The Quality of Mercy

It was my mum’s 91st birthday this week, or it would have been, if she’d still been alive. I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness recently, and it always brings to mind one of her favourite quotes, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…

Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I

I always hear it in my head when I experience or witness an act of kindness and for a moment, I see the gentle rain, and realise why I quite like it falling on me from time to time. It’s beautiful.

It fell on me recently and unexpectedly when I was on a hiking weekend in the South Downs with friends. Uncharacteristically, I hadn’t brought a waterproof jacket with me because the weather forecast hadn’t predicted any rain at all. And here it was, going from gentle to persistent downfall in a matter of minutes. I spoke to Sue, the manager of the Eastbourne YHA we were staying in to see if she had a bin bag I could fashion into a poncho. “Just a minute,” she said, disappearing into the office. She came out holding her own waterproof jacket, “Just post it back to me when you’re done. Here’s a jiffy bag with the address on it.”

I was utterly amazed that someone would offer such a thing and thanked Sue for her kindness. “Well you’d do the same for someone, wouldn’t you?” she replied. No, I’m not sure that I would, actually. And a straw poll of my friends revealed they probably wouldn’t either. I wished I was more like Sue. We all did.

I felt a warm glow for the rest of that day, especially as the rain dissipated after an hour or so and the sun came out. I remembered the last time this had happened – the woman who bought me a coffee when I didn’t have any cash in my local coffee shop and their card reader was broken. “I’ll buy you one!” she’d said brightly, stunning me, the staff and everyone around her with this random act. I felt that warm glow all day.

Why are these moments so rare and so surprising? Maybe it’s because I live in London and everyone is surprised by someone even talking to a stranger. One of the many benefits of my recent yoga teacher training is that it introduces and reinforces the idea that we are all connected – human, animal, plant, elements – in one vast totality that is the universe. When you look in someone’s (or something’s) eyes you witness a ‘divine light’ that resides in all of us.

In our first week of training we took part in a partner yoga session that had us all moving slowly from one person to another, holding their hands and looking into each other’s eyes for a few seconds. That’s all it takes. You look, you see, you connect. Most of us cried our eyes out for a reason we couldn’t quite articulate. It seemed to me that we rarely look at each other in the eye, especially in London. Truly seeing someone or being seen is to be vulnerable. I know, because it took me a week to be able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye. Maybe I was worried about what he would see…

I turned up at the training desperate to impress. Surely, with my track record of professional presentations and ballet teaching I will shine at this. Then Sudhir started to talk about how we are all plugged in to a life-force (prana) in the totality and how we express its energy differently. If we imagine it as electricity, then we can express it as a lightbulb or a fan, even a fridge or a hairdryer. The important thing to know is that we are all unique expressions of the same thing and we are all connected by it.

I asked Sudhir why I was so desperate to shine, even to outshine others. I didn’t want to be a regular lightbulb, I wanted to be the biggest, best, shiniest Christmas light and I was exhausted by trying to achieve it. He looked down and smiled, “You have to realise that you are enough already. What are you trying to prove? And to whom? It is done.”

I didn’t have an answer to that. It was literally a lightbulb moment. I realised that I didn’t have anything left to prove, to others or myself. I could just be. I could just be a lightbulb who shares its energy with all the other bulbs around it, who could shine alongside them and be happy. There is no need to outshine anyone else or even my own achievements (I have always found my biggest competitor is myself and I’ve asked her to retire gracefully.)

I have found that the really good yoga teachers always have the ability to look into your soul. They don’t shy away from a direct gaze and there is an indefinable openness to their faces (I call it ‘yoga face’). While I was training I realised that one or two teachers I’d had back home were not kind or merciful and in fact, they were edging towards bullying. They didn’t seek any connection with their students either before or after class, and in fact, only bestowed their gaze on a few chosen ones. It felt like a cult. On my return I sought out the opposite and I have found two teachers, one in particular, who sees me. The lightbulb is shining clear and bright within her and now I see it, it’s obvious that it was there from the start, and very much missing in others.

Once you truly see people (and animals…and inside yourself) you can’t go back to averting your eyes from them. They’re there, connected to you, urging you to be a better person. Not better than them, but better because you share something with them. The Sues, the coffee-shop ladies and the good yoga teachers of the world remind you that they’re right there next to you the whole time – when you’re being jostled on a busy tube or in the supermarket checkout queue.

Or even in the gentle rain falling on you on the South Downs.

Photo credit: Mohammed Salik 2019

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