Monthly Archives: August 2008

POEM: Metta at Midnight

Awake again
mulling over
painful events
& poor decisions,
I know that
relatively speaking
of course I am lucky
to have such paltry
problems in a week
when tornados, cyclones
and earthquakes
have killed tens
of thousands and left
five million homeless,
but I don’t want to
need the misery
of others to
make my life
seem good.
Still, the switch
with which I beat myself
temporarily loses its sting.

But I am still awake, so
I begin to send blessings
over the mountains and across the plains
to flattened towns, where suddenly
small found objects mean so much
and so little.
May you be well, may you be at ease.

I send blessings across the Pacific
to families waiting and watching
piles of shattered concrete slabs and
twisted rebar for signs of life:
May the ache in a Sichaun mother’s chest be eased.

Under the rubble, may a small pool of rainwater
be keeping a child alive until rescue comes.

May arms open to receive those
wandering aimlessly, whose homes
and worldly goods have crumpled into nothing.

May the seeds of happiness already be planted
amidst the wrenching pain.

Blessings know no boundaries,
so I am not surprised
to find I am now sending them to those
who live in war torn communities,
where fear is a constant companion:
May you find ease,
may your heart know peace.

And to those who see violence as a necessary evil:
May your hearts be softened,
May you sense your connection.

And blessing fly to lands stricken by drought
to those who sleep to forget their hunger,
and to all people everywhere who
are suffering pain in their body or mind,
to those who have recently lost the one they love best,
and those who have never had a love to lose,
and those who are sleeping in cars, under bridges,
in shelters, and those who have been abused,
and those who have lost themselves
and…oh my god, it just goes on and on, doesn’t it?

But as I breathe in the pain of the world
and breathe out loving kindness,
the hardened armor I carefully crafted to keep
the endless misery of the world at bay,
becomes porous, allowing the blessings to pour
through all the holes in a tidal exchange
until there is nothing but blessing.

So I send blessings to the leaders.
May you sense your connection to all of life
and respond with wisdom.

I send blessings to the ravaged earth.
May you heal. And to its inhabitants:
May you live in peace and know joy.

I bring my blessings home
to my own neighborhood.
On this hot night with windows and doors open,
I feel how all of us are resting together:
the birds, lizards, deer, squirrels, raccoons,
insects, and the humans behind screens
snoring or lying wakefully worrying, or
feeling a pain magnified by the night.

May we all find ease and
take comfort in knowing
that there is someone, maybe many people,
who, even though we are unknown to them,
are sending us loving kindness even now.

The threads of infinite blessings
weave a dense brilliant web,
a hammock of light.
And at last I rest.

Stephanie Noble
May 2008

Sending Loving Kindness to Difficult People

Most people struggle at first with sending metta (loving kindness) to difficult people.

Who is a difficult person? It could be someone very close to you who causes you personal torment, so that even though you care for them, your feelings are very conflicted.

Or it could be someone you don’t know personally who you consider an enemy of some kind or who represents ‘evil’ to you: a wrong-headed leader, a serial killer or child molester. This is someone whose behavior to you is impossible to understand and maybe impossible to forgive. You can see how sending loving kindness to these people might be very challenging.

First, you may feel they don’t deserve loving kindness. But metta is not a reward that is doled out to the deserving. It is a radiance like sunlight that does not withhold itself from shining everywhere. As conductors of metta, we tap into this sense of expansive radiance and draw upon own inherent generosity of spirit in order to send metta to all beings.

Targeting a difficult person helps us to access that deeper place from which true metta comes. You may be familiar with the expression namaste, a Sanskrit word often used in yoga classes that loosely translates, ‘The god in me honors the god in you.’ When two people greet each other at this deep connected level, behavioral and personality differences fall away. They know themselves to be one and the same, aspects of a greater whole.

If we can’t bring ourselves to send metta to someone we don’t like, we have not accessed that deep connected space from which true metta flows. We are trapped in a sense of metta as a finite resource to be meted out sparingly only to those who ‘deserve’ to be happy. With consistent practice, at some point we may begin to see beyond this limited thinking.

This level of deep awareness is not something we can force upon ourselves. But, as we try sending metta to a difficult person, we have an excellent opportunity to observe our thoughts, beliefs and feelings as they arise, and to create spaciousness around them. We send metta to ourselves around this difficult process. We don’t scold ourselves for being unable to do what is challenging. We just keep coming back to the practice with renewed energy and attention.

Perhaps eventually there will be an aha moment, a little break through, where we may, for example, recognize that the difficult person of our focus is some mother’s child. Or we might see that it is painful for us to attempt to withhold metta from some people while sending it to others, that the metta feels less authentic in some way. Whatever insights arise, we note them, grateful for the rich fruits of the practice.

Medical Metta – My Hospital Stay

(Image info: Painting by artist Leslie Johnson as her way of sending metta during my surgery.)

Last week I spent three days in the hospital having a total hip replacement. There were many opportunities for sending metta!

In pre-op there were two children who were, like me, being prepped for surgery, and both were absolutely charming the socks off the pre-op staff. One was a little girl having her tonsils removed, the other a slightly older boy named Sam, who talked very knowledgeably to the girl, assuring her about her upcoming surgery. He spoke at such a high level of detail that I looked questioningly at my prep nurse.

“His fifth surgery,” she whispered. We exchanged a sad look. No small child should know that much about such a subject. Dinosaurs, asteroids, jelly fish – that’s the body of knowledge his bright mind might pursue. But for him, for now, it was all things surgical. Of course, I wasn’t privy to his medical history or prognosis, but I too was absolutely charmed by his warm generous bedside manner:

“That part’s not so bad, don’t worry about that,” he assured his smaller neighbor. “But that other stuff does have a funny taste. You get used to it.”

As Sam’s bed was wheeled out and down the hall to his operating room, I found myself wrapping his little body in healing light. And soon I was doing it again to the girl going in for her tonsillectomy, and then to her parents who lingered behind briefly, holding each others’ hands, waving anxiously, before being escorted to the waiting room. I remember what it was to have a small child going off to a simple outpatient surgery: scary!

Into this bustling hive of activity, beds were rolling in and out like trains. Soon I was surrounded with patients far less brave than Sam. I wished them well in their surgeries also, and sent metta to the pre-op staff as they did their jobs whenever I wasn’t, um, otherwise engaged.

I was struck by how the environment changed in response to the various personalities within it. Sam’s warmth was so radiant, the room had felt like a fiesta. There are no doubt people in the world who are just naturally able to conduct massive amounts of loving kindness, felt by all around them, and Sam may be one of those. Or he may be that bounteous out of his own hard-earned wisdom, having found light in the darkness and the deep desire to share it with all.

Finally it was my bed that was moving and soon I was in the icy cool pristine operating room looking up into the friendly faces of my surgeon and his staff. Those faces gave me anchor for the last little metta I could send before I went under anesthesia. May you be well, may you perform your job with precision, may you be fully in the moment.

Behind the circle of the surgery team, I sensed the loving kindness, prayers and good thoughts of friends and family in a widening circle of well being, all focused on the care of my body and the success of this surgery. I had requested these thoughts, prayers and metta, and I know many responded. I was not asking for their busy lives to stop and all attention to be directed toward me. I was asking that, if they happened to remember it during that morning to send a little thought my way. I trust that all the metta I needed is the metta that comes naturally out of our pre-existing loving connections. In that way, it didn’t feel too much to ask.

If anyone misunderstood my request and actually sat down and focused on the surgery for any lengthy time, I thank them for it and honor their practice, knowing that whatever they did is of value to themselves as well.

Anyway, all the metta and prayers and thoughts seemed to have worked very well. When I came out of the total fog of anesthesia I drowsily followed the activity in the post-op room. I saw the little girl in her father’s arms being taken home after her tonsillectomy. I inquired about Sam’s surgery and was told that all had gone well.

Eventually I was wheeled to a room on the fifth floor I would share with another woman whose leg looked to be held together by an exo-skeleton of metal rods, pins, screws and clamps straight out of a sci-fi movie.

I was thoroughly drugged and iced, and wasn’t feeling much of anything but exhausted, but she seemed to be in excruciating pain, and throughout the evening I sent her as much metta as I could muster as I wafted in and out of consciousness.

I also bathed myself in the loving light of healing, trying to keep my mind relaxed and unattached. Letting my breath rise and fall as deeply as possible, per instructions, I used the plastic handheld Spiro meter prescribed to counter the dangers of shallow breathing.

But I found it difficult to focus on my own healing with my roommate’s ongoing all night cries, screams, moans and general talking to herself. I got little sleep and was amazed that in the morning, I actually felt okay, thanks to morphine and ice packs.

And because I did feel all right, and because she was still in pain-filled anguish, and the nurses had repeatedly tried to get her to slow her breath down and relax, I asked if she wanted me to coach her, and she said yes, please! Soon she was breathing more slowly and seemed to relax a bit, but it didn’t last. She couldn’t sustain it, as a pain would rip through and she would scream again.

Overwhelmed as she was, her social skills were long gone. She became whiny, demanding, accusatory, blaming every person who walked in the room for her experience. The staff was even-tempered with her but every conversation became increasingly stressed. “If you would only breathe deeper, try to relax. You’re just making it worse with your shallow panting…” every nurse and aide reminded her, to no avail.

When the doctor arrived, he read her the riot act about doing what was required for her own healing, that if she didn’t take charge she would die, and this was a hospital not a nursing home. Here the patient is required to make an effort. This was a message she clearly had not gotten from the kind nurses, even though that’s basically what they were saying.

After the surgeon left the room, I could hardly believe it: She was finally quiet. Barely a sniff! Did the pain suddenly evaporate? No, I don’t think so. I think for her the doctor was a patriarchal authority figure to whom the whimpering little girl in her responded. Somehow what he said clicked.

Throughout my stay I continued to send metta to nurses and other staff who were in charge of my care, as well as to any patients I saw in my stiff ambulations with my walker. And I found that this little loving kindness practice served as a supportive net for me while I lived in that noisy sterile environment.

I’ll never know if the practice affected the quality of my care or healing. I think the staff members are caring people who want the best for every patient. But I hope that caring for me was not a challenging practice, like the practice of sending metta to ‘difficult’ people that is crucial for metta mastery.

Between little Sam’s warm hearted almost festive presence and the black hole of sucking misery of my roommate, I’d seen the wide range of energies they deal with as a regular part of their working lives, and I hope that in our time together they felt my admiration, gratitude, respect and good wishes for their continued well being. I hope I gave them at least a little something, since they gave me so much.

Upon reflection, I have to wonder how the course of my own hospital stay might have been different without my metta practice. At the very least, sending lovingkindness to others as well as myself offered me an active role to play beyond the very few things that were required of me as patient. Spending my time this way left little time for worrying, judging or elaborating ad nauseum on any wishes for things to be different than they were. Sending metta was the absolute most I could do for her, for the nurses and for myself.

So I am very grateful for this practice! It absolutely contributed to my healing. And perhaps to the healing of others as well. We will never know. But I hope so!

— With much metta and gratitude to the Kaiser San Rafael Medical Center orthopedic and ICU staff, as well as to my family, friends, students and sangha sibling, and most especially to my husband and primary post-op caregiver, Will Noble.

Why practice metta meditation?

Sending metta (loving kindness) to ourselves and others has value whether or not you believe that it is effective! If you feel resistant to the idea of ‘transmitting loving energy,’ rest assured that this practice doesn’t rely on beliefs of any kind to be valuable.

The practice itself shifts our relationships with people in our lives, and it changes the way we think and feel about ourselves. It can release the tight patterns of self-loathing that may have rendered us poorly equipped to function in the world. So if you feel at odds with the world and even with yourself, neither ever being quite up to your critical standards, then this is a great practice for you!

Metta is a conscious focus, so even if it were only that it would be a benefit, keeping us present, training our minds to be able to concentrate. For those who have difficulty simply paying attention to the breath in meditation, metta practice feels more active, providing something to DO.

But it provides much more than that: Metta offers a tonal shift, a warm loving attitude that has the capacity to open our hearts, creating spaciousness in our thoughts, and developing the deep innate caring that may have been dormant.

Everyone is different, of course, but for many of us this may be a huge shift – especially in relationship to ourselves. Wishing ourselves well may be a totally new concept for us. “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from harm.” These words hardly seem unreasonable, but it is surprising how few of us allow ourselves to feel worthy of such simple blessings. We may be more inclined to put ourselves down, scold ourselves for our ineptitudes, our thoughtlessness, our forgetfulness, our lack of skill, generosity or guts.

As we practice, we begin to hear how we talk to ourselves, the names we call ourselves, the anger we feel toward ourselves. Now these habitual thoughts are seen in such contrast to our metta practice that we see them more clearly. We may never have even noticed the harsh tone of our thoughts. Without any real effort except the ongoing practice of metta, our awareness begins the shift. We may begin to sense a softening and an opening in the tangled knot of our inner lives.

We may find that our metta practice makes us more patient, less irritated with others as well. When driving we may be less likely to curse out other drivers, remembering that there are many, often painful, reasons that people drive badly, that we ourselves have driven mindlessly perhaps. A little metta sent to them and to ourselves eases our experience, and allows us to return more readily to our focus: driving the car!

At first glance, these simple blessings don’t seem to pack a lot of punch, but if you send metta to yourself and others with any regularity, you may be surprised how powerful this practice can be.

Sending Metta – Joys and Challenges

Metta or loving kindness can range from simple well wishing to all out radiant healing light-energy. It’s all good. But let’s stay with simple well wishing for now.

In the last post we started with sending metta to ourselves. “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from harm.” Or similar phrases. Whatever simple blessings that come naturally to you.

Nothing coming naturally? Don’t give up yet! If giving metta to yourself is too hard, skip it for now and try this one:

Send loving kindness to someone in your life for whom you have warm feelings. For the purposes of this exercise, choose someone like a teacher or mentor, a person to whom you feel some gratitude, but may not know so well that your thoughts get complicated with any negative judgments you may have. Picture the person in your mind and send them blessings. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from harm.” Or words to that effect.

Whatever your response to this exercise, just note it.
If it felt pleasant and easy, move on to sending blessings to other people that come to mind. Choose some neutral person, someone whom you don’t know well at all, like the checker in the grocery store. If that was easy, try sending it to family members and friends.

If, on the other hand, it felt difficult in any way, try to relax into a spacious generous awareness of your thoughts and feelings around this process. Use it as an opportunity to explore your attitudes and beliefs. There are no ‘shoulds’ here. You feel what you feel, you think what you think. This is about becoming aware of these thoughts and feelings. It’s a way of teasing them out into the light where you can examine them. Perhaps you have never really looked at them before. Never questioned them. Never followed them back to their roots.

Difficulty with sending metta can, for example, be rooted in some ancient schoolyard humiliation, where we were made to feel uncool for expressing heartfelt emotions. See if a particular past incident rises up in your awareness, one that captures the flavor of what you are feeling. Let yourself relive that experience from an adult perspective, knowing what you know now. Then really look at that experience and question its power over you all these years later. Sometimes just that little bit of informed reflection can release a tight knot in our psyches. That’s rich exploration!

If nothing comes up, don’t be concerned. Simply stay with whatever does arise. And experiment with different ways of sending metta that might be a work-around for you for now. Maybe “I hope things go well for you.”

When we begin sending metta, we are entering into a relationship with this time-honored practice. Whether it is difficult or easy, there will be openings, transitions, insights and awakenings. It is a rich and long tradition. Trust the path that has been so lovingingly cleared by so many for so long.

Introduction to Metta

Last month I focused on being fully present in the moment. Rooted in this moment, we are capable of much more than we ever would have imagined. We are able to be with whatever is happening in our current situation in a more open accepting way.

We are better able to stay in the present moment if we have an open friendly relationship with our thoughts and emotions. This quality of open friendliness is an aspect of loving kindness or ‘metta’.

Metta is a Pali word that translates as loving kindness, but it is a much more expansive state than the kind of selective love we feel for our family and friends, or the simple acts of kindness we do to them and to people of good will.

Metta is a more radiant quality. Like the sun, it shines on all without regard to personal preferences, desires, aversions and judgments.

Metta is rooted in the universal source of infinite love that we access when we are fully present in the moment. We become conduits of that radiance and we feel pure loving intention toward all beings.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But maybe not very realistic? Or maybe it doesn’t sound good at all! Notice your response.

Like being in the moment, metta is a practice. Being curious about our response to the idea of metta, of radiating love to all beings, is a good place to start. Right where you are, neck deep in preferences, aversions, and judgments. Sit with what thoughts and feelings arise as you read about metta. See if you can allow your thoughts to float up without feeling you either have to defend or deny them. They are just thoughts.

Is it difficult? That’s fine. Difficult or easy, it’s just the practice. Stay with it. Give yourself repeated opportunities to be in an open friendly relationship with your thoughts.

Now, if you can, try the first step of the traditional metta practice: send metta to yourself. You can use any wording that feels right. Standard Buddhist blessings include, “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from harm.”

Close your eyes and sit in silence, then allow these blessings to rise up and fill you. Say them silently or out loud. It doesn’t matter. See what happens as you say them. How does it make you feel? Peaceful or agitated? Is it easy or difficult to give yourself blessings?

If difficult, explore why you feel you don’t deserve your own blessing. Observe thoughts that come up and question whether they are the truth.

We bless ourselves first because we can’t share what we don’t have. Just like the instructions about the oxygen masks on the airplane. If you don’t put the mask on yourself first, you won’t be able to help anyone else.

So may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from harm.