The Lizzard in Cornwall
How acts of kindness spark so many values in all of us. We speak to Professor King about the importance of acts of Kindness
by Colin Higgs/16th-August-2020
We speak to Professor Pete King about the importance of acts of Kindness.
Peter can you tell us a little about your background?
“I was an academic for 30 years I have taught at 5 different Universities History and Criminology and we moved five years ago to Cornwall to build a garden, a prayer meditation garden and do a hospitality project near the Helford River in Cornwall and we’ve been enjoying it. I’ve been doing the Chaplaincy as you say at the University for a few years taking my two golden retriever dogs in and creating a kind of retriever club as well.”
“I love being in Cornwall for five years and we were halfway maybe 2/3 way to building this mediation garden which will open with the quiet gardens movement (https://quietgarden.org) that allows people to come and use the garden free when its open.”
“This was my wife’s dream; she’s a Gardner and a stained-glass artist and I’m now an academic whose skills are not terribly actually applicable to making a garden but then I can write a history of the garden but I’m not quite sure I’m so good at doing the gardening and in fact plants tend to die in my hands!”
Pete King in his meditation garden with his dogs
What would you like to share with other people through your experience as being a support Chaplain at the University?
“It comes out of the time of Covid in a way and what it is that it challenges us to think about, what I’ve got as my strap-line, which is two ways replenishing our souls; Kindness and Forgiveness. Or compassion and mercy and you could say that in a way they are synonyms for the same thing. So many people in our culture if asked: ‘How do you replenish yourself?’ Would say: “As I did yesterday. I’m going on a shopping spree or I aim going to go on a holiday!” In our never enough culture, we are taught , this is how you replenish yourself; you buy something else.”
“And what I’m saying ,obviously, is the actual way of replenishing yourself is through relationships and getting those relationships right and all kinds of good order. I’ve chosen to talk about kindness and forgiveness and these are part of a broader range of things which I get excited about. Now in our garden, that we are building, we have planted a ring of nine olive trees and there’s nine of them and they symbolise; love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’
“I just like to focus, for the moment, on kindness and on the other absolutely vital soul replenishing activity of forgiveness. The chaplaincy. Has a space with a kitchen, dining room, it’s got a lovely set of sofas to sit on and a mezzanine with a bed to lie on and beanbags. So it’s a Home for students. They come there to do nothing or just relax or cook!”
“But they also come to be refreshed with a relationship with the Chaplain (I go in 2 days a week!) I’m going with my two Golden retriever dogs which offer this immediate affection where the the dogs climb on your lap if you sit on the floor. So what we’re trying to do there is provide a kind of a home!”
“So, what I found is, I’ll give an example of one student for example who came this year. She arrived in the first week of Term, she came down realised the dogs were there, and said ‘I will come every week!’ She is very very quiet and she’s got the equivalent of ME. Being a student for her is a huge challenge as she’s not got normal energy levels she’s fighting through her first term which you can see.”
“She came every week, I always ask her how she was, we chat for little bit then she stays for 1-2 hours in the company of the dogs and the other students and then leaves. At the end of term she wrote me a note. A lovely note, saying: ‘that this experience in being in this kind place has made a huge difference to my first term. It’s enabled it to happen in a way that would not have been possible with out it!.’ ”
“I think what I learnt from that , was that I was not offering very much. I was saying: ‘Hello’, remembering her name and being there if she wanted to talk! But she didn’t normally want to talk. We are just showing her acts of kindness but it meant a lot her.”
“The kind of stuff the chaplaincy provides; a listening, quiet kindness, can be incredibly special. Small acts of kindness can be incredibly important. The other thing is, that kindness affects our chemistry. I was reading a book by Hamilton on the chemistry of kindness. The neuroscience of kindness. Where he talks about all the ways the chemicals in our body change and go forward in positive ways when we do acts of kindness!”
“We live longer! Similar to other activities like feeding a baby! So the science is there along with the psychology. I actually believe God hard wired us for kindness!”
“Of course another aspect to kindness is to love your neighbour as yourself! Love your neighbour, yes and be kind. But be kind to yourself!
It’s only as much as you can be kind to yourself, as you can be kind to others! It’s not just about giving but as much as about the depth of receiving.”
“We have an awful habit of being mean to ourselves and others. Kindness draws this out! In the chaplaincy, we feel with the students where they are and show compassion to them! For me this has been one of the revelations of doing the Chaplaincy where a simple act of compassion (of kindness!) can have such an impact on others!”
Above images; Professor Pete King in his meditation garden, and his guest annex and the bottom image shows the University Chaplaincy
If you are kind to someone else with an open heart, are you saying that it replenishes the giver as well?
“Yes, that’s what Hamiltons Book on the chemistry of Kindness is talking about. You can spot the chemical changing when you do acts of Kindness. They have conducted many empirical studies recording the changes in peoples bodies undergo. Volunteers, live 25% longer, as you go to old age. People, in a good marriage live longer; kindness is coming back and forth but it’s about receiving as much as giving.”
“Such a small act on our behalf can have such a deep spiritual and physiological affect for both the giver and the receiver. This is something I know to be true from my own experience at the Chaplaincy. It’s quite Beautiful really!.”
David Hamiltons Book; The 5 Side Effects of Kindness
Kindness supports the immune system
Research shows that kindness (due to how it feels when you’re kind) boosts levels of an important immune system antibody known as ‘secretory immunoglobulin A’ (s-IgA for short). One of the most amazing facts of this research is that the effect is turned on simply by watching kindness. Yes, ‘watching’ kindness. It works because the immune boosting effect is due to how kindness feels, which is the same whether you do kindness or witness kindness. The opposite is in how stress supresses immune function and, similarly, that’s due to how stress feels, whether you experience something stressful or whether you’re feeling stressed from watching negative online content.
So, in addition to being kind, why not reduce your exposure to negative online content, or even reduce how much News you watch! Increase the amount of inspiring content you watch instead. Watch and share videos and clips showing acts of kindness and compassion. Follow social media accounts that lift you.
This isn’t just a psychological feel good. It has immune boosting consequences.
Compassion reduces inflammation
Compassion is close to kindness. It’s the feeling that usually motivates a kind act. Amazingly, compassion has anti-inflammatory properties. It rests on the fact that compassion stimulates the vagus nerve, also known as the ‘caretaking nerve’. Since human infants are born technically premature compared with the young of other animal species, human parents have to care for their babies for long periods of time before they are able to fend for themselves. Just as the nervous system has evolved to respond to stress and so protect us in times of danger, over millions of years of evolution, a portion of the human nervous evolved in concert with the caring and compassionate feelings of parents such that, today, we have a portion of the nervous system that responds quickly to compassion. It turns out, that this portion also controls the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’, which helps control inflammation levels in the body.
Modern research confirms that compassion stimulates this portion of the nervous system (the vagus nerve) and also reduces inflammation.
Kindness supports mental health
Lots of research shows that kindness increases happiness. Studies that compare people asked to do more kindness versus people acting as normal show that those doing more kindness usually feel happier as a consequence. Other research shows that kindness offers some protection against depression. Studies comparing people who do regular volunteer work with those who don’t show much lower rates of depression in the volunteers.
The happiness-boosting and depression-countering effects seem to have their roots in the neurological effects of how kindness feels, but in addition kindness taps into something deep and spiritual in us.
Brain imaging studies indicate that kind and compassionate feelings cause physical changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, biased to the left-hand side. That’s the portion of the brain behind and above the eyes. This left hand portion is known to be an area associated with positive emotion. With kindness and compassion practice, the area grows much as a muscle grows when we exercise it. The result is that anything that area is used for becomes easier to access, just as anything that a muscle is used for becomes easier if it’s been strengthened through exercise. And so kindness and compassion build this brain region, making positive emotion easier to access.
But kindness can be a spiritual act too. Being kind taps into something deep inside of us, a knowing that what we are doing is the right thing to do. Perhaps that is the real root of why kindness feels good and perhaps, on some deep level, the physical effects on the body are nature’s reward to us for expressing the best in us.