Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Practice of Everyday Kindness

"A Few Simple Flowers"
-in my meditation garden-

It's amazing what you can learn sitting in the waiting room of a doctor's office by just paying attention to what is going on. Yesterday I sat in such a room. 

Throughout my life I've sat in hundreds of waiting rooms at numerous doctors' offices - it's almost always the same experience. The receptionists are sometimes pleasant, more often abrupt,  and at times even rude - barely tolerating the people who have appointments to see the doctor. Waiting rooms are often quiet places, but rather than being calming, the silence often hangs like a cloud over the room - filled with tension over upcoming appointments. No one makes eye contact as people avoid one another by browsing through magazines they would otherwise never read. 

My experience in the waiting room yesterday was totally different from anything I had ever before experienced. It was a very low-stress place. People were smiling and even laughing at times. Almost everyone was engaged in some form of conversation. I didn't see a magazine anywhere.  The elderly man who sat next to me smiled and talked with me about how much better he is feeling since he gave up smoking two years ago - I congratulated him on his success.

As I  "paid attention" to what was going on in that room,  I very quickly realized that the relaxed atmosphere, the lively conversations and the camaraderie were all due to one key person who was literally "making it all happen" - a very "kind" receptionist. 

There is a big difference between being "nice" and being "kind." People can often be "nice" to others for very selfish reasons - pasting on a phony smile and saying pleasant things so that other people will like you.  Most of the time it's fairly easy to see through the thinly-veiled facade of "niceness" 

But the "practice" of kindness is far different. The practice of kindness is a diminishment of self-centeredness. The practice of kindness shrinks the ego.  That's why Buddhists talk about "practicing kindness" as a spiritual discipline. Kindness is an act (big or small) done on behalf of another's welfare. One extends kindness to another in order to help, or encourage, motivate or comfort the other person.  

In the waiting room yesterday, the receptionist wasn't rude or indifferent. She wasn't even "nice" - no pasted-on smile, no dismissive wave: "Take a seat,  the doctor will be right with you." 

Yesterday the receptionist was kind. She was practicing simple, everyday kindness. 

I watched carefully as her face lit up every time she greeted patients who entered the room. No one was a number, an anonymous name to be processed and then ignored after they "coughed up" their co-pay.   I really got the sense that she honored the dignity of everyone who approached her- inquiring about their health, encouraging them if they seemed especially frail or elderly. I personally had a humorous conversation with her about the difficulty of pronouncing many syllabic Polish last names. Her last name was longer than mine.

And when she wasn't receiving people at her desk, she was in the room - bringing a glass of water to a woman in a wheelchair, checking on why another patient hadn't yet been seen, always engaged in numerous conversations 

Her kindness was infectious. It spread through that room like wildfire. People not only made eye contact but they were actually talking and even laughing with one another - and an elderly man was telling me about how giving up smoking had helped to heal his life.

I couldn't help but think of how one receptionist's small, simple acts of everyday kindness in a doctor's office waiting room had, in fact, changed the world that day - making it a better and more beautiful place. 

Instead of experiencing stress, instead of feeling ignored or maybe even abused, all of us in that room went home yesterday with an experience of being honored, a sense that someone else was concerned for our welfare.  In some sense the waiting room was more healing for me than my regular  appointment with my doctor.

Who knows how what went on in that waiting room may have affected what all of us did for the rest of the day yesterday. Kindness is infectious.

As always, I begin my day practicing meditation. I will live my day practicing kindness.


  1. Loved your post. Great observations and very uplifting. I distinctly remember a bus driver in San Francisco who made everyone's day because he was so engaged with the riders, greeting each one warmly. Kindness can be undervalued and really is quite soul healing...thanks, again.

    1. Isn't it amazing that such simple acts can have such great impact?

  2. Oooh, I love that last line! Our presence with others is so important. I try to think of this with my students, in terms of how I greet them and how I begin class. Setting the tone is crucial.

    1. Yes exactly--thanks for the great comment.

  3. Your observation is spot on.
    Yes the response is spontaneous and it reverberates.
    Anyone who walks in gets suffused by it.
    As a health care professional it is difficult to balance practice and kindness.
    But when one loses onself in the latter, it has such a positive change in the atmosphere

    Hope you saw my blog post, I had sent a link to you.
    Would be great to hear your feedback