Be Benevolent by Rick Hanson

What are your intentions toward others?
The Practice

Be benevolent.

Why?
Benevolence is a fancy word that means something simple: good intentions toward living beings, including oneself.

This goodwill is present in warmth, friendliness, compassion, ordinary decency, fair play, kindness, altruism, generosity, and love. The benevolent heart leans toward others; it is not neutral or indifferent. Benevolence is the opposite of ill will, coldness, prejudice, cruelty, and aggression. We’ve all been benevolent, we all know what it’s like to wish someone well.

Benevolence is widely praised – from parents telling children to share their toys to saints preaching the Golden Rule – because it has so many benefits:

* Benevolence toward oneself is needed to fulfill our three fundamental needs: to avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. When these needs are met, your brain shifts into its Responsive mode, in which the body repairs and refuels itself, you feel peaceful, happy, and loving.

* Benevolence toward others reduces quarrels, builds trust, and is the best-odds strategy to get good treatment in return.

* Benevolence within and between nations promotes the rule of law, educates children, feeds the hungry, supports human rights, offers humanitarian aid, and works for peace. Benevolence toward our planet tries to protect endangered species and reduce global warming.

Of course, this is just a partial list of benefits. Bottom-line, benevolence is good for individuals, relationships, nations, and the world as a whole.

The fact that benevolence is often enlightened self-interest makes it no less warm-hearted and virtuous. And at this time in history when individuals feel increasingly stressed and isolated, when relationships often stand on shaky ground, when international conflicts are fueled by dwindling resources and increasingly lethal weapons, and when humanity is dumping over nine billions tons of carbon each year into the atmosphere (like throwing 5 billion cars a year up into the sky, most of which stay there) – benevolence is not just moral, it’s essential.

But easier said than done.

How can we sustain benevolence in ourselves and in our relationships, nations, and world?

How?
* Know what benevolence feels like in your body, heart, and mind – Bring to mind a sense of warmth and good wishes toward someone. How does this feel? Try on other kinds of benevolence, and toward other beings, to sense what these are like as well.

* Realize that benevolence is natural and normal – In the media, we are so bombarded with words and images of anti-benevolence that you can start to think that ordinary decency and kindness are somehow exotic. But in fact, as we evolved, our ancestors stayed alive and passed on their genes by caring about themselves and others. And given the gratitude and reverence for nature commonly found in hunter-gatherer bands today, they likely also cared about the world upon which they depended.

* Take care of yourself – When your core needs are met – when you’re not stressed by threat, loss, or rejection – the brain defaults to its resting state, its home base. From this home base, most people are fair-minded, empathic, cooperative, compassionate, and kind: in a word, benevolent. While it’s possible to sustain goodwill in a state of fear, frustration, or loneliness, it is sure a lot harder. An undisturbed, healthy brain is a benevolent one.

* Take a stand for benevolence – Establish your intentions formally – perhaps at the start of the day, or during a contemplative practice, or at a meal – to wish yourself and all other beings well. In challenging situations, take care of your needs while also asking yourself, “How could I be benevolent here? How could I restrain any destructive thoughts, words, or deeds? Can I wish for the welfare of others? Can I express compassion and kindness?”

* Step out of your comfort zone – Not doing anything foolish, consider how you could stretch a bit (or more) in your good intentions toward others. For example, seeing people you don’t know, try wishing them well. Or with someone who’s irritating, try looking past the surface to sense this person’s own stress and worries; without waiving your rights, can you find more patience, can you let go of recrimination or payback? Or could you extend yourself with friends or family, maybe doing more dishes or giving someone a ride? In the larger world, consider volunteering some time or giving more to a charity.

* Last, appreciate some of the benevolence that buoys you along – We’ve all been nurtured and protected by friends and family, humanity altogether, and the biosphere. In some sense, there’s an exuberant benevolence in the physical universe itself; consider that most of the atoms in your body – any that are heavier than helium – were born inside an exploding star. Afloat in these gifts, who could not be benevolent?!

2 thoughts on “Be Benevolent by Rick Hanson

    • Several years ago I was working dnootwwn in a secured building. It was just after lunch and I was outside in the parking lot overseeing a recent delivery of supplies. As I was walking toward the front of the building I was stopped by a man who was asking for help. I recall that he was very tall and his clothes were noticeably small for his stature. He was pleasant and respectful, but obviously in some distress. He asked me if I knew of anywhere he could go to get help. He explained that he was a transient, a recovering heroin addict for many years, and was on a methadone program for over 7 years to help control his addiction. The problem was that he had run out and was, in his words, becoming very concerned for his survival. He wanted to know if there was a methadone clinic in town. I instantly knew this man was in trouble. He was gentle in his manner, yet I could see the fear and panic in his eyes. I told him that I would go back to my office and make some phone calls. I brought him into the building and asked him to sit in the waiting area. I called the Health Dept. and they referred me to a woman at the local methadone clinic. I spoke to a woman at the clinic who immediately agreed to see this man and help him out. She gave me the directions to her office and I quickly printed out directions from our location to the methadone clinice for the man. I returned to the waiting room to find the him waiting anxiously. He was obviously in pain and as he put it close to the edge’, and was extremely relieved to see me with paper in hand. I gave him the directions, and after many thank yous from this gentle giant (he was at least 6’8 ), I walked him outside. As I watched him go, it became clearer to me how much distress this man was under. I felt happy to be able to connect him to someone who could hopefully help him out. Little did I realize how much this would impact my own life. I returned to my work routine, but couldn’t help thinking of this man and wondering if he was able to get the help he needed.The next day, I went to pick up the mail at the front office and the receptionist told me that someone had dropped off an envelope for me. It was odd as I didn’t receive personal mail at my workplace.I opened the envelope and found a greeting card. The front of the card was a picture from the beginning of last century, old models A’s parked in front of a fairway with a huge sign reading The Greatest Variety of Sensational Freaks & Living Wonders From All Parts of the Earth. OLYMPIA CIRCUS SIDE SHOW. I opened the card which had printed Thinking of you. Inside was written, Bonnie, I just wanted to express my gratitude for helping me find a methadone clinic yesterday morning. You quite literally saved my life. So thank you for helping a total stranger get the help I so desperately needed. Sincerely, Clark This literally weakened my knees. I felt my heart grow warm and tears well in my eyes. Here was another human being, obviously in much pain, but feeling so grateful for a simple act from a stranger that led him to the help he needed. The card, which has hung next to my workstation at work, and now hangs in my home next to my computer, was and continues to be a constant reminder to me of how fragile all of us really are in this world, and how we all have the power to help ourselves and each other survive and heal. Clark gave me a gift that day, renewed hope and trust in the human spirit. Trying not to be too corny here, but love really is the answer.

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