Guest articles >
by: Rick Hanson
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,
But easier said than done.
How can we sustain benevolence in ourselves and in our relationships,
nations, and world?
- 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?!
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and Huffington Post, and he is the author of the best-selling Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He writes a weekly newsletter - Just One Thing - that suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.
Published here on: 19-Feb-12