Monthly Archives: July 2012

Four Obstacles to Metta Practice

Obstacle #1. Belief That Metta is Finite

When we practice sending metta (the Pali word for loving kindness) 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. This is an obstacle! 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.

Obstacle #2. Feeling Metta is Corny, Not Cool

Another obstacle to sending metta comes up for some people, not for others. 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 obviously that is an obstacle that you can either notice and live with or challenge. I can’t advise you there, because it is a totally personal matter. 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.

Obstacle #3. Sending Metta to Self First Seen as Selfish

People often have a problem with the instruction to send metta to ourselves first. 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?

Another resistance to giving metta to ourselves first is 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.

(When I first returned to meditation practice after many years, it was with a non-Buddhist teacher at the local community college who encouraged us to imagine a safe natural setting and rest there with open curiosity for our surroundings. He instructed us to notice if any animal or person came into our field of awareness, and if so, to ask them questions, that whatever answers they provided came from our deepest most connected wisdom.

I did this, and a many months long inner conversation ensued, most of which is in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within. But if at any time I had no particular question, I would just say, ‘Tell me what I need to know,’ and that wise inner voice would say, “I love you. I have always loved you. I will always love you.” That is a lot to know! So I share that with you because that voice was just my personalized version of a universal source that we all have access to if we sit and listen. All this to say, trust that you are loved.)

If staying with metta practice to yourself is still too difficult, skip that step for now. When you get to the stage of sending metta to all beings wherever they are, perhaps you can acknowledge that you are included in that ‘all beings.’ This will begin to allow for the possibility that you are ‘worthy’ of receiving metta until you understand the true nature of metta, discussed in next ‘obstacle.’ It also helps to remind ourselves that throughout the world at any given moment, someone is sending metta out to all beings, including us.

To proceed in the traditional practice, after we send ourselves metta with phrases like May I be well. may I be happy. may I be at ease. may I be at peace, then we send it to someone it is quite easy to feel a natural upwelling of loving kindness — a child, a grandparent, a beloved teacher, someone with whom there is no thick tangle of contradictory emotions. We say May you be well. may you be happy. may you be at ease. may you be at peace. We notice how it feels in our body to send metta to this ‘easy person.’

Then we send metta to a family member or close friend, and then to someone we see in our daily lives but for whom we have no deep emotions (a bank teller, a store checker perhaps) who is traditionally called our ‘neutral’ person. 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.

Obstacle #4. Metta Seen 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.

At this point we are instructed to think of someone for whom it is challenging to have feelings of loving kindness. This might be someone very close to us with whom we struggle, or it could be 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?  We may have come upon this obstacle in sending metta to ourselves, but here we are asked to send metta to someone we 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! Nor does metta. 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. It is to be accessed and shared so that all beings experience this infinite loving kindness that shines like the sun on all beings. We have no 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, thus 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.

We remember that metta is infinite, that it doesn’t dilute with sharing. In fact
it grows and glows and encompasses the whole world, seeping into all the darkest corners around the globe,softening hearts, awakening minds and relieving suffering. 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.

Energy Awareness

‘When you find yourself in the thick of it, 
help yourself to a bit of what is all around you…’ 

— from Martha My Dear by The Beatles

In class we noticed how the energy within our bodies and within the room had changed after meditating. So when we talk about energy, we are not talking about something that we have not observed for ourselves.
This experience of observable phenomena is basic to the Buddha’s teachings — the importance of noticing and questioning everything. We question the veracity of long-accepted statements and explore with fresh awareness and attention what is occurring in this moment. So let’s explore together, with curiosity, this energy.

What is the nature of this energy we have observed? It’s something that is beyond our ability to name. When we name it, it suddenly isn’t what we’re talking about anymore. But still, we need a way to talk about it. Perhaps we could see it as the resting state of all that is, the default position, like an infinite body of water with no wind acting upon it. Perhaps this energy is the felt sense of the space that fills every molecule of being, the seen and the unseen.

I think of the story of the fish who looked everywhere for this much-talked-about and highly valued but elusive thing called ‘water.’ It took him a lifetime to realize that the water he was seeking was invisible to him because there was no ‘not water’ in his experience. This energy we are talking about is so fundamental to our experience of life that we don’t just take it for granted, we really can’t see it!

We see darkness because there is light, beauty because there is ugliness. All the things that are easy to see are defined by their opposite. But this quality of energy we are talking about has no opposite. The changes that occur are simply the way the energy is moved and contorted. It is still the energy. So we don’t just take it for granted, we forget it exists! And yet when we sense in, we may become are aware of it. It creates phenomena that is observable.

Is this energy the only constant in life? We observe the truth of the Buddha’s fundamental teaching that all things are impermanent because all things, including thoughts, emotions, concepts, ideas, objects, and ourselves are compounded. Two or more causes and conditions were necessary for them to come into being. We can observe this impermanence in the weather, the cycles of nature, and in the changes that occur in our bodies, our relationships and our circumstances.

Believing in permanence is a fundamental source of our suffering. When things are ‘good’ we cling to them. When things are ‘bad’ we forget that ‘this too shall pass.’ As a result, we may do all manner of unskillful things in order to avoid inevitable change. This is the pattern we can observe as we slow down and take the time to center in and really notice. Through our awareness the tight hold of these patterns begins to soften and dissolve. These patterns are impermanent too.

With this awareness, we recognize the gift of being alive in this form right now, no matter what the circumstances or situation. This moment is always the perfect moment to wake up to what is. We can see that we are active participants in the creation of current reality, whether we are conscious of it or not. When we become aware of the infinite quality of the energy out of which all arises and our ability to notice it, conduct it or amplify it, we can also see clearly how some of our life-long patterns constrict it and dissipate it.

Most of us have experienced how the energy under certain conditions becomes electrified. When large groups of people come together in a state of fear or love, the energy activates collective anger and violence, collective joy and euphoria or a profound sense of connection and intention. We’ve seen this happen at music or sporting events, at rallies and marches. We’ve seen news footage of Hitler directing this energy, arousing the collective fear into a powerful punch that still resonates so many decades later. Perhaps just reading that name sent some energetic shock waves through your body. That’s how powerful this energy is! We now know that our brain chemistry changes in a myriad of ways when we are exposed to these energy-activating experiences.

I experienced this kind of mass energy when I participated in the marches in San Francisco in 2002 and 2003 to demonstrate against going to war in Iraq. I marched multiple times, but noticed a real difference at the march where I sat in meditation with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as the marchers assembled at the base of Market Street before the march began. To sit in silence with speakers ranting and thousands of strangers milling about within inches of me was quite a different meditation! But mindfulness training kept me fully present, relaxed but alert.

When we meditators rose and joined the march, the energy all around us felt very buoyant. There was a quality of spaciousness — no bumping into anyone even though the crowd was dense. There was a quality of loving-kindness and gratitude for all these dedicated people from all walks of life coming together to show their concern for the well being of the peoples of the world and the planet. As we marched, this sense of spaciousness spread out from the meditators and seemed to affect the marchers around us — who knows how far up and down the march — allowing everyone to be centered in their profound understanding that war is not the answer rather than getting caught up in surface distractions. There was great camaraderie and deep respect. There was a sense that whatever the results of our wise efforts there that day, we were creating right there in that moment the energy of peace. How skillful!

We often think of peace as the absence of war, but peace is much more than that. Peace is powerful! It is the collective creative energy that arises out of love and respect. When we seek peace out of fear, it is a paltry thing, a wimpy sniveling craving for safety that is simply a forgetting of the potentiality of accessing the energy always available to us. This fear is absolutely understandable. We have spent our lives unaware that we have access to unitive universal energy to transform our current experience. In fact, we believe ourselves to be powerless. Any person who is truly at peace, who feels deeply connected with all beings, will create a very different resonance than one who is screaming their separateness and fear. When we actively engage the loving spacious energy within ourselves and then come together in deep respect, this is powerful peace. The energetic experience is transformative.

When we access our Buddha nature, our quiet voice within, and do so together, a collective energy arises that is infinite in its potential. When the crowd disbands, the sense of euphoria will dissipate, due to the natural ebb and flow of energy. It would be quite human to feel disappointed. In that moment we have the choice of being present with this experience, thus aligning with the energy, or getting caught up in longing for another ‘group high’ experience, thus succombing to the pattern of ‘not enough’ that constricts our ability to be present and fully in touch with our own capacity for aliveness.

I mentioned the ebb and flow of energy. This tidal quality doesn’t mean the energy comes and goes so much as it expands and compresses. We may experience the way energy rises and falls like waves, overwhelming us or draining us. Remember the rule at the ocean’s edge: Never turn your back to it! We could use that as a reminder to be awake and aware of the energy.

A friend of mine was an avid Buddhist student for many years. Then in her fifties she took up surfing. What she learned resting on the ocean and riding the waves has made sense of all the dharma talks she ever heard. The Buddha taught his students to find out for themselves. She is doing that in her intimate relationship with the ocean.

Here’s another phenomenon we may have noticed about this energy: We are familiar with how spending time with certain people makes us exhausted, as if they have drained the energy right out of us. Of course, it is not most people’s intention to drain energy out of anyone, but the effect is still there. When we rely on other people to direct, inspire, shore up our own energy, then we drain their energy. This happens when we are afraid or simply don’t know how to access our own inner wellspring of infinite energy through meditation in whatever form works for us.

People may say about an acquaintance ‘She’s so needy.’ This just means that ‘she’ (or he) hasn’t found the portal to access infinite energy, so is relying heavily on others.

Pause for a moment to sense into your body, into whatever physical sensation you notice right now — pressure, temperature, tension, pain, the quality of energy or the movement of the breath. Now picture a person you know who drains you of energy when you are with them.

While thinking of that person, notice if your body sensations change in some way. Perhaps there is a tightness that sets in, a change in the pattern of the breath, or a sense of aching exhaustion. Just notice what, if anything, happens when you have this person in mind.

Now let that image go. Then focus on the breath rising and falling, that steady flow of energy and see what happens with the sensations in the body. If you experience a return to a sense of ease or well being, then you have just given yourself a clear demonstration of the power of this energy and the power of our thoughts to affect our experience of this energy.

The Buddha taught his students to incline the mind toward wholesome thoughts. Since he was teaching primarily young men, he was probably encouraging them to bring their awareness a little higher up than their loins. But this advice is useful for all of us. We have just seen how, when we dwell on a certain person or situation, we feel drained. When we are drained of energy we are disempowered, living in fear — whether for the other person, the state of the world, or our own well being. We feel paralyzed and helpless.

This is where the powerful practice of metta comes in. Metta, as you probably know is universal loving-kindness. The activity of sending metta, first to ourselves, then to others and eventually to the whole universe, aligns us with our Buddha Nature. Our Buddha Nature, or whatever you are most comfortable calling it, is our access point to this infinite loving energy. When we access this energy, we feel its power to center us, bring us fully present, and hold us in a loving open embrace. Because the nature of this energy is infinite, we not only don’t need to keep it to ourselves, we can’t contain it! It glows and grows and compels us to share it with the world. Because the nature of this energy is infinite, we cannot be in it and withhold it from any being. We cannot be in it and judge some beings as unworthy of receiving this loving-kindness. So we share it, amplify it, enjoy the sense of aligning with this powerful loving-kindness that is flowing through us.

In class we did an extended metta practice, using the phrases ‘May I be well, may you be well, etc.’ In our next class we will explore this practice in more depth, especially those places where we have resistance, like sending metta to ourselves and to ‘difficult’ people. But for now it is enough to consider this idea of infinite energy and how we experience it.

If the fish had paused to notice that every time he swished his tail, something moved around him, he might have become aware of that elusive thing called water much sooner. Just so we can pause and notice the interplay of our thoughts, emotions and actions with the felt sense of energy in our bodies and surroundings.

I would also like to offer this two-minute video of a starling murmuration in Scotland as a wonderful example of the collision-free euphoric group energy seen in other species, but also quite possible in our own.

The Power of Loving-Kindness

Over the past weeks we have been exploring the word ‘should’ and similar bully words that shove us around. We’ve practiced noticing these words as they come up and then using that awareness to explore where we get stuck in our lives, how we lose vital energy by relying on should thinking to determine our course.

When we pause, even briefly, we can tap into that vital energy that courses through us — the energy of light and loving-kindness that is our natural way of being in the world.

Now here you might skillfully question ‘Is this true? Is kindness our natural way? Are we born to it?’ When I ask in about this, I can’t help but think about the babies I’ve been hanging out with lately. Openness, curiosity and delight come quite naturally to newborns and as soon as they start spending more time awake, and basic needs are attended to, they are quite present, interested and easily delighted by whatever comes.

These naturally-occurring dispositions can easily be shut down and distorted. But if they are not, if they are met with loving-kindness, then loving-kindness will result. Parents and all who help care for children have the power to nurture or quash their way of being in the world, making their roles the most important and powerful in the world.

So babies are a good indicator that openness and loving kindness are basic to our nature. But we can do our own inner exploration by spending time away from the clamor of the media, electronics and the social interactivity that is central to most of our lives.

When we sit or walk in silence, our minds have the opportunity to calm. If we let our eyes close or gaze upon a tree, a bird or a flower, then we get a more accurate reading of our own nature. The thoughts that race around in our brains may still be there, but in time they may begin to seem more superfluous, no longer a part of who we believe ourselves to be. Awareness intensifies. The present moment expands and becomes all encompassing. In this moment we are simply here, sensing into this experience of being. What may arise from this experience is an upwelling of gratitude and tenderness for all of it.

If you try this experiment and are frustrated because your mind does not suddenly find perfect peace, then just be with the bundle of expectations, judgments and dissatisfaction that arises. Not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to be aware of what is, to breathe into it, to hold it with as much kindness as is possible in the moment. You are not unique in your frustration! Just allow for the possibility that awareness and loving kindness to the thoughts and emotions that arise is more useful than compounding misery with more harsh judgments. When we are most resistant, ‘allowing for the possibility’ is a gentle prod that can be very effective. It seems like not much of a concession, so we meet it with a perhaps grudging willingness. And that’s all that is needed to begin the process of melting the hard cold clamped down tightness that keeps us from accessing our true nature.

Though some may never take the opportunity to give themselves the gift of pausing to be in the moment, the ability to let go and access this ‘Buddha nature’ is within us all. So yes, we are naturally conduits of loving kindness, and when we are able to open to it, we align with that energy and amplify it.

This quality of amplification is one I hadn’t considered much in my practice. I imagine myself as a conduit of universal energy at times, but it acts more as a megaphone rather than a pipe shape. It takes the universal energy and focuses it in a particular direction, based on our natural interests and talents. This focus amplifies the felt sense of the energy.

Sounds like a lot of responsibility! You may be familiar with the quote by Marianne Williamson that reminds us that we are powerful beyond measure. Somehow we know this and often are afraid of this power. We have seen power misused. We have seen charismatic people incite crowds to all manner of destructive behavior. So we are right to be cautious! But it is not skillful to shut down the power that is within us. It is skillful instead to notice always if it is arising from fear, thus leaving destruction in its path; or arising from univeral loving-kindness, and thus creating spaciousness, a sense of well being and oneness.

We are all powerful. You undoubtedly have experienced or observed this power many times. Someone walks into the room and things lighten up, become fun and creative. Suddenly all seems possible. Conversely, someone walks into the room and suddenly things get weird, frenzied, anxious, contentious or the color just drains away and everything feels heavy. Perhaps you feel a need to leave.

One person can do that! Each of us is affecting the energy in whatever situation we are in. We may think we are separate and that our little inner world of turmoil is our business and no one else’s. But there is no separate inner world! There is no ‘me’ in that sense. Our misery may not love company, but no matter how we try to hide it, it’s what we are sharing in every exchange, even when we just stop to buy a little something at the store. 

You know this is true. You have seen it over and over again in your life. You have observed it in others, perhaps seeing a miserable person as separate, pathetic, someone you can compare yourself to and feel glad you are not him or her. But whatever thoughts and feelings exist in you at that time arise from the combination of your energy and theirs — powerful enough to invade your line of thought or even change the flavor of your day, depending on how much it resonated within you.

When we are centered, calm, compassionate, and fully present, we are powerful beyond measure to bring peaceful joy to every situation. So when we practice meditation, we are not being selfish at all. We are tuning in to the energy that is generous and life-affirming so that all beings may be well. We are not retreating from the world to escape it. We are regrouping, reconnecting to the natural loving-kindness of being so that we and all those we encounter may be made more spacious, alive and loving.

Affording ourselves the opportunity to access our true nature is our homework for life. This is about coming home to the open, curious, easily delighted nature that is our Buddha nature.

How do we do it? We notice. We question. We offer ourselves opportunities to pause, to breathe, to be present. We take the ‘shoulds’ that arise in our self-talk and use them for more exploration. We breathe spaciousness into the tangle of our thoughts and emotions so that they unravel and allow themselves to be known as just thoughts passing through, just emotions rising up and falling away.

As part of our practice, we send metta, the Pali word for infinite loving-kindness, to all beings. aligning with this kind of energy. Perhaps we experience this as being energetic expressions of God or all that is or however we are most comfortable envisioning that infinite nature that arises when we quiet down and allow the feeling of spacious interconnection to be known within us.

Everything I teach, everything any meditation teacher teaches, points us back to this simple practice of being present and being compassionate with ourselves when we discover we are not. This is not just a sitting practice. It is a life practice. Wherever we are, at any time, we can pause, we can gaze at whatever is before us, we can sense into physical sensation, we can notice tension, thoughts, emotions and simply breathe into them with our open, curious delight.

This is our birthright. It’s who we are. It’s our Buddha nature.