The power of lovingkindness to bring justice

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I dedicate this dharma post to Cheri Maples of Madison, Wisconsin who worked in the criminal justice system for 25 years, and was ordained as a dharma teacher in 2008. She co-founded the Center for Mindfulness & Justice, and shared her teachings with criminal justice professionals at local and national levels. She died in 2017 due to complications of injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. May she be at peace, and may the benefits of her time on earth radiate into the hearts of all beings.

What we have been experiencing as a species these last weeks has been a powerful display of our common humanity, and an understanding of our interconnection. But we have also seen anger lashing out in violence.

At the moment I am writing this, there is a sense that love has prevailed. At the moment you are reading this, it’s almost a given that something else will be going on because nothing in life is static. Life is impermanence. We are all learning to surf the waves of a boundless sea of ever-changing conditions. At the moment peaceful protests have continued, grown stronger and more widespread, with a sense of solidarity of purpose and deeply shared commitment to change in community policing. Riots and looting have stopped, police have stepped back, and people in power have been getting down on one knee — in many cases for the eight minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s murder —  to demonstrate their commitment to the just and humane treatment of all members of the communities they serve. 

Initially, it was anger that took people to the streets, throwing COVID cautions to the wind. But it is a sense of deep interconnection, of loving our neighbors as ourselves, that makes for the more powerful commitment. Long after rage runs its course, love prevails.

Why is that? Love seems so weak, so namby-pamby, compared to the destructive power of anger. Let’s investigate:

We might think of anger as molten lava. It simmers under the surface and rises up, exploding in volcanic moments of injustice too blatant to be ignored or tolerated, getting the attention of even those who are keeping their heads down, just trying to mind their own business. After the eruption, the anger doesn’t go away. It finds other outlets. It can turn inward on ourselves, or it acts out on our family, friends, coworkers, and community members in ways that isolate us into a corner of roiling despair.

Injustice is not just in the volcanic moments. It is everywhere and the list is long. Look around at the ongoing disparate treatment of people of color, women of all ethnicities, people who suffer mental illness left to fend for themselves on the streets, people who work themselves to the bone but don’t make enough to feel financially secure, people who can’t afford to get medical care, people whose lives have been scarred by the mistreatment of those they trusted to love them, people whose love takes them on different but equally valid life journeys, people who feel mismatched to the gender-identifying features they were born with. I’m sure you could add more examples of people our human society has, out of fear, treated with cruelty rather than compassion. There is a lot to be angry about!

“If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”

Anger is not the enemy, but is it effective in the long run? Anger arises from fear and spews out without awareness. It may feel cleansing, a great release of pent-up emotion, but the destruction in its wake is painful for all. Think of the business communities, the small store owners of all ethnicities, who were already struggling because of COVID-19, now having to deal with their stores being damaged and their wares looted. The aftermath of anger is pain, suffering and unintended consequences. People who had been supportive suddenly feel violated and alienated. The molten lava of anger spewed out everywhere may be understandable, but the change it brings is destructive, worsening conditions rather than improving them.

So what’s the alternative? Sitting passively by while the world goes to hell? No! But change, real change, calls for clarity to identify what’s really going on, and a sense of world community that comes from deep seeing, and from the practice of lovingkindness, infinite lovingkindness — what Buddhists call metta. While anger runs underground and erupts like molten lava, metta radiates like the sun, sustaining all life.

“Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.”
– Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever”

The Buddhist community is not sitting idly by. Yes, we sit in meditation with eyes closed, that is how we cultivate the clarity and compassion to live with eyes wide open. Many sanghas (communities) are actively participating in protests. The teachings of the Buddha aren’t an escape route from the world, but a way to be in skillful relationship with all that arises in the world, cultivating joy and reducing suffering for all beings. Students of the dharma are out in the world, making a difference in all kinds of ways, but our contributions may look a little different.

Perhaps you remember the massive monthly worldwide marches leading up to the Iraq war. In San Francisco we would congregate in front of the Ferry Building before marching up Market Street to City Hall. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship created a space for anyone who wanted to sit and meditate together amidst the milling crowds and the blaring PA system with speakers rallying the crowd. Of all the marches I attended during that period, it was the one where I actually sat and allowed myself to quiet down and center in that really stays with me. The contrast between a march walked in fear for our future and one walked in love for all life was astounding. Instead of tens of thousands of separate angry voices, there was a sense of oneness, a deep and loving purpose. So powerful. So peaceful. A hundred thousand people sharing the peace they longed to see in the world.

I see that same shift of energy in many of the current marches, that sense of responding to the moment rather than reacting against it. The more people joined in, the more peaceful the marches have become. Why? Because when we think we are alone in recognizing injustice, we are fearful, desperate, hopeless. But when people join in, and we sense the community, locally, nationally, and internationally, standing and walking with us, we feel supported, energized, and able to march out of love and a sense of shared community purpose.

Beyond marches, people have found meaningful ways to put their practices of being present and filled with lovingkindness into their work in their communities. Here’s one example that feels topical at this moment because it is a quote by Cheri Maples, shown above, a Buddhist police captain who was also a dharma teacher and cofounder of a center for mindfulness and justice:

“Once I was able to view my work through the lens of kindness and compassion, I rarely regretted any action that I took. I am convinced that when a police officer starts with a commitment to non-aggression and preventing harm, the gun and badge become symbols of skillful means, rather than symbols of authority and power.” — Cheri Maples

That police officers can shift their way of thinking about their role and the community they serve is powerful. It’s the power of lovingkindness: Metta.

Metta is deeply incorporated in my guided meditations, both in class and on Insight Timer. And I find whenever a student comes to me with a particular challenge, metta is often the answer. especially metta for ourselves. We can be so unkind, so rude, sometimes even vicious in the way we treat ourselves, whether it’s in the language we use or our lack of self-care. So in the practice of metta, we always start where we are, even if we are backed into a corner of rage and despair.

But the key thing about metta is that once we have opened to it, allowed it to fill us, shining its loving light on even the most stubborn resistant aspects of grumpy opinionated patterns of thought; and we begin to feel it rising within us, when we are full to overflowing, we quite naturally share it. It emanates from us. Metta is radiant like the sun. [Read more dharma posts on metta.

I’ll leave you with this poem that I wrote in 2008, as a reminder not just of the beneficial power of metta, but of the nature of impermanence, how this moment is unique and yet just another wave on the sea of impermanence. There is always the need for metta, and metta is always there to support us.

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 Sichuan mother’s chest be eased.

Under the rubble: May a small pool of rainwater

keep 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 wartorn 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.

Blessings 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 lovingkindness,

the hardened armor I carefully crafted to keep

the endless misery of the world at bay,

becomes porous, allowing the blessings to flow

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 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 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 lovingkindness 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

4 comments

  1. Wow Stephanie! Your poem helps me with the limited perspective I so often hold when I get stuck in my own binding thoughts. I hope to keep working with metta to open up my heart to embrace myself and others. Thanks for your beautiful words and teachings.

    Like

      1. I also appreciate the teaching about skillful engagement with the world. I think the health and injustice crises have been a wakeup call for American Buddhists as well as so many other groups and institutions in this country (and elsewhere).

        Liked by 1 person

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