The Joy of Caring

(An earlier version of this essay first appeared in the Valley Insight newsletter in April 2018.)


The real basis of connectedness comes through our actions. When you interact with another person, a connection is made.
— Thanissaro Bhikkhu

We act in this world in three ways: through speech, deed, and thought. In reflecting on the nature of our relationships, we might consider that we give and receive care in this world in those same three ways and that the quality of our connectedness with others is directly related to caring, which manifests as friendliness and kindness. Thanissaro’s quotation above continues:

Now, it can be a positive or a negative connection, depending on the intention. With generosity [caring] you create a positive connection, a helpful connection, a connection where you’re glad that the boundary is down, a connection where good things can flow back and forth.

On a mid-March morning a number of years ago, after the second of two big snowstorms, I went out to do a little post-storm shoveling. I had done the bulk of it the evening before, so I was expecting just a few minutes’ work. However, both the Lebanon road crew and the sidewalk plow had come through after the man who plows for me; so there were two “windrows”—long piles of heavy, hard snow—at the foot of my driveway. I began to dig into those piles with great ardor and with some amount of not-yet-noticed resentment. My energy mounted and pretty soon I was aggressively throwing the snow from the piles into the street!

Gradually, I did become aware of the tension in my body, the gritting of my teeth, etc., and I did notice the arising of the thought, “See how they like it….” As this knowing of my own anger dawned, all of a sudden, right there, in that sunny, cold winter air, I started to laugh. It was ridiculous really, and I knew it. I woke up! I was right there, wide-awake in my driveway, present at the beginning of the heart’s shift to enjoyment. I began to feel a sense of wonder and a heartfelt appreciation for the dedicated public servants who were working overtime to keep our community going.

Just at that moment, as my mind-stream was slipping out of resentment, a man in a truck with a snowplow was driving by. We caught each other’s eyes. He stopped and backed up; he asked if I wanted his help. Yes! His plow cleared the driveway within a minute or two. Afterwards we talked for another few minutes. I told him how I had been vigorously throwing snow back into the street. He told me that he often gets calls from his plow clients, who live on the busy Route 10, requesting him to come back and re-clear the driveways after the town comes through because they can’t shovel though the hard packed snow. We laughed together, appreciating the angst of all those involved in snow removal––especially the public road crews––and then we went on our separate ways, into our happier worlds.

Care: “A connection where good things can flow back and forth.”

I experienced a lot of joy in this very short encounter, such a simple yet profound moment of friendly and helpful caring. There was the obvious caring connection between me and the man who stopped to help me move the snow piles: care expressed through actions and words. There was also evidence of the birth of care in the internal, subjective unfolding of my gratitude and compassion for the Lebanon road crew: care expressed through thought. Perhaps more fundamentally, there was the self-care of mindful self-awareness—supported by a kind, interested, and patient attitude towards the process of my body and mind on that cold morning: care expressed through the skillful working of thought. Miraculously, I didn’t beat myself up for harboring resentment. I was heedful, careful, and curious. Actually, the whole experience arose from the caring intention (care expressed through thought again) to get the snow off the walks and out of the driveway so that the other people who live in my house and the sangha members, who would soon be arriving for the Thursday morning gathering, wouldn’t be inconvenienced or harmed in their walking down the driveway to the barn.

From a Buddhist perspective caring has everything to do with joy and happiness. The good news is that caring is an ordinary human capacity, one that we all have, and one that we can cultivate for the benefit of our own well-being and for that of others. Recognizing and rejoicing in the joy that caring brings to all involved can help our “positive connections” grow.

Four important inherent qualities, common to all of us, provide the basis of Buddhist ethics and guide our caring relationships. These are (1) a friendly, open-hearted kindness (metta); (2) an instinctual, compassionate impulse to protect others and ourselves from harm (karuna); (3) a rejoicing in the good fortune of others and in our own goodness (mudita); and (4) a spacious, balanced evenness of heart, which trusts and cares and is patient with the natural unfolding of things (upekkha). You can feel how these are some of the “good things”—good feelings—”that can flow back and forth” in a moment of care.

Hatred never ends through hatred
Only through the willingness to love
Is hatred vanquished.
— Buddha

As a kind of bonus, when we grow and utilize these four boundless capacities of our hearts, we are also diminishing those other very human capacities, the ones that lead to carelessness, cruelty and despair—the ones that lead to war. The practice of kindness releases the heart from ill will; compassion releases the heart from cruelty and the wish to harm; rejoicing releases the heart from discontent; and equanimity releases the heart from the mindless passions of anger and lust.

Caring: It is not just a matter of faith;
It is a matter of practice.
— Thich Nhat Hanh

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