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Kindness: the 70% solution

I was learning the principles of qigong, a traditional Chinese energy practice, when my teacher told me about the 70% principle.  “In qigong,” he said, ” we only take our movements to about 70% of capacity.”  What a radical notion!  I was used to yoga, where I would enjoy that stretch and the feeling in my body that would tell me when I was at 98%, maybe even 100%, and sometimes, well, maybe even 101%.  That exciting feeling that I was taking my musculature into new territory, new levels of flexibility.  What was 70% going to do for me?

A principle of qigong is to take your movement to 70% of capacity

In time, I learned that the 70% principle was one of the most powerful elements of qigong, and it has done more for me that I could have imagined.  By only taking my movement to 70% of capacity, I was able to focus my entire attention on the internal energetic activities taking place in my body when I made a movement, and I was able to do it for as long as I wanted.  Because I wasn’t stretching my body, it didn’t tire out and complain.  It didn’t risk overstretching and causing injury.

But most important of all was the realization that the 70% principle offered kindness to my body.  It caused my body to relax and enjoy each movement.  It caused each fiber in my muscles to gently become part of the movement rather than fighting it.  It taught gentleness to my inner being.  It turned resistance into harmony.

It didn’t take too long before I began to apply the 70% principle outside qigong to other parts of my life.  Working too hard on a chapter of my book and beginning to wear out?  Just take it to 70% of my capacity, then stop for a while.  Trying to make a point in a heated discussion with a friend?  Just get to 70% of the point, then relax and let your friend take it from there.  Trying to achieve certain goals in personal growth?  Don’t aim for the entire goal, just for 70% of it.

It began to dawn on me that this 70% principle was even more radical than I had realized.  Hell, it was more radical than communism!  If our entire society started to work on the 70% principle, our whole global capitalist economy would fall apart.  I came originally from the business world, where I was used to the cliché of 110%.  When you wanted to impress your boss that you were trying really hard, you’d tell him “I’m going to give it 110%.”  In the business world, 100% isn’t even good enough.

Stock crash: if applied to our global capitalist economy, the 70% principle would be more radical than communism

Imagine if the CEO of a public company got on the phone and told investors, “This year our company is going to try to achieve just 70% of our performance standards.”  The stock would crash and the CEO would be out of there before the day was out.  And imagine if a whole country just put in 70% of their effort into their gross domestic production.  They would get out-competed by other countries and disaster would arise.

Now imagine if the entire world worked at 70% of capacity.  Well, all of a sudden, everything would be different.  Our unsustainable drive towards global catastrophe would begin to change direction.  The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would start falling.  People would have more time to spend with their families, to consider those other aspects of their lives which are forever getting left behind.

The 70% principle would save our world, if it were applied across the board.

But since that’s not going to happen any time soon, how can we apply the 70% principle to ourselves?  How can we be kind to ourselves in all aspects of our lives?

Here’s an example.  I was at a meditation retreat, and one of the retreatants had a question for the teacher that reflects a common experience.  “I know that I’m meant to direct my wandering mind back to my breath,” she said, “but how hard should I try to do that?  If I don’t try hard enough, I feel I’m just wasting my meditation.  But when I try too hard, it becomes stressful.”

“Seventy percent!” I wanted to answer back.  But it wasn’t my place, so I just sat there and heard the teacher give an answer that left everyone unsatisfied.

There are so many aspects of life where the 70% principle works.  Once you start applying it for yourself, you’ll find the applications are endless.  As time has gone on, I’ve realized why it works so well, which I’ve summarized as follows:

70% is kindness; 100% is unsustainable; 50% is half-assed.

70% is sustainable and yet it keeps getting you towards where you want to go at a reasonable pace.  It’s like the speed you’d go at if you’re running a marathon.  If you went at 100%, you’d never get to the end.  You could go at 50% of your capacity, but then you’d never really feel you were accomplishing anything.  Or you could go at 70%, and get to the finish line, sweaty and proud, without any injuries.  Life is a little bit like that marathon.   Personally, I want this particular marathon to last as long as possible, and for me, 70% is the principle I use to try to ensure that happens.


Aldous Huxley once said, “It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, ‘Try to be a little kinder.'”  Huxley was being characteristically humble, but there was really no reason to be embarrassed about it.  After a lifetime spent searching for the ultimate meaning of life, perhaps he had stumbled upon it without even recognizing it for what it was.

For Aldous Huxley, kindness was the last word on the human condition

This blog is called Love and Harmony and it’s based on the notion that these are the ultimate sources of meaning in our life.  But what about all those times when you’re not in touch with a sense of unconditional love, and you’re feeling positively disharmonious?  What to do then?  That’s where kindness comes in.  It’s something that is always available to us if we choose it, and exercising it will always bring us closer to those states of love and harmony that can provide enduring happiness.

The very word “kind” offers hints of its true depth of meaning.  It derives, like the word “kin,” from the Old English word gecynde, and it originally meant “natural, native, innate, with the feeling of relatives for each other.”  Kindness means acting to someone else as if they’re a member of your family, someone you care about, someone with whom you share a home.  It means recognizing that ultimately all humans are part of the same family, and we all share the same home on this earth.

We share with fruit flies – and all other creatures – the experience of being alive together on this earth

In fact, we can go beyond humans, and extend that kindness to all life, recognizing that we share over 90% of our DNA with all other mammals and 44% with fruit flies.  We come from the same common origins, and we all share the experience of being alive together on this earth.  We all share the same appetite for life, the same sense of purpose, and we can all feel a deep sense of what it means to be that other creature.  That’s what kindness really recognizes.

Intention permits you to be kind to your self.

But kindness doesn’t just refer to how we can be to others.  It actually begins with how we can be to ourselves.  Our society, however, unfortunately teaches us the opposite.  It teaches us to push ourselves to breaking point, to judge ourselves harshly, to hold ourselves up to standards that we can’t attain.  And when we’re unkind to ourselves, that sets the stage for us to be unkind to others, too.  How can we overcome that harshness to ourselves that we’re taught from our infancy?  That’s where intention comes in.  As discussed in previous posts, intention is the beginning of the spiritual path.  And once we’ve truly set an intention for ourselves, this enables kindness to enter into the picture the next time we judge ourselves harshly for not being the person we think we should be.

Here’s how it goes.  Let’s say there’s a part of my self that I’m continually judging harshly.  Say I get scared of social gatherings.  I know I should go to them, but then my fear of them either stops me, or causes me to act in ways that I then regret.  Usually, I judge myself badly when this happens.  I tell myself I’m a failure and feel emotional pain within me.  Now suppose I’ve set a true intention to overcome that fear.  Suppose I’ve begun seeing a therapist, or perhaps I’ve started a course in meditation.  The next time something goes wrong in a social situation and I feel that harsh judgment arise, I can now say to myself: “I recognize that this is a difficult situation for myself, and I’m doing something about it.  I’m doing the very best I can for myself about this situation, so there’s no reason to judge myself harshly.”  Now, with your true intention in place, you can give yourself permission to be kind to yourself instead.  You can possibly say to yourself “I won’t go to that stressful gathering because I don’t need to prove anything to myself.”  Or perhaps you might say “I’ll go but if I act in a way I later regret, I won’t punish myself for it, I’ll just be kind to myself.”  Every time that judging voice arises in you, you can answer with another voice, a voice of kindness that says, “I’ve set my intention, I’m moving in the right direction, and I can love and respect myself for that.”  In this way, intention doesn’t just permit you to be kind to yourself, it permits you to be kind to every part of yourself, even those parts that don’t seem kind themselves.

Love integrates; kindness lubricates

Kindness lubricates consciousness the way oil lubricates a car engine

You can think of kindness as a sort of lubricant of consciousness.  Consider a car engine purring along.  There are dozens of parts, all connecting with each other, and when they’re properly lubricated, they smoothly interact without causing any harm.  Imagine, though, your car engine had no oil.  Each metal part would strike the other and cause friction.  Sparks would fly.  In no time at all, your engine would break down.  Now, let’s consider our consciousness like that car engine, where each of the parts are the different voices, values and drives within us.  It’s love that integrates all those parts and enables them to work together.  But it’s kindness that lubricates them.  Even if two different voices within you seem to be in conflict, they can still be kind to each other.  They can recognize that each voice represents different needs in the mind-body organism that is you, and with that lubricant of kindness, they can allow each other a place in consciousness without sparks having to fly.

When the pathways of consciousness are lubricated by kindness, the transitions between them can occur harmoniously and without resistance.

If you are kind to yourself at all times, you will begin to love your self

Once you learn to be kind to yourself at all times, then those parts of you that are usually hidden away, those deep, dark places in you that have been banished from consciousness, will begin to realize that they can emerge a little.

When you’re kind to yourself at all times, those parts of yourself that are used to hiding away will begin to trust that they can come out and be cared for.

They will begin to trust you.  They are so used to being judged harshly, to being told how vile they are, that they stay skulking away, like little rodents, in the basement of your consciousness.  But if you continually offer kindness to all parts of your self, they will begin to reveal your self to you.  And it’s only through noticing, understanding, accepting and embracing all the different parts of you that you will ever get to truly love your self in an unconditional manner.

Intention permits kindness.  Kindness leads to trust.  Trust encourages all the different parts of your self to reveal themselves to you.

Unconditional kindness to your self can unlock the containers holding your deepest fears.

Intention, kindness and trust will lead you to love your entire self.

[Next post: Kindness: the 70% solution]

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