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  • Writer's pictureJean Linville

Kindness & Linnaeus

After every meditation session at The Redding Meditation Center there is a Dhamma talk. At the session I attended this past week, the talk centered on the idea of wishing happiness, peace and wellness to all beings whether or not you have a positive relationship with them. This led to a discussion of the meaning of being kind and showing kindness. At one point, another practitioner paraphrased two definitions of the word “kindness” and “kind”, which proved to be very thought provoking. When I returned home I immediately went to the wall of books in my studio and pulled out two dictionaries and a thesaurus. I quickly thumbed to the “k” section in all of them and located the words “kind” and “kindness”. For me, and I think most people, the first meaning that springs to mind and is most used is:

kind•ness n. 1. the state or quality of being kind. 2. a kind act; favor. 3. kind behavior. 4. friendly feeling; liking. (Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, 1996).

But what really resonated with me was the second definition that was brought up in the discussion, which followed more along these lines:

kind n. race of animals etc. (The Little Oxford Dictionary, 1969).

kind n. A class that is defined by the common attribute or attributes possessed by all its members. (Roget's II The New Thesaurus(1980).

It is a small paradigm shift to be sure, but I think an important one. To interact with other people while thinking that “yes we are of the same kind”, we are all humans is quite different that simply thinking of them with kindness. For one, I don’t feel that it is easy to think of someone we disagree with or who has harmed us in some way with kindness. But perhaps if we think of them as being of the same kind as us, we will be reminded of just how similar we all are and it may help us move eventually to an interchange of kindness. I feel that this is an equally important shift to consider with all forms of life including plants, animals, insects and so on. The reality is, if you believe in evolution, that all beings have a great deal in common and in fact we all are derivatives of one larger classification group. This brings me to Carl Linneaus.

Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the author of Species Plantarum and Systema Naturae, is best known for creating the binomial naming system for plants and animals, which is still in use today. Within this system kindness, as described in the second definition, would be the equivalent of a domain. As humans were rarely operate on the level of domains. We love to point out differences, which at times can be troubling and problematic. In fact, we rarely choose to look at the world even on the scale of kingdom, phylum, class, order or family. There are times where this larger view of life could be incredibly helpful in creating a world full of more happiness, peace and wellness. But there are also times when a more targeted view is required as I recently learned firsthand when ordering some plants for our yard.

You would think that just knowing the commonly known name, which generally is the genus, would be enough when purchasing some plants, but as I discovered this is not always the best. As I set about ordering some native seeds and plants, as part of my efforts to restore some ecological balance in our yard, I quickly saw that only Linnaeus could save me from ordering the wrong seeds or plants. First I generated a list of interesting plants that would work with the amount of sunlight and quality of soil that is available and then I worked on finding sources for both plants and seeds. For example, one of the plants that kept popping up in my research was Beardtongue, whose genus name is Penstemon. Well, there certainly wasn’t a problem finding them because there are over 250 species in this genus, but what soon became evident was that the issue was going to be in finding the right one. A search of "penstemon" on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Database produced 137 results! Yikes! But when I narrowed the search to just those suitable for the state of Connecticut, only 7 penstemons were listed, the other 130 were not native to my region. Further restricting the search to “6 hours or more of sun” and “moist soil” produced only 2 results. Ultimately, I decided on Penstemon digitalis, whose common name is Foxglove Beardtongue. I will be thrilled if I can successfully germinate these slender columns of white tubular flowers, but my enjoyment of them will be tenfold knowing that Linnaeus helped me to be kind to my yard’s ecosystem by ordering the right plant! The fascinating part of all of this is that by focusing in on a very specific species, I am positively impacting a much larger whole. The key is to keep shifting one's point of view from the singular to the larger whole. Perhaps then we can have the best of definitions of "kindness".

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