About Love". "One of the best guides to how to be self-loving is to give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others," she writes. These lines have become affirmations for me as I inch towards my 35th birthday and embark even more seriously on the task of healing my self.
I have decades of un-kindness towards my self to undo. I am still learning how to receive grace. And part of the strategy that was suggested to me was to learn to 'feel' my feelings instead of intellectualising them or talking myself out of them. The counsellor at our marriage preparation course told us the simplest way is to just complete the sentence, "I feel ___". The blank space should be filled in with an emotion. And remember, you don't feel 'that', you don't feel 'because'. You feel sad. You feel happy. You feel afraid. The feeling must be an emotion that you feel within you. The starting point is to articulate to yourself what you are feeling when you're feeling it, and not retrospectively. Only then can you begin to process the 'why'. This is crucial, I've realised, to practising emotional hygiene.
I'm nowhere close to 'there' yet, but I can vouch for the fact that ever since I've made these small alterations to how I experience my self, I've found I'm more capable of immense kindness towards others. I've begun to feed on my self and nourish it at the same time.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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