Creating the habit of kindness is difficult because it is impossible to see one’s own faults in action, and when we don’t see our own habits it is impossible to change them for better ones. Habits are spontaneous reactions coming from our past automatic learning. We are responding to a perceived situation and habits manifest themselves instantly in response to perceived situations. We move on to other habits before we are even aware that these first ones have come and gone. A dozen habits have manifested themselves and passed into history before we realize what we have done, and then we can’t change something which is already past. And the various habits having repeated themselves are even stronger.
Usually people think of bad habits as being several seconds long, as is implied in the following old proverb: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” The meaning is usually thought to be, don’t attract attention to your own vulnerabilities, but there is a time element in the stated thought and its associated actions which are several seconds long. A similar timing element in a saying is “The pot calling the kettle black,” where the calling out is of a few seconds duration, but it refers to a blackening action that has lasted for hours as these two previously clean pots were heated over open fires and were dirtied. Another old proverb, “Before you seek to remove the speck from your brother’s eye, remove the stick from your own eye,” is a little longer in a temporal sense, because it compares two different fault events each of which is a preexisting habit with a size and time component. All of these sayings refer to making an effort to correct one’s own failings and bad habits before addressing other people’s bad habits. They all imply a self-reflective acknowledgement of responsibility in their own habitual behavior, but they also imply a difficulty in changing the behavior.
There is another aspect to this problem and these sayings — the implication that when we intentionally have momentary consciousness of our flow of habits we can do something different. Most of the time our past learned habits will run automatically and our conscious self is just along for the ride. We can’t change our internal state because it is invisible to us, but when we see an external thing going on we can choose to relate to it differently. It is in that instant in time, when we are conscious of the external events, that we have the opportunity to change our habit of how we relate to them.
When we have an opportunity to criticize a fault we see in another person we can choose, instead of casting a stone, or observing their blackness, or pointing out a speck in their eye, to instead help them with their ongoing task. We could observe why the other person is casting a stone and help them toss it to the ground. We could observe why the other pot is black and realize it is because they are working to warm the contents within and we could help with that process. We could observe the tiny flaw in the other person’s eye and in the process of helping them we could learn to remove the flaws in our own perceptions. These processes are external to our own habits, but they do permit us to change our own bad habits without actually being able to see their internal structure. We can see and change external things and our relationship with them, and by doing so we can change our internal things and their resultant habits even though we can’t see them.
“Being kind to others trains us to be kind to ourselves.”