Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Red Balloon

In a recent speech to a group of mostly non-mediators, I shared the story of an illness I went through in 1990, the intensive meditative ‘retreat’ I had during the nine months of my recovery, and how my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living was written from that meditative expanded state.

As a prop for the speech, I used a red helium balloon to demonstrate the situation leading up to my illness. I had been overwhelmed with the responsibilities of trying to be all things to all people in my sphere: a good mom to my teenage children, a good daughter to my aging ill parents, a good wife to my husband, a good executive vice president for our company’s clients and employees. I was trying so hard to understand what it was that all of these people wanted me to be that I lost any sense of who I was. I only knew I was overwhelmed and exhausted.

The balloon, like me, was held up by a finite amount of energy, energy that was leaking. I held up another balloon I had purchased the day before. It was already flagging on the floor, having lost most of its helium overnight. I too was operating from a depleting source of energy. I was depending on will power, effort and determination to be the best I could be.

Just like the balloon, I was heading down, leaking energy. Like the balloon I was susceptible to sudden events that might hasten my deflation. For the balloon that sudden event was the existence of a pin. Pop! In my case it was the death of my mother, who was my dearest friend and the foundation of my life as I knew it. It was as if my world had lost its axis. And like that popped balloon in pieces on the floor, down I went, succumbing to chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, and under doctor’s orders to quit my job.

The balloon seemed an effective prop to demonstrate how vulnerable I was. The pop was perhaps over the top, and could have caused heart attacks, but it certainly got the crowd’s attention! After the speech I received many enthusiastic responses, and it seemed that I was able to persuade many of them that they need to take quiet time for themselves to listen in to their own inner wisdom.

But several times people mentioned that they needed to re-inflate their balloons. While I am glad if that means they will be nourishing themselves, my analogy of the balloon was not to say we are balloons and we need to stop for a helium fill up every so often!

I was trying to convey that I had been functioning as if I were a balloon, reliant on a rapidly depleting source of energy. I had been unaware that I could access an infinite source of energy, that I wasn’t a balloon at all, wasn’t separate and vulnerable, but an expression of energy that is infinite and boundless. As are we all.

We can make a subtle shift of awareness to access this sense of being connected, not like Legos, separate but interlocking, but as energy – the buzzing life force — briefly communing in the form of a flower or a bird or me or you! The way an ocean wave rises and falls, all life forms rise and fall. Yet we are all one, all ‘water’ – even when being a cloud or a raindrop or an avalanche of snow — still inextricably one with life.

Though the balloon analogy wasn’t totally effective, it did what it needed to do by getting people’s attention. I wish some red balloon popping had gotten my attention back when I was feeling so overwhelmed trying so hard to be all things to all people. I wish I had been listening to myself when one day I said to a coworker, “I feel totally separate from myself.” I wish I had taken that as an invitation to question in about what was going on with me, instead of just laughing it off.

Perhaps reading this will remind you to listen for any messages that rise up from within you. The quiet wise whisper within always ready to guide you is patient, not pushy. It doesn’t tell you what you ‘should do’ or ‘must do’ or ‘have to do.’ It doesn’t insist on anything or set a deadline. It has no urgency. It’s never strident. That’s why it’s so important to provide a quiet solitary environment for it to be heard! It’s just a quiet patient voice that when asked what you need to know will most likely tell you, among other things: “I love you. I have always loved you. I will always love you.”

And really, when the infinite being-ness of life tells us that we are loved no matter what, then all sense of struggle to be something other than we are falls away. In its place an open-hearted peaceful love of life rises up to fully support us in whatever we do.

That’s what I wish for all beings. That’s what I wish for you.

Mo’ metta, mo’ betta

Metta: A truly portable practice
Sending metta (loving kindness) is something we can do all day every day without needing any special preparation. It is perhaps the most portable of portable practices. We can practice it in the grocery store line, on the phone and in traffic. We don’t shut our eyes; we don’t shut down in any way. We simply generate a warm sense of kindness for ourselves and others with whom we are interacting.


Road Metta instead of road rage

My first experience of sending metta while driving was back when I had to go past the hospital to get to and from my home. It seemed as if I was always encountering dangerous drivers on that stretch of road, and it upset me. Those drivers were risking my life along with their own. (Again we can notice that we are always most upset by people who have some control over us. Another driver’s unskillfulness (or ‘idiocy’ as we may be more inclined to see it) is threatening to our physical well being. So we get afraid and feel angry.)

Then one day I saw someone turn in front of oncoming traffic instead of waiting until he had sufficient space to make the turn safely. I realized he must be rushing to get to the hospital that he wasn’t thinking of his own safety or anything else but whatever thought or emotion engulfed him at that moment. Perhaps he had someone in the car that was bleeding or about to deliver a baby. Maybe he had just received a phone call that a loved one was dying and he was rushing to be with them in their last moments. Then it dawned on me – more of a ‘duh!’ moment than an ‘aha!’ one I admit — that people drove more erratically on that stretch because of their situations and their resulting emotional distress. They or someone they loved was ill, hurt or dying.

For a long while after that realization I began to send some form of loving-kindness and well-wishing (not yet called metta because I wasn’t studying Buddhism then) every time I drove past the hospital, not just to the patients inside but to the drivers coming and going.

Then I began to realize that even people who weren’t driving to or from the hospital might be in a challenging situation – maybe they just had an argument with a someone, got some bad news, had a sleepless night, worked too many hours, were feeling ill, were excited, angry, and they were behaving unskillfully because their minds were elsewhere.

It didn’t make me feel very safe to realize this. Nor did it make me feel very safe to realize that at times I have driven mindlessly too. This recognition made me less quick to judge. I always felt justified in my judgments. After all these are huge machines capable of great harm! But I realized that getting caught up in my judgments could compound the problem. How often do angry drivers, reacting to the mindlessness of others, actually cause accident? You see drivers yelling, giving the finger, tailgating and antagonizing other drivers, putting everyone in great jeopardy just to vent their views of who was right and who was wrong. This kind of behavior puts everyone on the road around them, including themselves, in much greater danger.

Road rage is epidemic and the cure is metta. First metta to ourselves, noticing the fear that arises, then metta to others, understanding that whatever they are caught up in that makes them mindless in their driving is rooted in fear. When we feel frustration rising up within us in traffic, we can use the opportunity to respond by driving more mindfully. By setting the intention to be more fully present in this moment, noticing whatever feelings arise and using metta to soften them, we do a great service to ourselves and all around us.

Age and experience carve room for more metta
Realizing that others are suffering and that their ‘jerky’ behavior arises out of mindlessness instead of intention helps us to access an ability to send metta more freely. Aging also helps us develop more compassion, as we discover through our own experiences of loss and pain that life isn’t easy for anyone. When I was young I sometimes wondered why old people walk so slowly. Was it because they didn’t have anything to do or anywhere to be? Well, of course, that could be a part of it in some cases, but I came to another understanding when I was in my thirties and my back went out for a week. I looked as if I’d aged fifty years over night as I hobbled around hunched and aching. Suddenly I understood! Old people move slowly because they hurt! This was a horrible realization, but one that carved my heart open to hold more kindness.

If we haven’t experienced real pain, it’s hard to imagine it. I just received news that my titanium hip, implanted two years ago, has been recalled! Not surprisingly this freaked me out because even though Johnson & Johnson will cover the cost of replacing the hip should it need replacing, they can’t live through the experience of having it replaced. They can’t do the hospital stay or the physical therapy before and after. They can’t take my place as I relearn to walk, or spend the weeks my husband spent helping me in every way imaginable. As I was dealing with this news, a younger person who is very dear to me said, ‘Well, maybe that’s when you decide to just live with a bum hip.’

‘Living with a bum hip’ sounds pretty benign for someone who has never experienced ongoing physical pain and all its ramifications on one’s life. And it’s not our fault if we don’t understand, but it is something we can become more aware of. If we are around someone who is in pain, or who has gone through a major loss, we can notice how the idea of such pain or loss scares us. We can sense how our muscles tighten up and our mind shuts down, not wanting to allow for the possibility of such pain in our own lives ever. But if we simply notice this tightening and this fear, we can send compassion to ourselves. We can understand how we might feel that way. As we soften within ourselves, we are better able to soften toward others.

Metta practice can cause a shift
By sending metta we shift the energy of any moment. When we are giving ourselves a hard time about something, pausing to send a message of loving-kindness really helps to create some space around the harshness of our judgments. This is not a way of letting ourselves off the hook of responsibilities and commitments. It is bringing much needed spaciousness and softening around the way we see them.

Metta reminds us we are not alone
At its most basic, sending metta helps us to notice that others suffer just as we do. This makes us realize that we are not the only one in the world with problems. By sending metta to ourselves and others, we connect on a deeper level, one that is not vested in isolation and self-protection from a world we perceive to be frightening.

If we have social anxiety or a general sense of discomfort around other people, sending metta is a valuable practice. If we are afraid to speak, afraid of being judged, then sending metta to ourselves and others brings us into a more open and accepting sense of the way things are. It helps us discern when a situation is actually threatening and if so what is the best way to respond.

An ongoing fear-based interpretation of the events in our life puts us in constant danger. Danger first to our own health from being saturated in the neuro-chemicals produced by our fear and from the tension we hold in our muscles. Sending metta can help to diffuse a potentially threatening situation. The pheromones that we put out when we are fearful can attract predatory response from even benign sources. We all know someone in our lives who seems to be victimized at every turn. We think of how predatory animals are able to sense fear. Fear attracts fear-based predatory behavior, even in people who aren’t usually prone to violence. Some chemical interplay occurs. Does this excuse violence? Did the victim deserve it? No, and no! But it does give hope that we can, by empowering ourselves with the ability to be conduits of loving kindness, soften our fear and change the message we are putting out into the world. And from that connected sense of loving kindness, the world responds in kind.

For those who say ‘I’m no victim!’ it’s important to recognize that a fear-based view of the world can also create a tough stance, a shell that no one can pierce, or a prickly way of being that can create misunderstandings and negative reactions. Sending metta to ourselves, we begin to dissolve the fear that calcified into a shell. Sending metta to others, we recognize that they are also often acting out of fear. We recognize we are not alone in our inner struggles, that these struggles are universal in nature. We don’t have to defend our separate shell. We don’t have to make others wrong to be okay with ourselves.

As we continue to make sending metta part of our practice or even the core of our practice, it activates the shift from being caught up in the relative truth of our personality-driven lives to recognizing our intrinsic connection to all beings, to all life, to all that is.

When we bath ourselves in metta, we shift from a state of blaming ourselves or others for causes and conditions, to a much more powerful connected way of being. It gives us perspective to see more clearly what is happening.

We don’t give ourselves metta because we deserve it, or withhold it because we think we don’t. It’s not a reward for good behavior. It’s not a pat on the back. Jesus was an excellent example of this universal quality of loving-kindness. The worst sinners were worthy of his loving-kindness and compassion. He didn’t fear contamination. He didn’t hold his nose while doling out food baskets. He truly recognized the oneness of life.

Metta-schmetta
It’s perfectly alright to feel resistance when presented with this idea of metta. I had a dharma teacher who really struggled with the concept of metta. She reluctantly taught it when asked, but the idea of loving-kindness was just too gooey and treacle-sweet for her. We students appreciated her honesty, her willingness to see her own resistance and to explore it a bit with us, in order to help us explore what resistance we might have.

I might have felt the same as she did if I had been introduced to the concept before I had my own experiences of it, without the label of ‘metta.’ I used to send my version of metta to my loved ones whenever any of them left the house in order to protect them out in the world and bring them safely back to me. The sound of the garage door opening or the car engine being turned on would spark an automatic response in me of seeing them wrapped in light.

But my understanding of metta was very limited. I thought it was a finite resource to be hoarded. Until one rainy day we were driving across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and I wrapped our car in light. Suddenly that felt a little stingy, so I extended my enveloping light to include other cars around us. I wondered, “Why can’t I extend this to all people on the road today?” My mind answered, “Because statistically someone’s going to have an accident, so not everyone can be safe.” But then I realized that if we were all being mindful, staying present, we could shift those statistics. We could all get where we are going safely. It felt like awakening from a zombie state! Suddenly it was clear that this energy was infinite and for all, not finite to be hoarded.

I wrote a poem about my realization titled “Metta Cake,” which I have shared with you before. But here it is again.

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 woke to sense 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 indiscriminant tenderness.
Why not? I thought. Yes, why not?

– Stephanie Noble

Metta and the Inner Critic
I wasn’t a natural born metta sender. I was raised by loving but highly critical parents. They judged others quite harshly and talked about them to each other, unaware that I was listening and learning what was acceptable and what was not in order to avoid being judged harshly by them. There seemed to be so many ways to go wrong in their intellectual and sophisticated world. Once I heard them discussing a friend who was writing a novel, scoffing at her for thinking she could accomplish such a feat. Years later, when I was 33 and writing a novel, you can imagine with what trepidation I approached the project, how fearful I was for all the harsh judgments that lurked behind the smiling faces of friends and family. You will not be surprised to know that that completed novel has sat safely in a drawer for the past thirty years!

A friend invited me to the symphony the other night and while anticipating attending the event, I realized I had some residual fears of being judged as gauche. I used to go the symphony with my father who could be very harsh about people who applauded at the wrong times. As my friend and I drove to the concert, I heard my mind plotting to sit on my hands and not clap until she did.

We hold these experiences tight within us, and may not even realize it until we give ourselves the spaciousness of mind to notice and discover, to unravel the tight knots of our thoughts and emotions and reveal the fear that binds them.

But noticing and discovering are only part of the practice. The other part is metta. We bring this kindness and compassion into our awareness. We treat ourselves with respect and caring. Whatever our religious or cultural tradition or our own intrinsic nature, we can do this. If we are to feel safe in our exploration, if we are to gain real insight, metta needs to be part of the mix.

And if we yearn for that shift to an awareness of our deep interconnection, there is no better practice than sending metta to open our hearts to understanding.

Metta Moves the Energy Effortlessly

Yesterday in class we had more discussion of metta (loving-kindness.) One student talked about how she had a difficult family member whom she had started silently sending metta, and how over time that family member had started opening up, blossoming into someone less complaining, less prickly and less difficult. Now they are closer, and her relative is actively engaging with her in a way she never did before. She did not send metta to change this person, yet somehow the sending metta seems to have created a space for her loved one to grow and soften in her dealings with others. If she had sent the metta in order to make a change happen, it would not have happened.

A blog follower wrote to say that she realized that she had been sending metta to those she perceived to be in need – a friend in the hospital, someone going through a rough time – but what she hadn’t been doing was sending metta to her husband. She recognized her relationship with him in a sentence of the last post about being paved over with concrete and calcified with fear. She recognized that their relationship had calcified, and that she needed to send metta to him on an ongoing basis. Metta arises out of such recognitions. She’s not sending metta because she wants to change her husband but because she recognizes an absence of metta-sending warmth in herself in this relationship.

Metta is powerful! All the more so because it is such a quiet practice, not announcing itself, not arriving at the doorsteps of friends or family saying ‘I’ve got the answer, YOU need to change.’ This is a stealth practice! It is such a generalized sense of well wishing that it can be totally unnoticed. These are internal wishes, though they might ride on the words we say every day to each other, like “Have a good day.” It’s just the difference between tossing it off by rote as a way of saying goodbye to the grocery clerk, or really feeling that well wishing for them in that moment. Even if they said ‘have a good day’ first, our ‘You too!’ can be heart-felt.

I shared with the class a little about the Gratitude Sit out at Spirit Rock that I was invited to attend. It was a lovely warm day and so sweet to be at Spirit Rock in the upper retreat grounds, my spiritual home. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, a book we have explored together in this class, was leading the meditation and giving a dharma talk with visual aids about the human brain and altruism. It was a very rich talk that I wouldn’t do justice to here. He says it will be available on dharmaseed.org. The date of the talk was 10/10/10.

I have a prepared dharma talk for next week and look forward to sharing it.

Meta-Metta

Immense compassion springs forth spontaneously toward all sentient beings who suffer as prisoners of their illusions.
– Kalu Rinpoche

This political season is such an opportunity to actively send metta! When my students were talking about an upcoming debate last week, I challenged them to see if they could send metta (loving-kindness) to the candidate from the party they weren’t supporting.

I knew how challenging this assignment might be. When I was young and watching the Nixon-Kennedy debates on black and white television in my best friend’s living room, we threw ice at Nixon whenever he said something that drove us crazy. I’d like to say it was an act of kindness to cool his sweaty brow, but it was an act of violence plain and simple. We were lucky the TV screen didn’t break! So I understand how challenging this assignment might be. Many times over the course of the recent Bush presidency our class at Spirit Rock imagined him and his cabinet members in the center of our circle and sent them metta. What a challenge! But what an amazing practice. We’ll never know if our loving-kindness was felt by Bush, but sending it out certainly had an effect on us.

Naturally I was curious to see what my students experienced if they attempted to send metta during the debates.

One meditator said that she just couldn’t bring herself to send metta to someone who represented policies she abhorred. She didn’t want them to achieve their goals or be effective, so why would she wish them well? If she was supporting the other candidate’s success, then obviously she wanted the opposition to fail. So why would she send them good wishes?

What a great question! And it made for a very rich class. I so appreciated the opportunity to clarify what metta is and what it is not. I realize that if she, a very wise woman, was unclear about the nature of this loving-kindness we are sending then many others probably are as well. So I would like to explore the concept of metta more thoroughly, and hopefully make the purpose of sending metta to difficult people understandable and the practice more accessible.

First, sending metta is not wishing for everyone to succeed at getting everything they want. The human condition is to want. We want all manner of things all the time. Our desires are boundless. But, as we have discovered in our exploration of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth and the causes of suffering, fulfilling our desires does not bring us the deep sense of joy we long to experience in life.

So when we wish someone happiness, we are not wishing for the fulfillment of a current desire. We are wishing them a much deeper sense of happiness, one that comes from a sense of completion, of being a valued expression of a vitally interconnected whole. We have been discussing this energetic interconnection over the past few weeks as we explored the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth. (Of course, if they are lacking in the basic needs of life, if they are going to bed hungry or have no bed to go to, for example, then out of a sense of caring connection we include that in our well wishing, and hopefully follow up with some material aid to whatever degree is possible, practicing generosity.)

But generally, we are sending a kind of meta-metta, an infinite permeable all encompassing blessing. If you missed the last few posts, please go back and read them. This sense of interconnection — the physical (subatomic particle – energy vibration) as well as spiritual truth of our being — is ever present but often overlooked in the busyness of our lives. It may be paved over with calcified constricting fear. So when we send metta to someone, we are sending this sense of a flow of loving energy to help soften that calcification and remind them that they are an intrinsic part of a complex whole, not an isolated disconnected soul struggling for survival, any more than a drop of water leaping above the rapids is alone.

Is there any person, regardless of their beliefs, behavior or desires, that we would not wish this kind of awakening? How does our withholding metta from anyone serve ourselves and our awakening? Withholding keeps us tight and constricted and feeling disconnected and at odds as well. So when we send metta to that most difficult person it is a deep awakening practice for us.

We are not sending metta to change people. We are not seeking results. We are sending metta because we are sensing in to the universal nature of loving kindness, we are accessing the boundless flow of metta, and that level of access is like being a conduit of energy. The conduit does not determine where the energy will go. When we send metta we feel the powerful flow filling us and overflowing. We allow ourselves to sense the boundless energy of being, the powerful love that can be talked about in so many ways but is fully present and accessible in every moment for those who pause and open to it.

Another meditator says that she sends metta at the end of her daily meditation practice, and she hoped that sending it out to ‘all beings’ was sufficient, because she’d really rather avoid having to think about any difficult people in the middle of a pleasant meditative experience.

I appreciate the practice of simply sending metta out to all beings, and we end our class by dedicating the merit of our practice to the benefit of all beings. I sometimes remind my students that there are probably people at this very moment sending metta out to all beings, and to remember that this includes us. We can take comfort in actively receiving that interconnected sense of well wishing.

But this one step ‘all beings’ well wishing doesn’t take the place of a full metta practice.
Traditional metta practice starts with sending loving-kindness to ourselves. Then we bring to mind an ‘easy’ person for whom we hold nothing but loving thoughts and send metta to them: May you be well, May you be at ease, and other such phrases of general well-wishing. Then we think of a ‘neutral’ person, someone we see in the course of our day but don’t really know like the bank teller or grocery clerk and send them metta. And then we think of a person for whom it may be very difficult to muster up kind thoughts at the moment. This could be someone in our personal life that is driving us crazy, but it could also be a public figure with whom we disagree about policy. And then finally we send metta to all beings.

When do we do full metta practice? For some people it is a regular part of their day, for others a more occasional group experience. But certainly, whenever we notice we are avoiding sending metta to certain people, then there’s a perfect opportunity for practice. Recognizing avoidance is a gift of awareness and an invitation to deepen our practice.

We noticed in class that a key thing about a ‘difficult person’ is the level of control they seem to have over things that affect our lives. This is a really valuable aspect to explore. I noticed that once Bush was no longer president, the challenge to send metta to him was absent. His power to harm me and those I love was gone. He was no longer ‘the difficult person’ of my metta practice. Whatever errors in judgment he might make once he was no longer in power would probably not gravely impact me the way they did when he was in the White House.

This power issue holds true also with people in our personal life, and is a valuable thing to look at. But when we send metta to them we are not wishing them success at driving us crazy! We are dropping to a deeper level than our personality-based interactions into a state of deep interconnection, where there is no distinction between us. By dropping to this level – the namaste level where ‘the god in me honors the god in you’ – we allow for the possibility of a softening of the constriction that keeps us at odds.

We ended our class by doing a metta practice to a difficult person we each brought to mind, and perhaps you might like to give it a try, imagining a person to whom it would be challenging for you to send loving kindness.

We wish them ease. We wish them healing. We wish them a release from the tight constriction of fear that holds them, that shuts them down, that shuts all of us down. We wish them the same in-depth understanding of the nature of our inter-connection that we wish for ourselves and all beings.

Since being constricted in fear is the major cause of all dis-ease and discomfort in the world, feeling threatened and reactive instead of loved and responsive, it only makes sense that we want loving release for anyone who is knotted up in fear and reactivity, anyone who sees themselves as isolated and the world as a threatening dangerous place that must be fought with violence.

Is there any person, no matter how wrong-headed or evil we believe them to be, from whom we would withhold that sense of deep connection? If everyone felt this opening and easing into the flow of the infinite energetic is-ness of being, would this not affect them in a way that would be beneficial to themselves and to all beings, including ourselves?

I leave you with a little treat: Sylvia Boorstein leading a brief metta meditation. Sylvia was my first Buddhist teacher who read my book and called it ‘jargon-free dharma.’ She is a treasure of compassionate wisdom to both Spirit Rock Meditation Center students and to the Jewish community in Santa Rosa.