The therapy of kindness
Too often, we measure our value by how busy or successful we are.
(Illustration by Aida Novoa & Carlos Egan)

Recently, I passed a colleague in the hallway and greeted her by saying, “How are you?” She responded with a sigh and a smile, “Too busy. You know, it’s just life in the modern world.” Her honest comment jolted me awake, and led me to think more about the tremendous pressures of contemporary society.

Take, for example, this shift. A few decades ago, a common greeting in China was, “Have you eaten?” This was not an invitation to dinner, but a reflection of a value system - both care about food and concern about whether you have enough. As China catapulted into a modern market economy, the common greeting changed to, “Are you busy?” This shift echoes in the hallways of our work, family, and social circles throughout the world today. And, of course, the desired answer is, “Yes, thank you, I am very busy.”

Too often, we measure our value by how busy or successful we are. But these are not true measures of how we are. The true measure of how we are is who we are - the kind of values we have and the kind of meaning we make of our lives. Ultimately, I believe, the measure of a person is the kind of heart that she has, the kind of love that she gives herself and gives to others.

Recently, I learned about the ancient Buddhist practice of ‘lovingkindness’. I stumbled upon it while experimenting with an online meditation app. The simple 10-minute guided meditation was centred around offering these four benevolent intentions to oneself:

May I be happy;
May I be safe;
May I be healthy;
May I be at peace.

With each breath, I was invited to offer these blessings to myself, one by one. I repeated these four sayings, slowly, letting them sink into my softening heart. Then, I was invited to offer them to those I love, then to those in the circle around me, and then to those in the wide expanse of the world.

May you be happy;
May you be safe;
May you be healthy;
May you be at peace.

This is a radical shift in orientation - fortunately, in an emotionally healthy direction! With this shift, the busy life fades into the background as a life of inner well-being emerges into the foreground. A negative slant is replaced by a positive aspiration. Values are transformed from doing to being. Achievement is replaced by loving kindness.

During the guided meditation, I found my mind wandering to a recent experience. This experience expanded my heart and my world, and I want to share it with you.

First, a bit of background. Three years ago, my husband and I adopted a dog from a local rescue organisation, a three-year old female Great Pyrenees. Beautiful Bella is a pure white gentle giant, bred to guard sheep in the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France. Since there aren’t too many sheep in Los Angeles, however, Bella’s guarding is limited to barking in the air while lying on the living room sofa! As it turns out - and to our great surprise - Bella is gifted for an entirely different job.

We discovered Bella’s gift by watching her interact with people during our neighbourhood walks. Bella wanted to say hello to everyone, both young and old. She set the nervous person at ease and delighted the dog lover to no end. Through these experiences, people repeatedly remarked that she would make a great therapy dog. At that point, we didn’t know anything about animal-assisted therapy. So, we researched, we trained, we passed the test, and we began to visit local hospitals, psychiatric facilities, and nursing homes through a local volunteer animal assisted therapy program called Love on 4 Paws.

People are both amused and amazed that I work full-time as a psychotherapist and then choose to work more hours as a therapist on the weekends! But the truth is that Bella is the real therapist; I am simply her assistant, making sure that everyone is safe and that she is in position to do what she does best. She makes people feel better.

Animal-assisted therapy is an act of loving kindness. For a few moments, we touch the lives of people in their darkest hours. They are sick, hurting, frightened, and lonely, ever so lonely. Some will recover and go home, but some will need lifelong care.

The loving kindness meditation dovetailed with a particularly special therapy visit to a long-term nursing care facility. All the patients there are on respirators because they cannot breathe on their own. Some have been in an accident, others have had a stroke, and others have had serious health difficulties since birth. There are babies, children, and adults.

On this visit, as usual, we visited the rooms of child and adult patients. Bella was so tolerant as she let me position her to be petted, navigating around the medical equipment with lots of beeping sounds and concerning looking people. We had some extra time, so the escort brought us into a large indoor play area. There were eight toddlers there, each with a mobile respirator and a caregiver helping them. Each had a spot to watch videos, play with blocks, or do physical therapy with a staff member. The feeling in the room was cheerful, quite unexpected given the grim circumstances. Now, what to do with Bella?

We did a few tricks: sit, shake, high five, and cross your paws like a lady. There was soft cheering from the staff and giggles from the kids. Over time, I manoeuvred Bella nearby each child, and the nurses rolled the portable respirators so that the children could get near enough to pet the dog. We worked together like this until each child had his or her turn, and then I asked Bella to lay in the middle of the room. She lay down on her side, breathed that deep sigh of contentment, and relaxed as I petted her for the remaining time. We weren’t rushed and there was a sense of stillness as the visit unfolded. At one moment, I stepped back in my mind’s eye to take in the scene. Here was my nearly 100-pound dog, white as snow, gentle as the breeze, lying in the middle of a room surrounded by these little ones and their caregivers. There was no fear. There was just her calm, healing presence. There was just love.

May I/you be happy.
May I/you be safe.
May I/you be healthy.
May I/you be at peace.

There is so much suffering in the world. So many lonely, frightened, unwell, heavy-hearted people, struggling in ways like these children and in smaller ways like us all. We cannot really do much about it. Our busy-ness and our accomplishments don’t touch that kind of pain. As the American country artist, Martina McBride, sings, “Love’s the only house big enough for all the pain in the world.” When we are present to the pain - our pain as well as the pain of others - we bring a heart of loving kindness. That simple offering can make a difference, to the one who receives and also to the one who gives.

People repeatedly remarked that she would make a great therapy dog.