What I’ve been reading lately

I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from teaching, so no dharma talks to post, but an opportunity to recommend a few books I’ve read lately!

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
It gives me great hope for the human race that this book remains on the top of the bestseller list! It is a story of our interconnection with nature, with a main character who raises herself in the marshland of North Carolina. It is beautifully written and stays with me still though I read it months ago. The author creates a world that lets me breathe deep and take it all in. This is not to say it is without story-line or suspense, for those who need such things!


The Mama Sutra: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Path of Motherhood by [Cushman, Anne]

The Mama Sutra,  a Story of Love, Loss and the Path of Motherhood by Anne Cushman
Anne was a yoga/dharma teacher of mine for many years and we have recently reconnected in a poetry class we both take. Back when she was my teacher and I was the class manager at
Spirit Rock Meditation Center, her now college-age son was a newborn who once came and showed us how to do the cobra and other natural positions that came so easily to him and were often so challenging to us. Before her pregnancy with her son, she had shared with us her painful experience of losing her daughter who died in utero just days before her due date. So reading the book brought back the great joy and deep sorrow she shared in such a way that we all really learned deeply about life’s impermanence and why really living in the present moment fully with gratitude matters.
Anne has always been a very deep and funny writer, willing to lay it all out there for the sake of reminding readers that it’s okay to be human. She’s fearless in both sharing her most vulnerable moments and brilliant in exploring and sharing the dharma.
So I highly recommend this book which has rave reviews from notable dharma teacher authors Tara Brach, Lama Tsultrim Allione and Natalie Goldberg, among others.

Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California edited by Lucille Lang Day and Ruth Nolan
This thick volume is such a celebration of the beauty and vulnerability of the most diverse state in the US. What makes it so approachable and rewarding is the way it is divided into sections by habitat, so the reader gets immersed in the coast, the hills, the lakes, the mountains, the cities or the desert, as a variety of poetic voices come together in a symphony of deeper understanding. Brilliant! With over 150 poets, including past and present poet laureates of counties and the US, sharing their deep love of nature in this special place, this book is a true celebration of California.
I am pleased to say that one of my poems is in the book, and that it was one of six poems nominated for the Pushcart Prize! 😉 But that’s not why I’m recommending the book. By the way, all profits from the sale of the book go to non-profit environmental organizations.

(Although I include links to Amazon for purpose of further information on each book, I encourage you to support your local independent bookstores if you plan to buy copies.)

So those are a few of the books I’ve been reading lately. I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading!

Cultivating my mama bear energy

Happy Mother’s Day! Thank you to all of you who are mothers — birth mothers, adoptive mothers, step-mothers, foster mothers, mothers-in-law, and to all who bring forth loving protective energy in the care of what you love.

Of course I am remembering my own mother. Lately I have been thinking most about her passion for world peace and the energy she put into working toward it, using her particular skills to create a better world.

She inspires me as I bring more sharply into focus my attention to my lifelong passion for preserving and protecting the earth and all its inhabitants from environmental destruction. I am reminded of the chant ‘The earth is our mother, we will take care of her’*. So Mother’s Day is also Earth Day. And every other day needs to be Earth Day too, if we are to develop the healthy habit of taking care of the earth instead of mindlessly and callously destroying it.

Mama bear energy is exactly what the earth needs from us now: Attention, love and protection, in order for our species and all life, to survive.

It’s pretty easy to activate the sense of protecting the earth if you have children and grandchildren who will have to cope with the exponentially increasing devastation in the wake of the many poor choices made in the distant past out of obliviousness, and then for the past many decades overtly and covertly but in any case knowingly continuing, out of greed and shortsightedness.

The idea of our offspring suffering in the future for what we fail to do now is, well, insufferable. Yet somehow there are people in power with grandchildren, perhaps even great grandchildren whom they profess to love, who lack the foresight or concern for their futures. Perhaps they believe that amassing fortunes and favor will save them. Last I looked, climatic chaos doesn’t check bank accounts before wreaking havoc. Just ask those whose palatial estates have been decimated by flames, debris flows, floods and other disasters.

Maybe in the past people could convince themselves that it made sense to believe that ‘as long as I’ve got mine and my family’s okay, why should I care about the rest of the world?’ But we are beginning to see ever more clearly the truth of our interconnection. Just the way when one thread in a sweater breaks and gets pulled, pretty soon you have a jumble of yarn and not a sweater that can keep you warm. The interwoven nature of all life is like that. It’s crucial for us to recognize that dying coral reefs or melting glaciers cause universal changes that affect us all. We are all of us, without exception, interdependent, and the most tenuous of connections can be the very broken thread that unravels it all.

Our regular practice of quieting the mind and cultivating awareness and compassion, increases our ability to sense the inter-connectivity of all life. Practicing in nature deepens our understanding of interconnection and the nature of impermanence.

It is important to learn both of these universal truths together. If we come to terms with the nature of impermanence but don’t sense the connection of all life, then we easily fall into depression, hopelessness, unrelenting grief and loneliness. We forget our vital role in the scheme of things. When we grow in our delight of life, just as it is in this moment, and feel this fleeting body-mind we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ as one expression of it, then we are able to openly embrace whatever arises with interest and compassion. Instead of fear-based cravings and aversions, making an enemy out of everything, we can recognize the ways we are impacting all life through our behavior — both beneficial and destructive. We are not insignificant. We are crucial, as all life is crucial.

This is not self-puffery. it is recognizing the importance of taking responsibility for our actions. We are earthlings and our current behavior as a species is causing massive destruction and extinctions of species important to our own survival. Because this is us. All of us. Together.

There has always been a resistance to making changes in our daily life in order to live in a way that at least minimizes harm. For some it just hasn’t felt all that important. For some it’s important but it falls to the bottom of the ever-growing to do list. For others there is a sense of guilt that is so uncomfortable, they put off thinking about it. There are those who feel such a sense of hopelessness that there seems no point in doing anything. Others feel so small and insignificant, they can’t imagine anything they would do would matter. Some think that we are fooling ourselves to think that what we do makes any difference, that what we need is to wait for some brilliant new savior technology that will take care of it all. And there are even some who look forward to the end, forgetting that before extinction comes a lot of suffering.

Pause for a moment to consider where your focus lies, and whether making a significant reduction in your carbon footprint and/or actively working on behalf of the earth and all its inhabitants, is a priority for you.

If you have done all you can do to date, and are willing to do more as part of your ongoing loving practice, I say thank you! Deep bows.

If you feel that the environment is not really your issue, I say, um, yup, it is your issue! All the other issues depend on this issue being addressed with full and unwavering attention. For example:

Are you concerned about immigration? Wait until you see what climatic chaos will cause, and is already causing, in the way of massive populations needing to migrate because their land is disappearing or depleted of the ability to produce food to sustain them.

Is your issue gun violence? Then surely you can see how much more of it there will be when people are fighting over resources.

Any issue you can name, if you really look at it, will reveal its deep connection with the earth — the air, water, soil. If your issue doesn’t rely on any of these for your ability to breathe, to have health and nourishment, then what planet are you on?

As I mentioned, my peace activist mom was an inspiration to me, but she was also at times a cautionary tale, because she would get burned out and fall into despair. The world seemed always on the verge of or actively involved in war. Her children were being told to hide under their desks in case of nuclear attack. She saw young men her children’s age drafted into a senseless war in Vietnam. Her own government was inclined to warmonger. She would be saddened to see, thirty years after her death, that the US is still actively engaged in war, and has a president who thinks saber rattling is a reasonable tactic in world affairs. Ah me. But even so, one aspect of Mom’s volunteerism helped to put someone in congress who made a major difference for many years. And who knows how things would have turned out without her effort? We never know. We can only put forth our wisest earnest effort, living our lives with loving purpose.

In that way, we rise above hopelessness. The current administration pulled us out of the Paris Accord (the agreement by the majority of world nations to reduce carbon and do whatever possible to at least slow down and avert the worst of climate change destruction), but many state and local governments have stepped up to meet and exceed the original agreement. For this and many other reasons — electric car sales have jumped 81% this year and the auto industry is manufacturing many more model. Many corporations are stepping up to the plate, even if the federal government won’t, And the nonprofit Earthjustice (because the earth needs a good lawyer) has won 90% of its cases against the president’s unwise anti-environmental decisions. The current crop of presidential candidates are making the environment an important part of their positions, when four years ago it was barely mentioned. So let’s not fall into despair. Instead, let’s stand strong and visible, like a mama bear protecting her cub. We need to show our power, individually and collectively.

At the very least, we need to be vigilant in our personal choices and work to significantly reduce our carbon footprint. As citizens we need to inform ourselves, spread the word and vote wisely, making the planet’s (and therefore our own) well-being a central issue for all potential elected officials. Then we need to follow through and hold our leaders accountable so they make wise environmental decisions. And to whatever degree we are able, we need to use our unique skills and gifts, as well as our time and energy to save the only planet we have to inhabit.

Because the earth is our mother, and she can’t take care of us if we don’t take care of her.

*Song credited to the Hupa tribe of Northern California and Southern Oregon.

The Incredible Shrinking Man

That’s what my husband called himself after his annual physical. He’d lost two inches in height. Not overnight, of course. Two inches off of what he had stated as his height all his adult life.

I remember when I started shrinking. It was a little disorienting, but also fascinating to see how attached I was to what I’d considered my natural height since I was fifteen.

Height is just one of the many ways we identify ourselves. When things change, as they inevitably do, we may have trouble adapting. We have become attached to thinking of ourselves in a certain way with particular characteristics. This is who we are. So when our body changes, mental adjustments need to be made as well. And that’s not always easy, is it?

We tend to pin our sense of self on impermanent aspects of being. And even the most permanent seeming aspects — our aliveness, our very breath, are transitory too. We may avoid thinking about such things, and we don’t need to dwell on them. but we can be aware of how life is like this. We can see change everywhere: the changing of seasons, family and friends grow up, grow old and yes, die. So why are we so surprised that time, gravity, stress and life events impact our bodies, too? Despite all evidence to the contrary, we often choose to see ourselves as the exception. We may worry that any changes in how we look will jeopardize our lives, our relationships and perhaps our livelihood. But deeper than those concerns is the discomfort of being reminded that life is fleeting, and that what happened to that autumn leaf that was once so supple, green and fresh, will also happen to us. Change will happen and life as we know it now will end. And whatever follows none of us can know for sure.

This attachment to a particular identity is a deep source of suffering. It can be challenging to see that it is the clinging — much more than the changes themselves — that causes suffering. If that sounds odd, pause to consider any pain you may feel at any physical loss either in looks or ability. Is it the loss or change itself that is causing discomfort? Or is it your thoughts and emotions around it? We create obstacles out of our attachment to identity, and it is part of our practice of being present and compassionate to see those patterns. Fortunately, like all things, those patterns are insubstantial and subject to change.

When we free ourselves from needing to ‘be’ the way we have always seen ourselves, and all the work that comes with reclaiming that vision, we come truly into the celebration of this life — a momentary gift to savor, like the first taste of a delicious dish. Switching our attention from how we look to allowing all our senses to open to this moment just as it is enables us to be fully alive, fully present, instead of lost in clinging to some sense of self that was never accurate anyway. Breathing in, breathing out, here and now, alive and ready to embrace with gratitude this fleeting gift of life with all it’s joys and sorrows.

(If you are interested in this idea of identity and would like to look more in-depth at the Buddha’s teachings about it, look at past posts about the Five Aggregates. Look over all of them and read them in what feels like a sensible order, which might not be the way they are presented in this link.)

What’s the difference between empathy and compassion?

(Following up on a comment on the last post.)
Empathy is inherent to brain development. From a very young age most of us are able to pick up on the emotional states of others. This ability is a benefit to the development of relationships, but it can also be problematic if a child is surrounded by significant distress.


Image by James Chan from Pixabay

With empathy we can relate to another’s experience, but empathy alone doesn’t activate the desire to help. In fact empathy can be used to manipulate people. As an example, in my long-ago advertising career, the more empathetic I became to the ‘target audience’, the people who might use my clients’ products, the more able I was to create ads that addressed their concerns. The ‘better’ I did, the worse I felt! I wrote an eight-page treatise on the evils of advertising, and then I quit.

It’s easy to see how unscrupulous politicians use empathy to shape their rallying cries to fuel the fears of their followers. It doesn’t matter whether the fear is based in reality to be effective.

Empathy is relatively neutral but endows great power. Buddhism is concerned with what we do with that power. It is not enough to understand how someone feels. What do you do with that understanding? Do you manipulate their minds to your own greedy ends? Or might you cultivate compassion for the benefit of all life?

In order to cultivate compassion, we can’t begin with other people’s feelings. We have to begin with our own. This may sound selfish, but we are refining our ability to give. Without compassion for ourselves, our intentions will be unwise and our actions unskillful. The regular practice of mindfulness helps us see the fear that sparks the unskillfulness. Self-compassion doesn’t offer an excuse for bad behavior. Instead, it heals us by reminding us of our intrinsic belonging to the family of beings, so that our intentions are loving and our actions are wise.

Compassion stems from the practice of infinite lovingkindness. We say blessings like: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy.

When we feel loving kindness for ourselves and understand that it is infinite in nature, then we can share it out of the undepletable fullness of lovingkindness. So we extend our blessings to include family, friends, community members, people we have difficulty with, and ultimately all beings. As we allow it to fill us, it overflows. We become conduits for it and can send it out in all directions, without exceptions, shining its radiant light into even the darkest places. How empowering is that! Instead of giving ourselves away, the metta fills and supports us, so that we are able to be loving and compassionate.

Without compassion, the empathetic person is often uncomfortable because they are reminded of painful experience of their own. And in order to make themselves more comfortable they either tell their story or spout platitudes that help them get past their own discomfort. A good place for skillful empathy is in a support group with the specific purpose of being with others who are going through similar experiences, are ready to discuss and feel the permission to face their emotions fully.

Compassion does not rely on having a shared experience. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t walked in your shoes or know firsthand what you are going through. We are both living beings, deeply connected in ways beyond measure.

My husband can attest that I have spent lots of time carefully ushering spiders safely outside, and more recently I have been experimenting with syncing my mind with flies saying, “If you go by the door right now I will let you out (to save you from the guy with the flyswatter)” and often the fly will go by the door and wait, then fly out when I open the door. Wow!

To my knowledge I have never been a spider or a fly. I do not know what that experience is like. But I don’t want them to suffer. I want for them what I want for all beings: a joyful life.

Now as I tell this story on myself, I can also think of all the ways that my compassion is stunted, limited, blinded. It is fairly simple to usher an insect out into the world, and it is in perfect harmony with my wish to not have them inside the house creating cobwebs and multiplying.

But let’s talk about the man on the street corner with a cardboard sign that says ‘Anything helps. God bless.’ Dealing purely with empathy, one might react generously or look away out of discomfort.

There is no easy answer to the ‘right’ thing to do. The quandary of anyone being in that situation in a world of so many resources is a stumbling block for me. But my lovingkindness practice kicks in and enables me to at least look at him and mentally send him every good blessing. May you be well.

The man on the corner might say, ‘Well, now isn’t that nice, but you can’t eat blessings. How about a $20? That would go a lot further.’ And it’s true that $20 would mean a lot more to him than it means to me at this point in my life. Yet I can still remember the anguish of a lost $20 fifty years ago. I still remember the exact spot I lost it, outside the veterinarian’s office in Fairfax. So there’s that bit of empathy kicking in. But, hey, don’t underestimate the power of lovingkindness to provide something palpable: Perhaps an energetic emotional shift from a sense of being seen.

When I ponder how to have a practical beneficial impact on this person’s life, I am inclined to give money to one of the many excellent services that might help him build a sustainable life, find healthcare, housing and maybe even happiness. I may give a dollar here and there, for the pleasure of giving, but I don’t pretend it’s making a difference in someone’s life. Unless in that exchange, I also offer respect, acknowledging their perfect right to be here on the planet just as they are with all they are going through.

People can become a bit addicted to finding empathetic connections and building relationships on them. People bond over shared experiences all the time, often with very positive results; and sometimes the reverse, as when people bond over and reinforce detrimental behaviors. Compassion is not actively looking for connections and seeking cues. It is being fully receptive, providing a safe space for the other person to say whatever they feel. The sense of connection is preexisting in compassion, the understanding that all life is deeply connected.

While there may be some comfort in being with other people who are  experiencing something similar to what we are experiencing, it becomes clear quickly that their experience is not our experience, and the way they process experience is different from ours, each based on personalities, tendencies, and all the other situations in our lives and our feelings about them that come into play.

One of my students coined a phrase on the spot in class this week: ‘arrogant empathy’ — assuming that similar experiences bring accurate understanding of what another person is going through. Since she immediately used the new term to beat herself up for her own perceived ‘arrogant empathy’, we’ll let that phrase, however accurate, go. Who needs more ways to beat ourselves up? Still, pretty clever.

Empathy is situational while compassion is universal, making no assumptions.
Compassion understands that all beings suffer in some way. Being alive is a challenge for every creature, whether it’s a butterfly that flies thousands of mile, a polar bear in search of prey, or being prey for a bear. None of us floats through life in a state of pure bliss. If we do, we are likely in a state of delusion. This motley experience full of joy and sorrow is the nature of being incarnate!

With all those joys and sorrows, empathy can help in certain identifiable situations, but in other it can’t get a foothold. Compassion holds the whole world in an open loving embrace.

Empathy sees divisions, compassion sees the whole of being.
Studies show that people of all backgrounds and ethnicity have a harder time feeling empathy for someone with different skin color or features, speaks differently or has a different cultural background. Again, compassion makes no such distinctions. It is the deep understanding of the interconnection of all life, how there is no ‘other’.

WIth compassion for ourselves and all beings, we can hold the challenges of others in a loving way without losing ourselves in them. We don’t have to bring out every miserable moment of our own lives to be all matchy-matchy. Instead we tap into the deepest resource we have and offer it up in whatever way is of benefit in that moment. That’s compassion.

The earth teaches us true compassion

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is earth-blue-planet-globe-planet-87651.jpeg

The earth provides us with everything we need to live. It’s a model of compassion. How different is the earth’s compassion from the way we fashion our own?

First, consider that the earth is there for all beings. It doesn’t pick and choose who is worthy to walk on it. And you never see the earth running around assessing needs, trying to be all things to all people. The earth is just there — here — fully present and supportive.

Can we be compassionate like the earth? Can we relax and simply be present for those around us? Can we be solid enough for them to lean on, receptive enough to listen to what they have to say, to accept their tears, without trying to be two steps ahead, figuring out what to do for them? Compassion definitely isn’t about telling people what they should do, is it? But that’s how it comes across when instead of listening, our thoughts leap ahead to how we will save the day with our oh-so-clever solutions. Oh stop! Relax. Let the earth support you and model good behavior.

This may be a real challenge for us if we are used to being in charge, putting our agenda first, thinking we can fix everything. It may be hard to let go of that identity of hero-savior-problemsolver, in order to tap into deeper, more effortless compassion. It helps to realize that our urgent need to help is often rooted in aversion. Except in emergency situations, it’s usually our discomfort with how things are that makes us rush around to implement changes. We cannot bear for a loved one, or maybe for anyone, to be unhappy, so we do everything in our power to alter the situation. How can this not be a good thing?

If we pause to be present with our own experience, we may be able to notice aversion there. Recognizing it allows it a voice in the conversation but not a dictatorial role in what words and actions we choose. It’s just an unpleasant feeling that wants to change the channel ASAP.

True compassion doesn’t try to change the experience of another person. It definitely doesn’t say Look on the bright side. It doesn’t try to take their mind off what they are experiencing. Can we pause to recognize that the impulse to impose that on them is just our own discomfort trying to make the unpleasant experience go away? True compassion is patient, allowing for what is arising to exist without commentary or re-configuring.

True compassion is infinite in nature. It has nothing to prove to anyone. It doesn’t have a to do list. It isn’t trying to gain points or likes on social media. When we feel compelled to solve other people’s problems or prove our love for them by taking on their burdens, we are likely to be operating from a shallow fear-based place, and our energy will soon be depleted. We will exhaust ourselves and the person we are trying so hard to help.

The caregivers among you know full well how challenging it is when another person’s needs dominate your life. How does this sense of earthy infinite compassion help parents of small children and family members of those who are unable to take care of themselves? As a young mother and later a primary caregiver for both my father and brother in their passing, I have experienced the stress of losing myself in trying so hard to do all that was required. But, thanks to my regular practice of meditation, I also found precious moments of being fully present with them. I noticed with my father how the more I relaxed into a receptive mode, letting him have his experience, the more he relaxed his natural defenses. I reminded myself not to exhaust him by making ‘helpful’ suggestions or trying to direct or commandeer what he was going through. He needed every bit of his limited energy for the huge transition he was making.

For perhaps the first time, my love made no demands on him. It was way too late to ask for anything more than he had ever been able to give me. For this time together, I let myself become like the earth, receptive, ever present, available to meet his needs, to let him set the tone and decide whether to have a conversation at all. This quiet way of being with him allowed him his own space for his experience. Behind the scenes I was making sure he had everything he needed to take care of him, but our time together was restful.

While my father’s care was relatively easy and I could provide all that was needed without disrupting his life, my brother’s care was much more intense. It took a whole assembled family team, and visiting hospice professionals, to meet his many needs. And he had needs that could not be met, which was painful for us all. He didn’t like us rushing around, tending to the requirements of the noisy equipment that kept him alive. He wanted us to sit and just be with him. As much as we could, we each found sweet moments of just being there. Giving that kind of compassion also feels like a gift to ourselves.

And that’s an important thing to remember: Cultivating earthy compassion, that sense of just being a supportive receptive presence, also gives us the ability to provide that same compassion for ourselves. When we can support ourselves in this way, we are able to provide for others. When we beat ourselves up over the many ways we have not ‘measured up’, who benefits? No one. Ever.

We can’t offer what we don’t have to give. By becoming aware of the way we treat ourselves, and accessing that deep stillness within, we can become the very earth under our own feet. Through our regular practice of meditation and living mindfully, we come to a level of deep compassion that is infinite and accessible.

And while we are embodying the earth’s compassion, can we develop deep compassion for the earth? Can we stop poking, prodding, fracking, paving, stealing, degrading and destroying this wondrous compassionate place we call home before we render it uninhabitable?

Happy Earth Day! Today and every day.

What gets in the way of loving-kindness?

When we see how loving-kindness (metta in the Pali language) makes all the difference in our lives and in our relationships, why is it sometimes so difficult to muster?

Believing that metta is finite
When we practice sending metta we are activating our natural sense of generosity. This generosity comes in part from understanding the nature of impermanence. We see that all we ‘own’ is temporal, not ours to begin with, and not the source of our happiness in any case, so there is only suffering in clinging to it. This frees us to be open-hearted and generous. We still use common sense in managing our affairs, but we can do it with a different attitude. There’s a great Sufi expression: ‘Trust in Allah but tie your camel.’ We can find a balance between sensing the oneness of all that is and being responsible for the physical well being of ourselves and our dependents. The art of doing so is addressed within the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

Because in our lives we manage finite resources, making hopefully intelligent fiscal choices, we may approach sending out loving-kindness in the same way, as if it is a finite resource we need to manage. When we think loving-kindness is finite, we mete it out in careful doses, perhaps only to those whom we care deeply about, those we see as having the greatest need or those we deem the most deserving.

It’s so important to realize that metta is not a limited resource. This took me a long time to realize. Insight came one day when I was riding in our car going over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and I was wrapping our car in loving light as I often did since long before I began studying Buddhism. Then I recognized that just wrapping our car — just sending metta to us — was not very loving or kind. So I extended it out to the vehicles around us, and then beyond to the whole bridge, then the whole highway of vehicles coming and going in both directions.

Then I came to another mental obstruction. I thought, ‘We can’t all be accident-free. Somebody’s got to crash. It’s beyond statistical probability that we could all be well.’

Aha! Here was a belief I could question! Is that true? Must someone be sacrificed to the gods of probability? A phrase came up that reminded me that it was not necessarily true. It’s not a Buddhist phrase but the wording found at the bottom of any financial investment brochure: “Past performance does not guarantee future results.”

That’s true! In the case of all of us driving along the freeway, it might be a statistical probability that some percentage would crash based on what has happened in the past, but that is all subject to causes and conditions. What if a fundamental condition changed? For instance, what if it became more common than not for us all to be fully conscious, fully present while driving? Statistics show that 80% of all accidents are caused by distracted drivers. So if everyone were paying attention, the likelihood of a crash would be greatly reduced, right?

Then consider what would happen if everyone felt a palpable sense of connection with all other beings? What if we didn’t think of ‘that jerk in the other car putting everyone in danger’ or ‘that slow-poke keeping us from getting where we want to go on time?’ What if, instead, we felt compassion for them, a compassion that comes from a sense of connection, maybe simply from knowing what it is like to be reckless or overly cautious ourselves at times. Then the probability would increase that there would be neither jerks nor slow-pokes. Instead we would move together like starlings in a murmuration, capable of phenomenal flights in dense airborn communities, flying as one.

Okay, you may say that this is unlikely to happen. But the realization that it is possible gave me the freedom to let go of that locked in belief that somebody has to be sacrificed to the statistical probability of accidents. So I was free to be more generous with sending metta to all.

Feeling metta is uncool
I had one meditation teacher who was apologetic about leading metta practice. She was a young woman, a brilliant explainer of concepts, but she was uncomfortable with surrendering to such an open-hearted practice. She would tell people she knew metta wasn’t ‘cool’ and might feel too treacly sweet a practice. It was something she was struggling with. She preferred the more intellectual aspects of Buddhism. Metta is by definition all heart.

We don’t all come to any aspect of practice with the same attitudes. If sending loving-kindness seems beyond your ability, then notice that, investigate your assumptions if it feels right to do so. You don’t have to justify your feelings and certainly you don’t want to force yourself to change. But you might consider the possibility that a practice that is awkward because it doesn’t come naturally, might be the very one to bring balance into your life. Just a thought.

Thinking that sending metta to yourself first is selfish
Traditional metta practice always has us begin with ourselves first. People often have a problem with this instruction. They feel it is selfish. But is it? Well, it might be selfish if it were a finite resource. If we cooked, sat down and fed ourselves first before offering any of it to others at the table, that would certainly seem selfish not to mention rude.

But consider: What if we served a meal on dishes that hadn’t been washed? That would be beyond rude. It would render the meal unpleasant if not inedible. We could think of sending metta to ourselves first as part of the preparations of a meal, cleansing the vessel through which we offer the loving-kindness to others. Or we could think of it as tasting it first, as cooks do, to assure that the metta we are offering is indeed infinite loving kindness, not full of the hard to swallow and digest fear-based tightness that congeals our hearts. That said, I encourage you to not just ‘taste’ the metta, but to receive it fully.

Another analogy that is often used is the airline instruction to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before putting it on the child in your care. Why? Because if you pass out you will be unable to be helpful. Likewise, if you are cut off from a sense of connection with loving-kindness, then how can you possibly offer it? Sending metta to someone else first is not sending true metta at all. It’s just being nice and is kind but usually comes with caveats. It hasn’t been fully received so it doesn’t come from that infinite source. How can we be a conduit for something we haven’t opened to fully?

Resistance to giving metta to ourselves first may come from a belief that we are not worthy of being loved. If this is your challenge, you might picture yourself as the small child you once were. If that is difficult, get out a baby picture to remind you of how truly lovable you are. Allow yourself to look beyond the judgments you carry and simply focus on that child. This is still you. You are still the lovable being you have always been.

If you say sure, cute kid, but look at what a mess I made of my life; remind yourself that errors in judgment made before you were thirty were made by a not-fully-formed brain! You’re off the hook. A little forgiveness please! Errors made later may not have that excuse, but certainly you can find ways to learn from them to live a more balanced, loving and ethical life from this moment forward, rather than beating yourself up again and and again.

If sending yourself metta is still too difficult, skip that step for now. Send it to someone you care about without exception, for whom you have wholehearted affection. Then pause and notice how that feels in your body and mind. See if you can activate that feeling for yourself as well.

If not, then go on and send metta to all beings, and if you can be wholehearted there, remind yourself that you are one of those beings. You are an intrinsic part of all that is. It also helps to remind ourselves that throughout the world at any given moment, someone is sending metta out to all beings, including us.

After we send ourselves metta with phrases like May I be well. may I be happy. may I be at ease. may I be peaceful, we may send it to someone who comes to mind who is in particular need of lovingkindness right now. To them we say words like May you be well. may you be happy. may you be at ease. may you be peaceful. And, because the nature of metta is infinite, it grows and glows, expanding out to shine its radiant loving light into even the darkest places. It encircles the earth in its loving embrace and continues to grow without ever dissipating. Extended traditional practices of metta may include a ‘neutral’ person and a ‘difficult’ person as well. It’s important to notice when sending metta to different people feels different. We may notice the physical sensations shifting, maybe tightening or numbing out, as we move into sending metta to someone for whom we have mixed feelings or no particular feelings. This noticing of how our thoughts and emotions affect physical sensation is a vital part of our practice. In general we just observe this, but in the case of sending metta we can actively dip back into the softened more spacious body sensations we had when sending metta to our ‘easy person.’ We are not forcing ourselves to feel what we don’t feel, just noticing and allowing ourselves to acknowledge that we have the capacity to be that spacious and open-hearted.

Seeing metta as reward
What makes that shift from being soft and open to tight is at least in part this belief that metta is finite, but also that not everyone deserves it. This belief becomes even more pronounced when we come to the next step in sending metta to someone very close to us with whom we struggle, a political figure or a criminal for whom we have strong negative emotions and perhaps lots of judgment. This is where many people bristle. Why in the world would we want to send loving kindness to someone so undeserving? Someone we may see as an enemy or a monster.

It helps to think of metta as the sun that shines light on everything in its path. The sun is not picking and choosing who is worthy of sunlight! The sun cleanses all it touches. So does this infinite loving-kindness.

We, being human, with our complex collections of experiences, patterns and emotions, carry the weight of our beliefs. Metta practice can soften our brittleness. Mindfulness practice can give us the clarity to see and disentangle some of the mindless and perhaps heartless patterns.

Metta is not a reward. We do not have to earn it. We have no agenda or specific goal in mind in doing this, other than being open conduits of loving energy.

Our own sense of compassion may rise up out of understanding that there are many people in the world who have never sensed this loving-kindness, who have always been constricted in fear, whose energy is compressed and therefore volatile, ready to explode. We may judge their resulting actions and resonate with that negativity, and so we react by trying to block their access to this universal kindness. But if we sense into our body and feel the tightening and constricting, we know immediately that this is not the answer. The answer is always to access metta and allow it to inform our actions.

Once we have found a way to send metta to ‘difficult people’ then the way is clear to send it to all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace.

Through sharing metta we feel our connection to all life on our little blue planet. We perhaps feel a tenderness for all beings — not just for the cute and cuddly ones, but for the ones who may be hard to look at because they are so beaten down, and also for those who, in their state of such extreme disconnection, do the beating.

When we do metta practice we enhance our capacity to access awareness of infinite loving-kindness, acknowledged by all the world’s spiritual traditions in various names. In this way we can hold the world in an open embrace, deeply understanding the transient nature of all matter, coming together and falling apart.  We can actively participate in the rich play of impermanence, using our ability to conduct infinite energy to activate peace, joy and gratitude.

Awakening to Choice

In the previous post we looked at finding magical moments of mindfulness in the middle of everything. I offered examples of how to come fully into whatever moment you’re in and the joys to be found there.

But there’s even more magic in being fully present. In each moment of mindfulness we can recognize that this is a pivotal point in our lives. This puts us in a position of personal power because we can see that we have a choice. We are not stuck in a rut or being dragged along by the currents of life. We are here and now, awake, alive, aware.

Not all our choices are beneficial. In each moment we can, for example:

  • let craving drive us in a habitual direction of unskillfulness that promises happiness but causes misery
  • let aversion judge ourselves or others harshly so that we feel angry and beaten down and cause others to feel the same

OR

See that pivot point there, that >>>>>OR<<<<< ?

It’s the little word of wisdom that offers us options to our habituated and often destructive behavior. It reminds us that we can choose to be fully present in this moment just as it is and greet the arising of the next moment with wise intention.

The first time I noticed that ‘or’ I was trodding a well-worn path to my refrigerator, that altar of delights for my taste buds and solace for whatever was ailing me. I was on a mindless habituated trek when I heard the word ‘or’. My inner wisdom was offering me an option to this pattern of mindlessness and self-destructive behavior. It said, ‘Or…I could take a walk in the garden.’ ‘Or…I could call a friend.’ ‘Or…’

You get the idea. There were so many choices that I could make if I paused to notice that I wasn’t hungry, just bored or sad or who knows what in that moment. My go-to answer was to follow a craving. In that moment I was suddenly present.  Being present, a world of choices opened to me.

Where in your life do you typically go mindless and end up following the lure of a craving or being caught up in aversion, stewing over something or someone? Are there any instances when you suddenly saw that you had other options?

We are all mindless at times. As we practice being more present in the moment, we discover how easy it is to slip into mindlessness again. The opportunities are all there: the cravings, the emotions, the judgments. But as we stay present we can see there are other opportunities offering themselves to us: to notice and follow our wisest intention to be present, aware and filled with compassion for ourselves and all beings. Living fully in this moment, our wise intention will naturally carry us to the next moment.

Each moment of awareness is a pivotal moment, but that doesn’t mean that we are constantly standing at a crossroads, wondering which way our future lies. That would cause us to fall out of mindfulness. There are times when considering the future is valuable, like preparing ourselves and our families to handle potentially volatile conditions. But most of the time future leaning causes imbalance in our lives, leaves us unavailable to see or hear what is happening right now. And that mindlessness will likely lead us to a future we never wanted, because we won’t have been present and engaged with life, so we become increasingly isolated and unskillful.

The power is here in the present, fully experienced with all the senses, as we learn again and again how to grow in awareness and compassion, right where we are in this moment, just as it is.