“The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism but to study ourselves.” – Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Meditation is the practice of creating time and space to quietly listen in. Sensing in to our breath and other sensations that arise and fall away, as do all phenomena, we open to the possibility of insight. If we pair our intention to be present with the intention to be compassionate with ourselves as we proceed, then we create a safe way to explore ourselves and the world.
We may feel some resistance to this idea of studying ourselves, just as we do to sending loving kindness to ourselves. It is likely we have been raised to focus on the outer world and to ignore and control emotions, thoughts and physical sensations. This is meant to counter self-indulgence and self-devotion. The practice of Buddhist meditation and psychology is not meant to create a narcissistic cult within us. We begin where we are with our practice, and where we are is entrenched in the seemingly permanent situation of being embodied in a particular form, having a particular series of patterns of thoughts and emotions that we believe define us. So this is what we notice. This is what we study. We develop the ability to hold our inner experience in loving awareness.
If we skip this step, whatever focus we have on the outer world will be tight, rooted in the complex patterns of fear and ignorance we harbor. We leap to the defense of this set of patterns because we believe it is who we are, and we desperately do not want to disappear! In this fortified, calcified state we will offer up with the best intentions what we think the world wants and needs from us. We will not understand why when we are doing the best we can, these efforts are so misunderstood or poorly received. We will then blame ourselves or blame the world, causing the complex patterns to get tighter, denser and more toxic. We may seek oblivion to blind us to these patterns in the form of overindulgence in alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, overeating and other temporary distractions that do blind us, but also bind us even tighter to the patterns we are trying to escape. We’ve all tried at least some unskillful means of escape and have found them to be lacking. This is why so many people come to Buddhist practice after exhausting all other avenues. They come to the wisdom of ‘no escape.’
In our practice we begin where we are: Here, in this body, in this mind. We set our intention to be present and kind. That’s all. When we do this, there is a quite natural unraveling of the knot of patterns that have stymied us in our attempts to satisfy our idea of how we should be in the world. (Expectation stops the process, so notice and release impatience for a faster pace or greater rate of return on time invested. Let go of comparing mind. Just set the intentions again and again.)
Over time – days, weeks, months, lifetimes — we may notice that we are increasingly able to be in the world with a sense of being fully present, feeling, at least at times, true and universal loving kindness, a connected sense of compassion and much more. As this happens, we see that our practice has not been selfish at all. We practice on ourselves first. We are clearing the way for full engagement in the world.
In recent weeks we have been focusing on metta (loving-kindness) practice. Buddhism provides phrases for sending loving-kindness, as we have discussed previously. We begin with sending metta to ourselves, for the reasons I’ve just given. For a helpful mental aid to remind ourselves why we do this, remember that the airlines direct us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we put it on our children. What use will we be to our children, or anyone, if we have passed out?
If sending metta to ourselves still feels too difficult, here is an additional instruction I just learned at Jack Kornfield’s daylong retreat on Buddhist Psychology:
Then imagine these two people sending metta to you. You can draw on moments when they have exhibited loving kindness to you or have looked at you with heartfelt caring. Let yourself stay with this experience. Let yourself receive the metta.
You might try that practice and then notice how it feels in your body, how it feels in your emotions, and how it affects your thought processes. Perhaps it feels glorious. Perhaps it feels uncomfortable. Perhaps you can’t feel it or feel shut down by the process. Just notice what is present in your experience without trying to change anything.
Perhaps you can’t imagine two people who care about you. If so, then you might imagine being in the center of a circle of Buddhist monks with a lifetime of practice sending metta and seeing the Buddha nature in all beings. Imagine them all focused on sending metta to you.
Jack told us about his experience of meeting the Dalai Lama, how no matter how many people are waiting in line to meet him, he takes the time to look deeply in your eyes, holding your hand in both of his, until there is a deep connection, acknowledgement and understanding. So imagine the Dalai Lama sending you loving kindness! (He is doing so every day in any case, when he sends lovingkindness out to all beings!)
One of the students in my Thursday class said that ten years ago she was embraced by Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi is known throughout the world as Amma, or Mother, for her selfless love and compassion toward all beings.) and had that same sense of being held until some deep connection and release was felt. We discussed that feeling of total acceptance, so different from our usual sense of striving to be liked, loved, respected or admired. The nature of loving-kindness is universal, all-encompassing.
No matter what you have done, no matter what a mess you have made of your life, you can receive loving kindness. If you have done terrible things, allowing metta into your heart will give you the courage (from coeur, French for heart) to ask forgiveness and to make amends. If it’s useful, imagine metta as warm flowing liquid dissolving the granules of anger and resentment that have been keeping you from allowing yourself to forgive those you blame for past or current conditions, that keep you from forgiving yourself.
Our practice is to notice as much as we can about our present experience and to be as kind as we are able toward ourselves and others. That’s it. We don’t have to turn ourselves inside out. Whatever changes happen arise simply out of our practice. When a shift happens, it is from tight and fearful to open and loving. But we don’t force it. We don’t demand it. We don’t beat ourselves over the head until we are the ‘right’ way.
Our practice is to notice the arising and falling away of phenomena, including our thoughts, emotions and sensations. Our practice is to be kind to ourselves and others to whatever degree we are able. Sending metta activates our ability to feel deeply connected with all beings. From that sense of deep connection, we naturally become more compassionate.