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.

Magical Moments of Mindfulness in the Middle of Everything


Monk walking
Photo credit: Honey Kochphon Onshawee

Throughout the day there are so many opportunities to practice coming fully into the present moment. Here are a few examples:

  1. Holding your cup of coffee or tea
  2. Watching a weather phenomenon arising and falling away
  3. Riding mass transit
  4. Waiting in line
  5. Walking anywhere

Whether you meditate or not, you can still practice being present in this moment just as it is. Meditation develops and tune these skills, but using them is something that you can do any time. Using these examples, here’s how to come fully into the joy of this moment:

That comforting cup of warm liquid is a welcoming place to rest your full attention, especially on a cold day. Hold it in your hands and focus on the feeling of the heat in your palms. Notice any sense of relaxation, restfulness, pleasure, anticipation, etc. that arises in you. Maintain that focus as you lift the cup to take a sip, noticing all the senses involved now. Close your eyes and savor the experience. Stay present in the moment just as it is, allowing other senses – hearing, seeing, etc. to be noticed as they make themselves known. Rest in a state of openness and welcoming.

If you spot a rainbow and you have a few minutes to spare, stop and watch it with your full attention. Let go of all the associative thoughts that come up for you with rainbows or the anticipation of telling someone about it, or the desire to take a photo. Just be with the experience itself. Notice how it intensifies and lessens in intensity. Stay with it until it dissolves.

If you are on a bus, subway, plane or other form of mass transit, take the opportunity to really feel the movement, hear the sounds, feel bodily sensations of sitting or standing, swaying, pressure against the seat or other surfaces. If you feel so inclined, send metta — infinite lovingkindness — to everyone on the transport with you.

If you are waiting in line, say at a grocery store, recognize that impatience will not get you out the door any faster. Then sense into the sensations that are present in the moment. All the ones already mentioned, but also taking in the visual feast of color and pattern in all the packaging without getting caught up in labeling what they are or what you think of them. See it all as an artist might see it. If someone in front of you seems to be taking longer than you deem necessary to conduct their transaction, notice how that judgment feels in your body, how it reintroduces impatience, anger, judgment and other kinds of discomfort. Why are you letting their actions negatively affect your current state of being? To shift your state, you might expand from simple awareness to sending metta to that person who most likely has life challenges beyond what you can imagine. While you’re at it send metta to the checker who must deal with challenging people all day while you will very soon be on your way out the door. And while you’re at it, send metta to the people in line in front and behind you. And why stop there? Send it out to the whole store full of people going about their day, doing the best they can. And once you’ve done that, and especially if there’s good music playing, you might recognize that this moment is really more of a party going on. Why any second everyone might break into dancing. or conversation. Or at the very least smiles. You could be the one to break the ice with just a little smile at one other person. Try it!

If you are walking, see if you can be fully present, letting go of any sense of your destination or sense of accomplishment. Just walking. Just sensing into the movement of your muscles, your feet touching the ground, the way your body balances, the feel of air on your skin, the temperature, the sights and sounds going on all around you as you move through space. How freeing it is to be present!

In all these situations, and in any others you can think of, the common thread is to come fully into the senses, letting go of all the thoughts that take you away from this moment and entangle your attention in other places, times, challenges, etc. That is mindfulness. Also notice the opportunities for extending kindness to all around you. How different this is from the mind state of seeing people as obstacles to your goals!

Every moment of every day offers you the opportunity to be present, to live more fully, to feel more alive and in love with life. I have mentioned just a few examples. There are as many more as there are moments in the day. See what you find when you open to the senses and fully live this magical moment, just as it is. And please, report back your findings!

Finally Spring! Wait what?

In the Bay Area we have had an exceptionally rainy winter, especially compared to recent years of drought. We are grateful to have our reservoirs full, but we may have forgotten how a typical wet winter feels, let alone this seemingly daily deluge. So when spring burst forth in all its sun-drenched flower-studded green finery and the air became soft and welcoming for days on end, we breathed sighs of relief, and we celebrated.

Now the rain is back and predicted to be gray and wet for days. I don’t trust predictions, but let’s assume that’s the case. If I had not made the most of that beautiful weather and those lovely sights, sounds and smells, I would be feeling pretty grumpy about now. But I did appreciate it and made a point of making lots of room for noticing it, so even as the rain returns I have no regrets.

There is no cure for how things change except to live fully in the moment, not putting off deep appreciation of beauty for another day just because we have a long to do list. That to do list will be there, like a trusty dog who has the bad habit of nipping at our heels. Sure, there are some things that can’t be put off and we do them with our full attention, then discern what can wait and get out into nature and let the sun shine on our faces and breathe in the sweet scents abounding.

If we don’t do that, then when the rains come, we realize our opportunity was fleeting, that the rain and wind will force the blossoms off the trees and beat the flowers down, and nothing will be as it was. We will have missed it and now mourn it.

Where else in life do we experience the same feeling of having missed what mattered? Perhaps we had our eyes on the wrong prize, caught up in attending to ‘important matters’, believing that the beauty and wonder of life — of our loved ones, of our bodies health and abilities, of our own good fortune — will sit around waiting for us to take notice, to engage, to appreciate this moment and all that arises in it. Maybe we are so busy mourning the way things used to be that we aren’t able to see what’s right in front of us and find gratitude for that.

Things change. We change. No amount of wishing will change that! The only way to have no regrets is to be fully present to notice the beauty in every moment.

As I sit here writing, I look out across the wet deck at the soft gray clouds drift by. I see how the pale green leaves are filling in the empty spaces on the oak tree, and I hear loved ones — my husband of many years and an old friend visiting from a great distance — in other rooms of the house doing their healthy morning routines. I am chock full gratitude for this moment, too.

But, you may say, so much is wrong with the world and perhaps with our lives. How can we indulge ourselves in enjoying spring or anything else? After all, the same rains that filled the reservoirs and ended years of drought in California also flooded homes and businesses in some areas and caused debris flows in areas trying to recovery from devastating fires. Life is full of all manner of challenges. We do what we can to help, even at times that all we have is our good wishes for all who suffer everywhere.

I leave you with this Buddhist parable:
A traveling monk encounters a tiger. He runs across a field and the tiger chases him. Coming to a precipice, he catches hold of the root of a vine and lowers himself over the edge. As the frustrated tiger sniffs and snarls above him, the monk hangs there, trembling. In the valley below, he sees another tiger pacing, waiting for him to fall. And a few inches away from him, a mouse comes out of a crevice in the rock face and starts gnawing at his vine.
Just then the monk notices a ripe strawberry. He clings to the vine with one hand, and plucks the strawberry with the other.
Delicious!

Hey, hey, what’s that sound?

“The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” – Abraham Lincoln

El Jardin, San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX

What noises irritate you? I was asked this question by a recent survey about ‘noise pollution’ so it brought up a lot of thoughts about our relationship with sound. In Mexico a local once told me that when you don’t have much stuff, noise is stuff. It’s free and you can make as much of it as you want. It fills you up.

Huh! I had certainly never thought about it that way, but it was a kind of invitation to open to a different way of relating to sound.

It was challenging because, especially as a meditator, I think of silence as nourishing. In my culture, personal music is enjoyable, while other people’s choices may be perceived as an intrusion. Wealth is not a bounty of noise but an ability to build a buffer from noises made by others. The richer we are, the thicker our walls, the more panes on our windows and the more acres between us and the world around us — all that traffic and other aggravating noises. So when an American university thinks up a survey, they title it ‘noise pollution’ without even considering that not everyone has a negative bias against sounds.

How we are in relationship to the sounds all around us is an important indication of how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Are we making an enemy of it? And if so, how does that affect us?

In meditation, silence is something we cultivate within. It’s not useful to expect that the world around us should comply with our decision to be quiet. Outside life goes on. Noise goes on. When leading a guided meditation, I suggest allowing a sound to be experienced as pure sound, as if it’s a note or an instrument in a symphony: The Symphony of Now — this unique moment of never-to-be-repeated-in-just-this-way sounds. Can we simply be with the experience of sound instead of getting caught up in thinking about what is making the sound — someone slamming a car door, hammering, talking, barking, playing loud music, etc.? If so, we can be more at ease and less likely to tense up with displeasure. We don’t have to get caught up in thoughts about the source of the sound, who’s to blame, why are they making that sound, there ought to be a law, and how long will this go on.

Even if it’s a pleasant sound — bird song or gentle rain, for example — can we allow it to simply be sound? Can we be present without getting lost in trying to identify the type of bird, scolding ourselves for not being able to, or getting caught up in thinking about how the local cats are decimating the bird population?

In Mexico I brought my meditative attention to listening to all the sounds as I sat in the town square. At different times of day and evening so many sounds happen all at once: several Mariachi bands playing on different corners, teenagers with their own music for break dancing, hawkers calling out their wares, children yelling and laughing, lots of conversations, and the church bells ringing at the quarter hour. So much sound everywhere! But as I sat and allowed myself to really listen for fifteen minutes más o menos every day over the course of a few weeks I began to be able to hear the various sounds as if tuning into multiple channels at once, each one distinct and clear, and together a wondrous symphony. This exercise completely changed my relationship with sound. And in changing my relationship, I noticed a difference in my whole body — a release of tension and a rising of ease and contentment.

Since the people in the square don’t make an enemy of sound, it is reasonable to assume that it doesn’t cause stress in their bodies, and therefore, that noise in and of itself is not necessarily bad.

While I believe that to be true, there are situations when I am not able to be so blissful, especially if I am trying to sleep. I didn’t catch a wink in a midtown Manhattan hotel with 24 hour construction right across the street. I tossed and turned and got sucked into thoughts about who’s to blame for this and how could they be so rude? How could the hotel put us in this room? How could the city allow for this noise in the middle of the night? But then I would get moments of recognition that I was the one who was caught up in angry thoughts. I was the one who was making myself miserable. But hey, I’m not the enemy either. And my mindfulness training was insufficient to the task of overcoming a lifetime of discomfort with ‘noise pollution’ in certain situations.

The pattern of thoughts we experience when something’s bothering us happens not just about sound, but about anything that we make the enemy. Anything, anyone or any idea that causes tension, sets us on edge, and fills our thoughts with hatred, is a perceived enemy. Big or small, we all have them. Maybe they are pet peeves or maybe they are major threats to our well being. Or maybe they are convenient scapegoats for something else altogether. But whatever they are, they affect us. We internalize them. We suffer from how we are in relationship to them.

Billboard Blues
In the 1980’s I worked in advertising. Some of the time the work felt like play because I got to use my writing and visual design skills, and my colleagues at the agency were fun to work with. But over time, as I became more and more skilled at developing campaigns, I began to see how insidious advertising is. What skill was I developing? The ability to use psychology and an understanding of human’s innate negativity bias to activate fear and craving, and to promote our clients’ products and services as miracle cures to assuage that fear.

I remember preparing for a presentation to a well-known manufacturer of locks. Given the nature of the product, the proposed campaign had to be rooted in fear — the fear of someone breaking into your home — otherwise why would you bother buying a lock? And even though I understand that these are needed devices and that this manufacturer is very good at making them, I felt a lot of resistance to taking the company on as a client. I did not want to be a purveyor of fear. So when we didn’t get the client, there was definitely some relief mixed in with agency-shared disappointment of not getting such a prestigious client. Then I began to see how promoting even pleasant products, was actively playing on people’s fears. Not the fear of home invasion, but the fear of not being enough, not looking good enough, not being perceived as successful, etc.

By the end of my time at the ad agency, which I had to leave because I had become physically ill with an autoimmune disease, I had written for myself an eight-page treatise on the evils of advertising. I tossed it after writing it, as if it was toxic. I just needed to get it out of me as catharsis and the beginning of my healing. But it’s easy to see and reasonable to conclude that my perception of advertising as evil, as enemy, put such stress on my body, so much tension day after day, that it was at least partially responsible for my illness. Through rest, meditation, self-discovery and a good doctor, I recovered within a year. Mine is a cautionary tale about having your work align with your core values, but also about how enemy naming and the resulting internal discord can make us sick.

It’s important to notice what happens when we make an enemy of anything. Our thoughts get locked, frozen and unyielding, whether we are defending something or finding fault with it. We lose sight of our common humanity and our shared desire to live together in peace and harmony.

In our meditation practice we are encouraged to greet all that arises with friendliness, and this applies to everything that arises, not just who or what we like or agree with. It’s skillful to notice when we have shaped an enemy, and skillful to notice the form it takes, how this enemy-making tendency needs a target. We identify a person or group of people who we deem responsible for whatever it is that we are opposed to. Tension rises up and strangles us. Our bodies react as if threatened, and over time reach a breaking point, because the enemy we have created is not fleeting but has taken up residence in our ongoing thoughts.

So then is making enemies the enemy? There’s got to be an enemy!
Or does there?
Can we allow for the possibility that all life is deeply interconnected and there is no ‘other’? Can we see how lashing out against a perceived enemy ends up harming ourselves even worse?

And yet there’s so much in the world that needs our attention! Can we find a way to attend it without aggravating the situation? Can we develop the ability to notice in a deeper and wider way, the way I learned to listen in that square in Mexico? Can we see the overall complexity of life ever changing, and learn to love life instead of constantly being in battle with it? If there are grievous wrongs being done, can we come forward with wise intention and wise effort, grounded in awareness and compassion, using wise speech and wise actions, to greet it?

If not, we are entangled in the thrall of blind misery, entangled in confusing thoughts that cause us terminal tension.

Exercise

  • Close your eyes and imagine someone or something you think of as enemy, even if you might not use that word. It might be some annoyance or aggravation. It might be a person. It might be a concept. It might be people in general who do certain actions that drive you crazy.
  • Now do a little inquiry: When I bring this enemy to mind, how do I feel in my body? Is that feeling sustainable? Do I make wise choices from this feeling? Or do I spiral down into stronger negative emotions? Do I imagine doing harmful things? Do I become someone I would steer clear of on the street?
  • Notice any tension in the body and relax and release it to whatever degree you are able. If you are comfortable doing metta – lovingkindness practice, send metta to yourself and then to your perceived enemy. May I be well, etc. May you be well, etc.

When we make an enemy of someone, aren’t we just adding to the suffering that makes them behave as they do?

When we make an enemy of an idea, do we make it too scary to look at closely? It becomes locked in and casts a huge shadow in our minds.
When we make an enemy of anything, aren’t we assuming we have an all-encompassing view of all times and places, that we know exactly how things will turn out. Can we make room for the possibility that all that arises has a role to play and that we don’t know for sure if what we label enemy may be what needs to happen to stir up an awakening of consciousness.

How often have you been surprised by the way things turned out? We rarely see things coming. We’re often caught off guard, even though we were so busy watching out for the enemy.

But it’s equally important to remember that our healthy desires for peace, justice, fairness and well being for all life are also part of the ongoing unfolding of life, so engage! But see if you can do it from the fullness of your heart rather than the tight knot of your fear. Perhaps together we can gently but powerfully creating a loving consciousness that is so needed right now, and always.

I leave you with an example of a very creative non-enemy-making way to shed light on something without making an enemy of it. This is not to promote this politician, but to simply share her fresh take on how to engage productively.

You are not broken and you don’t need fixing.

This YouTube video of two teenagers who have never seen a rotary phone before is fun and fascinating to watch. For those of us who grew up using rotary phones dialing is just second nature. Even if we haven’t used one in years, we know without question what to do. Kids today think of smartphones, tablets and computers in the same way, so it’s difficult for many of them to be patient with elders when they struggle to learn new technology. They don’t get what the challenge is. Now these two boys, trying to use this earlier technology, get it for sure!

Watch and enjoy!

After you’ve watched the video, here’s a question for you:

Is that rotary phone broken?

No! It works perfectly well. But there’s no operating manual for it and these young users had to figure it out on their own, naturally making lots of mistakes along the way. Sound familiar? We are not broken. We function perfectly well. But none of us came with manuals. We are all doing the best we can to figure out how to function. Hopefully we are willing to spend more than a few minutes at a stretch. Hopefully we don’t give up and decide not to bother.

If you are a parent you may remember leaving the hospital with your first child, feeling some degree panic and astonishment that the nurses allowed you to leave without your knowing how to take care of this tiny fragile bundle of vulnerable living breathing (for now!) being.

Of course there are books on child rearing and no doubt most prospective parents read them, but it just doesn’t prepare you for the real deal, does it? And advice changes from generation to generation, from ‘let them cry’ to ‘pick them up’, from benign neglect to helicopter parenting. There are also lots of relatives and people in the grocery store all too happy to give advice. But it’s all conflicting advice! And it often feels like it comes with so much judgment. Finally you just have to find your own way and do the best you can. Right?

Without that operating manual, it’s no surprise that many of us grow up befuddled with this assignment called life. We may feel unlovable, unseen and misunderstood. We may have a difficult time finding contentment, connection, meaning or even a sense of safety in our lives.

When we seek help we find advice that tells us how to fix ourselves, change ourselves, transform ourselves into some ideal version of a human being. We wonder “What’s wrong with me?” and then, to top it off, people around us may be happy to make a list!

But we are not broken and we don’t need fixing.
It’s more useful to think of ourselves as a mysterious technology we’re learning how to use. We may fumble a lot, but over time, by paying attention we get little insights and we begin to have a clearer sense of how we function. There is help available from wisdom teachings, like the Buddha’s, but he’s most famous for saying something to the effect of ‘Don’t take it from me! See for yourself.’ But he taught us how to sense in and see, and to have self-compassion. And that makes all the difference.

Practicing mindfulness we start to notice how much better we feel when we meditate regularly, and we notice a falling away of that sense of equanimity when we forget to practice for a while. We are each learning our way, writing our own little operating manual, seeing what works for us and what doesn’t, what helps and what harms us.

We learn how to greet what arises with friendliness and an understanding that this too shall pass. We notice the patterns of our thoughts, thickly woven with the stories we tell ourselves about our personal histories. Instead of getting paralyzed with fear, we gently shine the light of awareness and compassion.

We are not broken.
Just like that rotary phone, we work perfectly well. But we may be unclear how to dial up the connection we crave, that sense of being fully present in this moment, full of compassion for ourselves and others. Ring! Ring! This present moment calling! May we remember to come back to simply paying attention to whatever is arising with patience, curiosity and gratitude for this gift of life.

The Conscious Heart

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder

This quote was shared in the poetry class I attend and it has stayed with me. At first I thought it was because it speaks to the treasure of being alive to feel gratitude for each moment just as it is. We always like well-worded expressions of things we agree with. So in meditation class two days later, I shared it with my students.

But upon rereading the quote, what really intrigued me is the the idea of a conscious heart. We think of consciousness as the sole province of the brain, but why can’t the heart be conscious? And what do we mean by heart in this context? Surely not the pump that keeps the blood flowing, that can be replaced by a mechanical version without any alteration, I assume, to our ability to feel deeply a sense of love, interconnection — or change the way when we suffer loss, our chest area tightens up in grief.

When we begin to meditate, our first task is to let the thinking-thinking mind take a break. In class we pictured taking our heads off and setting them respectfully to the side for our time together. (Perhaps the Queen of Hearts saying ‘Off with their heads!’ was not a cruel madwoman but a crazy wisdom sage? Hmmm.)

Dropping the center of awareness to our heart center shifts everything, doesn’t it? One of my Buddhist teachers long ago explained that bowing is not about submission or worship but allowing the heart to rise higher than the head.

That explanation made bowing possible for me. I had had some resistance, as people not raised to bow often do, especially if they spent their childhood genuflecting before an altar where objects of worship demanded singular devotion.

Years before Spirit Rock existed, I sought my meditative sense of peace and balance at gatherings of Sufi-based Dances of Universal Peace. I love to dance and sing so it was a natural for me.

It wasn’t quite a perfect fit for various reasons. The first was an altar with lovingly framed photos of Sufi masters. I was uncomfortable with any living human being put up on an altar. But friends told me it was not about worship, just gratitude and respect. Since there weren’t altars in all the different places we met over the years, it wasn’t a deal breaker in any case.

But then when I started attending Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a big altar with a Buddha statue (and later a matching Kwan Yin to balance out the gender energies, I think) and it replicated in a more pronounced way the set up of church altars of my childhood. I noticed that some people when they entered the room put their hands together and bowed to the altar. I didn’t. I was just getting to know this Buddha fellow, but I knew he said he was most definitely not a god.

Then I heard that lovely explanation of bowing, of dropping the head lower than the heart, and I found a way in to a practice that had more meaning to me. I am still not a big bower. Which means I’m in the right tradition, because some Buddhist schools go deeper, and I mean deeper, into bowing. Recently I learned there’s a whole reasoning behind the bow that has the five points —  head, hands and knees — touching the ground, representing the Five Aggregates, the evidence of our earthly existence (form, feeling, perception, fabrications, consciousness.) In this way the person surrenders attachment to these ideas of self, none of which are real or permanent. I like this explanation as an even deeper release of the over-thinking that keeps us in a sense of isolation. But still I won’t be trying this out any time soon.

There are other practices that may be off-putting to Westerners in the various Buddhist traditions. One student in class said that she felt uncomfortable when she attended a meditation group where they began with chanting. Because I am a guest teacher at that group, I was able to share what was being chanted and why. It is a chant for taking refuge that is done at the beginning of retreats, and apparently some classes. We take refuge in the Buddha, both the inspiration of the historical Buddha, and our own buddha nature, our own inner wisdom that we are cultivating as we meditate. We take refuge in the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha as well as the insights, the truths, we find in nature and other wisdom teachings. We take refuge in the sangha, the group of people we are sitting with and the wider community of Buddhist practitioners and others who support us in our meditation practice and in living in ethical life-affirming ways.

Here is the chant in both Pali and English:

Ti-Sarana
Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.
Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dutiyampi Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dutiyampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dutiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Tatiyampi Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Tatiyampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.
Tatiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.

The Three Refuges
I go to the Buddha as my refuge.
I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.
I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.

For the second time I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.
For the second time I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.
For the second time I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.

For the third time I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.
For the third time I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.
For the third time I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.

—————————–

By taking refuge we are lovingly setting intention for the retreat or meeting. That explanation helped my student feel better about the chant. But she still felt uncomfortable about it being in a foreign language. Though I have chanted along on retreats and meetings, I have never committed to memory the Pali three refuge chant partly for that sense of discomfort around appropriation.

Native Americans often complain of their traditions being appropriated, so perhaps that is part of why I resist diving deep and claiming as my own words that are so deeply a part of another culture. (I seem to have no problem studying the Buddha’s teachings as they confirm my own insights, and he was just so good at organizing (all those lists!) and drawing correlations between insights. For me his teachings form an invitation to go beyond traditions and geographic or cultural boundaries.

When I was doing Sufi dancing, I sometimes felt that sense of appropriation, singing words from all the world’s spiritual traditions, some in their original languages. It was a deep unifying celebration of universal wisdom that was deeply moving and satisfying. But sometimes I was just too aware of being a girl born in Ohio and raised in California singing words of traditions not my own.

Another student said she had no problem with chanting foreign words because it took her back to her own childhood when Catholic masses were performed in Latin. She felt uplifted by setting aside the need to understand in her head and to just open her heart to a great rejoicing.

So ‘discomfort around traditions’ became a companion theme of our class this week. Students talked about their early discomfort in putting hands together, with or without a bow, when finishing meditation or with other people. Being raised to think of that as a gesture reserved for prayer made it challenging or at least unnatural to use it any other way. For most, what didn’t come naturally at first has become much easier, especially since people seem to do it much more, so it feels more natural. There’s even a hands together emoji.

One reason it is more common is because so many people take yoga, and it is explained by teachers that it means something like ‘the light in me honors the light in you’.(I had learned it meant ‘the god in me honors the god in you’ but I like the idea of light.)

One student has found that putting one hand on her heart is more deeply satisfying and truer to her own nature. The rest of us were quite taken with this. It was easy to see that if you ended a time with another person in this way it would be a lovely way to say that the interaction was meaningful, that it touched our hearts.

Another student said that she and her little grandson have their own tradition of putting their hands on their hearts and then blowing a kiss from that hand. Aw! So sweet!

When class ended, as always, I did the traditional Buddhist dedication of merit with my preferred wording of metta, lovingkindness: ‘We dedicate the merits of our practice here today for the benefit of all beings. May all beings be well, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be peaceful, may all beings be happy.’ Then we all put our hands together and bowed to each other as we do each week. And then we spontaneously put our hands on our hearts.

I bow to all of you, dear readers. Thank you for staying with me on this journey, for making it your own and for sharing it with others.