Here’s a poem for this time in the world:
This is a moment when
luggage sits open on the bed
whether to be packed
Threats of contagion, quarantine, lock-down
This is a moment when
the caterer’s order list
sits by the phone
whether to be called in
Threats of cancellation, wastage, financial risk
This moment is iffy.
But what moment isn’t?
The luggage once packed
could get lost in transit.
The food once ordered
could be left uneaten
when a bride leaves
her groom at the altar.
We never know. Never.
This is not new.
We just never knew it.
— Stephanie Noble, March 2020
All earthlings everywhere are riveted by a microscopic sphere that is deceptively festive looking. In an impressive response, we have almost universally changed our habits! I’ve never seen anything like it.
That said, there is also a lot of reactivity rooted in fear: leaders pointing fingers elsewhere, the media pouncing on the term ‘deadly pandemic’ like a cat on a toy, and frightened people blaming anyone they identify as ‘other’. So we have all kinds of skillful responses and unskillful reactions to look at in our ongoing exploration of Wise Action as part of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.
But because we ourselves are dealing with fear, at this moment the wisest action for each of us is to cultivate inner ease and lovingkindness for our own well being.
After Rick Hanson decided to cancel his meditation group that I was scheduled to teach this week, I reached out to my weekly women’s group to see if they still wanted to meet, and the majority did and swore they were in good health. So I swabbed down every door handle, faucet, etc. before, during and after the meeting on Thursday morning. And I’m glad we met, because the energy before we meditated and the energy afterward was markedly different. I don’t think any of us realized just how tense we had been.
I led a meditation that was specifically focused on strengthening the immune system. I didn’t record it, but if you have the Insight Timer app, you might want to do the metta meditation. Or maybe you feel more in need of the anxiety meditation. Or both! :-0
It’s hard to stay well when you’re so afraid of getting sick.
Fear causes sustained tension that stresses us out. Stress has been proven to compromise the immune system. So let’s see if we can soften that tension! We may be used to treating the body’s ailments with medicines, but at this publishing, there is no vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, so keeping ourselves as healthy as possible is the best response. (We just got back from the grocery store, and what was out of stock? Sugar! All the sugar was gone! People, this is not the wisest action when trying to stay healthy! Yet, it’s totally understandable as a response to stress, and I didn’t get out of there without tossing a bag of chocolate chips into the cart.)
Wellness comes from cultivating a sense of ease and wholeness. This doesn’t mean we don’t take all sensible precautions, but we do them from a sense of compassion for ourselves and all those we may come in contact with, not from a gripping fear of contagion.
This is the perfect time for mettā, the Pali word for unconditional loving-kindness, an intrinsic Buddhist practice and probably the wisest action any of us can take at any time.
Mettā is not about being nice. And it’s not about doling out good wishes to people we consider deserving. It is acknowledging that we are intrinsically interconnected and we can, when we are fully present, access the power of lovingkindness for ourselves and then radiate it out to all beings everywhere.
So I offer this to you now when you may be feeling anxious, fearful and forced into isolation as you’re cautioned to distance yourself from others.
When we do metta practice we always begin with ourselves, receiving it fully. This is difficult for people who are used to giving to others to the point of depletion, without a thought to their own needs. But we cannot give what we haven’t received. It’s as simple as that. And to be honest, what we give from a finite depletable source (with all that sense of sacrifice and the recipient’s sense of guilt) will never be as beneficial or well-received as what is given from our bounty of lovingkindness.
Each insight meditation teacher finds the wording for metta practice that feels right to him or her. These are the words I use:
“May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy.” (And then “May you be…” and then “May all beings be…”)
Metta is neither a request nor a prayer. It’s cultivating an awareness that all life is a complex network, and that this body-mind is an intrinsically interwoven part of it. This is simple science. The atoms we’re exchanging with every breath with the earth and the rest of the universe are all the same exploding stars from which we’re made.
What we do and say, mindlessly or consciously, ripples out and impacts all life. That’s why developing awareness and skillfulness is so important.
When we send metta, we do so without discrimination. You may balk at sending metta to someone who has wronged you or a public figure whose policies are clearly wrong-headed, and you may really balk at including the coronavirus itself in your metta! But to exclude anything is counter to this beneficial practice. Yet how can we even consider sending lovingkindness to something that is making people sick; killing those most vulnerable; and playing havoc with people’s livelihoods, travel plans, and life savings, even if only temporarily? Well, I try to remember that the virus is a living being just doing what it does. It is neither malevolent or benevolent. It’s just life living itself. And in truth none of us knows what will come from its transit through our lives. Can we rest in the “I don’t know” mind with more ease?
Can we also recognize that this situation is impermanent, as all life is impermanent? When it’s something we don’t like, we can remind ourselves that this too shall pass.
With the virus spreading, it makes sense to linger longer than usual with the “May I be well” portion of the metta practice, and to put special emphasis on strengthening the immune system. Can we see it not as an armored fortress against some feared ‘other’, but as a powerful life-affirming force within us? By making enemies, we’re only defeating ourselves.
We open to the sense of wellness in this moment (even if we experience aches and pains, and may have all sorts of thoughts about the state of our health.) We can trust that in each moment all the systems of the body work in concert for nourishment, healing, and regeneration. But there’s only so much these systems can do if we are constantly sabotaging their efforts through unhealthy habits. Our metta can extend to developing healthier habits in a kind and compassionate way. Wise Action!
As we access the infinite radiant quality of metta, we become radiant ourselves.
The second metta blessing is “May I be at ease.” By opening to the infinite sense of ease pouring through the body-mind, we can feel a physical release of tension. At times like these, we might find there is more tension than usual. Spend as much time purposely tightening and releasing physical tension as feels helpful for you.
The third and fourth parts of the metta practice focus on developing inner peace and joy. These naturally arise as we allow ourselves to see the gift and beauty of life through the present moment just as it is, letting the myopic lens of fear fall away. This too releases tension and benefits the immune system.
Only when we have allowed ourselves to fully open to and receive the power of metta, can we then share it with others. We bring to mind someone who is in particular need of lovingkindness right now. And we say “May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be peaceful. May you be happy.”
And then, because the nature of metta is infinite, it grows, expanding in all directions, shining its radiant loving light into even the darkest places, encircling the whole earth and beyond. And we say, “May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be peaceful. May all beings be happy.”
Then we rest in that deep joy, ease and sense of connection.
Whenever you are feeling anxious, do this practice for yourself, for those you love and for all beings. May you be well! — Stephanie