Metta Beyond Measure

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Following up on ‘Freedom beyond measure,’ the discussion of measure wouldn’t be complete without mention of metta, or loving kindness, and how easy it is to think that it is some meager allotment that we measure and dole out sparingly. Quite the opposite!

We practice meditation for the benefit of all beings. We end each class with a dedication of the merits of our practice, whatever they may be, for the benefit of all beings everywhere. This is such an important part of the practice, and is a wonderful way to end any meditation. Try not to measure the merits! I know I have been sorely tempted at the end of a particularly distracted personal meditation to dedicate the merits of this practice ‘such as they are.’ This is the traditional qualifier I learned from my father. Perhaps it was handed down from his Amish father, I don’t know. He used to compliment my mother at the end of a meal, saying, “It was a fine meal, what there was of it. And there was a lot of it, such as it was.” My brother and I found this very entertaining, but I doubt if my mother, having worked hard to create a nice meal, was all that amused!

When we dedicate the merits, we offer up whole-heartedly all our effort, intention and love, with full acceptance of all the ways we fell short of our own expectations. So we neither measure the value of the metta we are sending, nor do we pick and choose who to send it to. It is for all. That all may be happy, well and free. That all may know peace.

There’s a Buddhist story about a man whose wife died, and he asked the monk to send blessings to her. The monk agreed and said that it was their tradition to send blessings to all beings. Well, this didn’t suit the man at all. He didn’t want her to have to share the blessings received. He wasn’t sure she had the strength to claim her fair share. And anyway, there were some people he really didn’t want receiving any blessings because they were not deserving.

I know that mourning man character in me. For years, when my children were growing up and going out on their own and my husband was doing a gruelling commute every day, I would wrap them each in loving light as they left the house. This was before I studied Buddhism, so my own personally invented practice was to say, “White light all around, keep my baby safe and sound.”

It never crossed my mind to send this white light out into the world to envelope the whole world in it. Even as I understood its infinite nature, at the same time I held the belief that there wasn’t extra to expend on anyone else beyond my little chosen circle of family and friends.

That I could hold these two conflicting beliefs – the finite and the infinite – both at the same time is not surprising. First because this kind of conflicted thinking is common to the human experience. When we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to quiet down, listen in, ask questions and notice our own thoughts, how can we see that there is a contradiction there?

And secondly, this shift between the finite and the infinite is one we make throughout our lives, from moment to moment. We use the finite view, the right brain view, to do our bookkeeping tasks, to read maps, and other similar daily functions. Shifting into the left brain is less common, less sanctioned in our culture, and so we give it up as children. We give up gazing aimlessly at dust floating in the air. We give up spinning around and making ourselves dizzy, savoring all the sensations and the silliness. We are told to get into that right brain and be productive. And so we do. Sadly, we ‘put away childish things’ in favor of the solid finite world that seems to promise security and success.

Through the practice of meditation, walking without goal in nature, experimenting with art materials, dance and music in an open and curious way, among other activities, we again access that left brain. And it feels like coming home to ourselves. But still we don’t live there full time. We shift back and forth. And thus are able to hold these contradictory thoughts, like the one I held about the nature of loving kindness.

One day my inner contradiction became crystal clear to me. We were driving across the Richmond/San Rafael bridge on a particularly messy traffic day, and I wrapped our vehicle in white light. Suddenly that felt very tight and selfish. Did I want only our car to arrive at its destination unscathed? No, of course not! I wanted there to be no accidents on the bridge that day. I wanted all of us travelers to be safe.

And I suddenly sensed how that was possible. I didn’t have to rely on some statistical odds. It felt perfectly reasonable to hope that there would be no accidents anywhere in the world, that all people would be well and free of disease, that all people would be happy.

In my right brain thinking, I had subscribed to logic, facts and statistics to draw the conclusion that some percentage of the population would have to crash and burn. But suddenly, in a left brain moment, I could see through that tight flawed veil of illusion.
I saw how crazy it was to subscribe to the belief that there was some rule that some portion of the population would have to be sacrificed to the accident god, or the illness god, or the poverty god.

In that moment it seemed as ludicrous a belief as the one held by the Eloi in the 1960 movie The Time Machine, those people in the distant future who hear a siren and go into a trance-like state to sacrifice themselves to the Morlocks, the predatory monsters who live under the earth. I must have been thirteen when I saw that movie and that one scene has stayed in my mind all these years later. Yvette Mimeux, so alive and vibrant one moment, suddenly turns into a vacant sack of flesh tuned to walk with the rest of her people toward their certain fate.

So what kind of trance are we in when we assume that there is limited metta to go around, that someone will have to be sacrificed, but please don’t let it be me or someone I love?

When I was on retreat recently, I was reminded again that the statistical oddity of peaceful coexistence and well being is possible. When we quiet down, slow down, sink into the present moment and release any sense of need to get somewhere else, it is quite possible, even likely, for us to become aware, have a deep love and compassion for the whole sangha (community). Quite naturally peaceful coexistence arises. How lovely it is for 90 people to seamlessly move among each other, without words or eye contact, managing to not just avoid crashing into each other, but really towards the end of the week beginning to move as cells in a single organism, in concert with each other.

The funny thing is that if someone from outside were watching us, the way we don’t talk or make eye contact and move so slowly, they would think we were zombies in a trance. But it’s just the opposite! On retreat we are incredibly alive, alert, present, compassionate, sensing our connection to each other and all that is.

What if we all slowed down, relaxed, meditated? What if we weren’t operating out of fear of being sacrificed on the altar of poverty, disease or accident. Of course, we would be more considerate of each other, more compassionate and caring, more able to enjoy each other without feeling threatened. And how would that impact our health and safety? Less stress, less mindless behavior, less addiction – is this not a prescription for well being?

I am not saying we would not die. But what is death? Go out in the garden, out in the woods and ask about death. The tree that falls nourishes the forest floor and regenerates life. Is it dead? Only if it thought itself to be separate, but the tree is an intrinsic part of the whole. It doesn’t die.

What of disease? It’s not all caused by stress, addiction and mindless behavior. Well, in the world of plants, we can see that the life force has just taken a turn, that bacteria, virus, fungi, or whatever has taken the lead. Again, the plant is a part of the life of the garden, not diminished by the life force fluctuations in and around it.

I know this sounds a little woo woo. Okay a lot woo woo! But that’s just the right brain feeling threatened by the possibility of a saner way to live, a way that is open, expansive and inclusive. A way that is joyous!

I know also that sending metta as is our practice can sometimes feel crazy. May all beings be well, we say, while wondering how that’s possible. May all beings be happy, we say, while knowing that’s even less likely. We cannot imagine such a cohesive arising of well being in the world we live in. And all we have to do when we are sending metta and having these doubting thoughts is to notice and allow the thoughts to coexist with the well wishing. Really! We are not about excluding ANYTHING that arises. So acknowledge those doubts. They are a part of the moment.

Do I believe that when I send metta all beings will be well? No. I believe that if all of us sent metta, the world would be transformed in an instant. But this is just a waft of a thought that passes through, it is not my goal to change the world. It is my intention to stay present with my own experience, and I notice that when I send metta I am happier. When I send metta there is an internal shift that seems to create peace within and around me.

One of my students asked an interesting question upon hearing all this. She said, “When we see someone in dire straits, we can’t help but think ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ What do you think when you see such a person?”

I said, I think, “There go I.”

Because really that’s the way of things. We may believe we are separate, but the truth is, as modern science clearly shows, there are no edges to ourselves that can be discerned. The molecules in the air, the molecules in the body are all of a piece. So when we believe ourselves to be separate, it is just fear rising up within us. Fear makes us believe that we are alone in the world, isolated, judged, in danger.

If I believe myself to be separate from the ‘person in dire straits,’ I suffer the isolation and all the manifestations of that fearful thinking. I feel afraid of contagion, guilty, lucky, awkward, responsible and a host of other emotions. I want to get away, not just from the person, but from these uncomfortable feelings.

If I believe myself to be an intrinsic part of the world, not separate from it, then when I see pain, I feel the pain. I am not overcome with the pain, but I hold the thread of pain as part of my immediate experience. I hold it spaciously. I notice my thoughts and fears, and in noticing them they often melt or soften, leaving me more able to recognize the person beyond the pain. No person is all pain, and when we treat each other as if our situation is our being, we create more pain where we wanted to be helpful.

I know when I was going through hip surgery, there were some people who began to see me as my situation, and it was very uncomfortable to feel so invisible to them. Imagine how invisible I would feel if this were an ongoing situation or circumstance! Imagine if I didn’t see what was causing me to feel so invisible, if I truly began to feel lost and fading away. This happens to people all the time when everyone around them treats them as if they are their illness, their poverty, their addiction, etc.

So when I see this ‘person in dire straits’ if I can stay present with my thoughts, emotions and sensations in my body, I will be more likely to see that there is no difference between us. And from that perspective, my metta, my well wishing, is deeply rooted and authentic. Perhaps it will also manifest in some way I can be useful, but at the very least I have shared humanity with him, felt an outflowing of loving kindness, perhaps made him feel visible as an intrinsic part of all that is, made him less object, isolated and alone. This may sound like a small thing, but it goes a long way toward healing, and it helps in a way that bread alone cannot.

Incorporating Metta in the Way We Work
In our daily life we do so many things that are for the benefit of others. In our work, around the house, in our grooming, shopping, etc. – everything we do can either be a tightly held tit-for-tat measured thing or it can be expansive, offered up with loving kindness from a bottomless source.

I’m reminded of the other day hearing a young person complain that she does way more around the apartment than her roommate. I was sympathetic because she was suffering from feeling used and put upon. But how different would her experience be if she stopped measuring who did what, if she established the yogi jobs she would do, based on what is important to her to have done, and then did it with awareness and loving-kindness. In the first place, her experience would be more pleasant. She could sense in to her muscles working in concert to clean, lift or whatever the chore is. She could also offer it up as a gift to her roommate, herself and the universe. Truly, a yogi job done with awareness and loving-kindness is a benefit to all.

Without measuring, she might notice that her roommate does other things that are of value to both of them. Perhaps she does more of the cooking, the bill paying or the shopping. If not, is there some reason she feels she should do less? Does she live there less of a time, feels less responsible for the mess, etc.? Does the roommate feel it’s not her home, that she is only responsible for her own room? Why would she feel that way? Lots of room for interesting conversation, without accusation, but with curiosity.

Without measuring, our young woman might find that a change happens in the household. Perhaps cookies are made in the oven she cleaned and offered lovingly. Or maybe her roommate has been inspired by the cleanliness and begins to see what she hadn’t noticed before. Not everyone knows what clean is unless they experience it.

In every relationship there is this potential for measuring, being miserly and creating misery. We think, ‘I did this, so you have to do that.’ ‘I did this, so you owe me.’ ‘I did this, and you are a lazy good-for-nothing bum who is disrespecting me with this behavior. Why do I have to tolerate this? I deserve better.’

We each deserve the joy that comes from accessing the infinite source through quieting down, listening in, being present for whatever arises in our experience. We discover the benevolent nature of things at the core, and sense at last that we are wholeheartedly and forever loved and lovable, that we are not dependent on the love, approval or respect of others for our happiness. We recognize that we are made of that love and able to transmit loving kindness generously because it flows through us from an undepletable infinite source.

We all deserve to let go of our own misery-making measurements and start offering metta in all we do. Without expectation of a return on our metta investment, it becomes unimportant if all labors are matched equally. But often, out of the contagious nature of loving-kindness, the balance comes into harmony. Our minds expand and we see the bigger picture, the ebb and flow of energies and abilities, and how things all work out.

Back to that day years ago driving across the bridge and having that metta insight: I recognized then the possibility of that kind of peaceful loving coexistence that we have together on the Spirit Rock retreat. If all of us stopped withholding our well-wishing and loving kindness from ‘strangers’ and ‘enemies’, how different would the world be? What would be possible?

Here is a poem I wrote about it at the time.

Metta Cake

A careful baker, I measured metta,
leveling each cup with the back of a butter knife.
Yet the cake would fall or simply lack sweetness for no reason I could figure.
My frustration mounted. I raged at the miller, the leavening, the oven.
But cake after cake was politely nibbled or set aside
by my carefully culled guests at my perfectly laid table.

I suffered deeply the humiliation of failure,
not to mention the waste of expensive ingredients.
But relentless, I kept trying, needing so badly to be seen,
if not as a baker extraordinaire, at least as a
really hard-working good-hearted person.

One particularly painstaking night,
exhausted from my futile labor,
I fell asleep in tears of self-recrimination.
To awaken in a dream world of metta beyond measure:
Of infinite love boundlessly flowing,
of hearts open to give without depletion,
to receive without questioning their worthiness,
in an endless circuit of loving light.

I sensed the warmth of sunlight upon my salty cheek.
I rose and threw open the windows to the boundless morning light.
I waved at a neighbor passing by, and was met with a radiant smile.
Then I took a stroll in the garden, plucking a peach off the tree.
Biting into its juicy flesh, my tongue delighted in its sweetness.

Maybe I would not bake today, I thought,
but if I did, it would be a kind of boundless baking.
Like the generosity of a peach tree whose fruit ripens
without concern for whether it will be eaten. Could I bake like that?
As if my cakes grew from an infinite source where I am deeply rooted?

I breathed in the fragrant air of all life intermingling in a rich chaos
and felt an infinite and indiscriminate tenderness.
Why not? I thought. Yes, why not?

– Stephanie Noble

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