Category Archives: metta

Love doesn’t have to hurt.

Metta heartsWhen we talk about love we may mean romantic love or the family and friendship ties that bind us in a love that varies in degree and complexity, depending on our own nature and what each party contributes and expects from the other. Think of all the relationships in your life. Each one has it’s own course, doesn’t it? Some are lifelong, some are brief interactions. Almost all are complicated.

Try this little exercise:
Pause and bring to mind a person with whom you once had loving feelings but no longer do.

Looking at that relationship, let yourself remember what was the initial connection: physical attraction, chemistry, shared experience, shared values, shared confidences or something else entirely.

Answer any of these questions that readily activate a response:

  • What was your initial goal in that relationship?
  • What were you planning to have happen that maybe didn’t?
  • How did that person fail to live up to their part of the deal?
  • How did you fail to live up to your part of the bargain?
  • What would have made the relationship a success?
  • What was that person’s agenda in the relationship, as far as you can tell? Was the agenda overt or hidden? Was it different from yours?

Before you get too caught up in a painfully familiar mental romp or rant, let’s look at the words in this exploration: Goal. Plan. Failure. Deal. Bargain. Success. Agenda.

What do they have in common? What world are they a part of?
Clearly these are all business terms. What business does business have in our relationships? We don’t like to think of love relationships in these terms. But if answers to the questions came up for you, then the business model fits, doesn’t it?

To whatever degree you suffered from the end of that relationship, I send you metta, infinite loving-kindness, and apologies for bringing it up. But I did it for a reason: It is valuable to distinguish between love that brings joy and love that causes suffering. And the difference is tied up in those business words. Love that causes suffering is a negotiation, and we think it’s not going well or it failed because we didn’t understand ‘the art of the deal’.  Sad.

Love that activates authentic joy is not a business transaction. It is not confined by the limited view of ‘I’ and ‘you’. It doesn’t require a return on investment. It doesn’t require a winner or a loser. It doesn’t circumscribe a small group of people who by reason of blood, hormones, preferences or proximity are the ‘us’ that in turn defines some external ‘them’ for whom we have no love or maybe even understanding.

Love that activates true joy, softens the heart, and deepens contentment is called metta in Pali and maitri in Sanskrit. There is no English word that properly captures its meaning. Some people call it friendliness. I call it infinite loving-kindness. Every meditation I lead, I end by doing a traditional abbreviated metta practice of well wishing, first to ourselves, then to someone (or a group of people or a situation) that’s in particular need of loving kindness right now. Then out and out so that we are sending metta to all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

But there is a longer traditional practice that actually teaches us how to access the ability to send metta. Many people are uncomfortable with sending metta to themselves, feeling they don’t deserve it. Many people find resistance sending metta to a challenging or difficult person. This practice helps in both cases.

Take a few minutes to meditate, and then give this metta practice a try.

EXTENDED METTA led by Stephanie Noble

This practice is not just for meditation. Activate infinite loving-kindness whenever you are being hard on yourself or someone else in your thoughts. Someone cuts in front of you? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be well. Someone in your life causing you heartache or headache? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be at ease. Discovering yourself putting yourself down in some way? Send metta: May you be at peace.

Metta practice grows joy in the moment and in your life, expanding in ripples out in all directions. Perhaps you are actively working with energy. Or perhaps you are simply grounding yourself in a loving space. Either way the effect is powerful, transforming your relationship with everyone and everything around you.

This all sound pretty good, right? Naturally we would prefer to love in a way that creates joy, not all the suffering that comes with clinging, worrying, trying to match the other person’s level of engagement, etc. But we have been loving in one way for so long, and our culture totally supports that way, fascinated by all the emotional turmoil, intrigue and drama. We may want to get rid of the suffering way and switch over to the joyful way, but pushing anything away just activates more suffering. Instead, we use the mindful tools we have been developing:

We cultivate spaciousness to hold all that is arising in our experience. If what is arising is the limiting entangling kind of love, then we cultivate spaciousness to hold all that tangled mess in a compassionate way.

We also do inquiry, noticing that kind of love’s thorny nature. Without judging it, we can simply be present with it. This clear seeing softens our attachment to it. Just like some junk food you might be addicted to, if you saw how it was actually made, you might go off it. When we see the toxic components of this long-suffering love, we see how ill-fitting it is, how insidious it can be, how it is all surface glamour with no depth, all soap opera and no real feeling, all fear and not in fact love at all.

Seeing that, we might want to toss love on the junk heap and live a life of solitude. While there’s nothing wrong with solitude, we often choose it as a way of hiding from something we are afraid of. Perhaps we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re no good at relationships, and we accept that judgment without inquiry. Naturally, as part of our practice, we’ll want to question such assumptions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Examples of failure in relationships will arise to answer these questions, but there is likely to be more answers than we have previously noticed. We stay with the process, continuing to cultivate spaciousness and compassion to hold it all in an open loving embrace.

Whatever we find, we do metta practice. This practice can become an inherent part of our being present in the world. We can do it whenever we think of someone. We can do it when we are with someone. We can do it for ourselves every time we feel ourselves faltering. Metta practice keeps us in touch with the expansive nature of all being. It softens the seemingly impermeable barrier between this seemingly finite person and a world of seemingly other beings. How joyful it is when recognize there are no barriers, that we are all one infinite ongoing cycle of life loving itself.

As to those negotiated relationships, hold them in loving-kindness. See when you are slipping into a contractual state of mind; send metta to yourself and the other person.

If you are doubting this will make a difference, just try it. It can’t hurt. And if you discover it does make a difference, let me know! I love gathering stories of the wondrous effects of metta.

Metta :: Lovingkindness

copper-heart-smallThe ninth Paramita is Metta or lovingkindness. This is a quality we are very familiar with in class because I end each meditation with a metta practice, sending it first to ourselves, then to some person, a group or a situation in particular need of metta right now. And then to all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

This is such a wonderful practice. In the middle of a difficult meditation, when the mind is glued to solving some life problem, it is hugely helpful to send metta to that problem or person, and then return to the breath. The practice is all we can do, and the best we can do, in that moment.

Since my paired intentions in life for a number of years have been to be present in this moment and to be compassionate with myself and others, metta practice is very much a part of how I am able to live my resolve. My students have also found it to be a very useful practice.

This week, focusing on metta itself, I led a full metta practice. So I include a recording of that practice here in case you want to try it. It attunes you to the true nature of metta. This particular practice is very helpful if you have difficulty being kind to yourself and for any reason feel you don’t deserve lovingkindness. It is includes the ‘difficult person’ component of the practice, and that is super helpful if you are struggling with someone in your life who pushes your buttons.

METTA PRACTICE (10 minute audio recording)

 

As mentioned in the audio recording, you can send metta from any distance. Sometimes you have a person in your life who is very draining, who activates difficult volatile emotions in you, and you aren’t feeling strong enough to be with them. That reminded me of this poem I wrote twenty years ago when I was recovering from a long illness:

Dirt Bag Dharma

I don’t know how long I had been ill…
Long enough to see myself as
fragile, wan, weak, in need of protection
from violent images and emotion
that could suck the life right out of me.

But I needed soil for my garden
and the young worker assigned to shovel
ten bags of dirt for me was apparently
way overdue for a break, and no doubt
had other grievances fueling his anger.

I backed off — to give him space, I thought,
but really more to give me space,
as I retreated to the cocoon of my car to wait.

Feeling guilty, I began to send him metta:
May you be well, may you feel ease.
At first the words had a begging quality
like the prayers of a small child, cowering
in a corner, terrified of the boogey man.

But the words became an invocation
And suddenly I saw myself more clearly:
how knotted in fear I seemed,
as knotted as the worker out there
both of us suffering our grievances.

The metta repeated became a shaft of light
breathing into me, releasing me
from my victim stance, revealing instead
my capacity to be a conduit
of compassionate healing energy.

Across the muddy yard, I saw him too.
still shoveling dirt into bags,
still bent, still angry, still suffering.
So I returned to his side and soon
we were chatting — who knows about what,
it didn’t matter, because — all the while
I breathed in his suffering and out that radiant light.

Soon his shoulders softened,
his voice lost its edge. I heard a low
chuckle at something I said,
and when his boss yelled another order,
he didn’t bark or bristle as he’d done before.
Instead he smiled at me, rolled his eyes as if to say,
‘Maybe it’s not much, but it’s mine and I can handle it.’

In that moment, standing amidst in the mud,
amidst my ten bags full of dirt,
it dawned on me that I am well.

I have taught and written so much about metta over the past decade of teaching that I’m just going to supply links to previous posts.

Anxiety about the election?
This is from another political season, where we explore sending lovingkindness to the candidate we are voting against. Now there’s a challenge that brings up the true meaning of metta and adds clarity to our understanding. 

Trouble with a relationship?
This post includes examples from my students about the difference sending metta has made in their relationships. 

People you think don’t deserve lovingkindness?
This is an exploration with good stories and examples of the infinite quality of metta and the trouble with trying to withhold it from the ‘undeserving’. 

Metta is also the first of the Four Brahmaviharas, or ‘heavenly abodes’, another set of Buddhist teachings. These are beneficial states that are both practices and experiences of being: Metta or lovingkindness; Karuna, compassion; Mudita, empathetic joy; and Uppekka, equanimity. We spend most time focusing on metta, because that practice leads quite naturally to the other three.

May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy.

You Never Have to Wait Again!

You never have to wait again? That sounds like an impossible promise, but what if it is possible? Let’s explore.


First, let’s define ‘waiting’.
We might say that waiting is focusing  our attention toward some future moment, thinking that what is to come is the ‘real’ experience and whatever this is in this moment is not worthy of our attention. While waiting people often say they are just ‘killing time.’


But through the practice of mindfulness we find that this moment is always worthy of our attention. Therefore, we never have to wait again.


Can that be true?


A typical situation most of us dislike is waiting in line.
We might experience anger and frustration. We might think, ‘These people aren’t doing their job,’ ‘They aren’t respecting my time,’ or ‘I am now going to be late for such and such and so and so will be upset with me.’ We might debate whether we should stay in line or come back another time. We might give ourselves a hard time for not planning enough time or for choosing the wrong time to come. Even after we have accomplished what we came for and left, the aggravation may lingers on, ‘ruining our whole day’ or at least we continue to think about it and maybe talk about it to others.


So what would make standing in line NOT be waiting?
What if we let go of the idea that our only purpose is to pick up the prescription or buy the groceries or mail the package? What if this is not a placeholder moment but a real deal moment? As we stand in line we can come fully into the moment just as it is without any other purpose but to be here, senses activated. We feel our feet on the floor, supported by the earth, anchored by gravity. We might notice temperature, texture, light and dark, color and pattern, tension in the body, air on the skin, the breath rising and falling. There are so many things going on!


As we access these sensations, we develop a spacious awareness that awakens us. As if captured by an artist on canvas, we experience this moment as complete unto itself, rich with shapes and colors of the clothes draped on the bodies, the faces with all the character and moods exposed in a setting that is full of pattern, light and shadow. If it were in a museum we would be fascinated by this painting.


As we sense into the fullness of this experience our compassion is awakened. We understand that we are all in this together —  in this line and in this life — not in an ‘us against them’ way but in an intrinsic connection of all life. Out of this awakening awareness and compassion, we smile. And just as something shifts within us, something starts to shift within the room. Our eyes meet another’s and a conversation begins. When its our turn at the cashier, we are kind. Here is a person having a stressful day dealing with aggravated people. Great compassion! We each have the capacity within us to frame our experience, to decide whether it is a source of irritation, insight or pleasure.


There are many other kinds of waiting beside standing in line, of course. A pregnant woman could be described as waiting, but is she? In fact, she is very actively providing a nurturing environment for gestation. I remember when I was pregnant having the wonderful sense that I could do absolutely nothing and I was still being the most useful person in the room. There are other kinds of gestation that we might interpret as waiting, but as passive as it may feel, something is happening. Is there anything like that in your experience? I know sometimes when I am writing, I need to take a break, do a little game of Spider Solitaire or unload the dishwasher, anything to empty my mind and let me return to the writing from another angle. Gestating. Not waiting!


There is waiting for news. Maybe about a loved one. Is he or she okay? For this kind of waiting we can send metta, universal loving-kindness: ‘May you be well.’ This is really all we can do about it, and it helps us to settle and come back into the moment. Maybe the news is our own, waiting for results of medical tests. Same thing. ‘May I be well.’ Metta is a powerful activity, aligning ourselves with that quality of infinite loving-kindness, feeling it in ourselves and then sharing it generously with all beings. ‘May all beings be well.’


Maybe we’re waiting for news about something we’ve submitted, such as an application or a manuscript. Someone else is holding our future in their hands. That can be a stressful if we focus on the future, hoping or worrying ‘what if..’. But if we stay in the moment, once we’ve done everything we can do, we don’t need to ‘wait.’ We go on living fully. It can actually be a pleasant feeling to have accomplished having something ‘under submission’ where it is no longer on our plate and we are free to focus on other things. Every time thoughts about that ‘up in the air’ submission arises, we simply send metta. ‘May those in whose hands the decision rests be well. May they be happy. May they be at ease. May they be at peace.’ That’s all we can do, and it’s the best thing we can do.


Some people seem to make a whole life out of waiting: for a settlement, or a true love, or a baby, or the wherewithal to buy a house, move, change jobs, get sober, etc. Whatever it is always seems hopelessly off in the future, but because they believe it will change everything, this life here and now seems pretty shabby compared to that dream. Appreciating this moment just as it is may seem like a betrayal of the dream. We’re told not to take our eye off the prize. But this is the prize: This ability to be fully engaged and aware right now.


Sometimes we’re waiting for the courage to kick in to do something we want to do. Mindfulness enables us to notice the pattern of our thoughts that keep us from proceeding. We can notice:
  • A thought that knocks the stuffing out of us. Every time we think it we want to crawl back under the covers, grab the remote or head for the refrigerator.
  • A gaping hole in our knowledge base that needs to be addressed before we can proceed. Identifying the question and just Googling it is a good step. Maybe it’s a big gap and requires a book or a course. Sometimes it is a gap that can be helped by thinking of who we know that might have the answer or the contact. So often our quandary has to do with believing that we have to do this on our own. It truly does take a village!
  • Erroneous assumptions that keep us circling around again and again, coming to dead ends. Every inner statement can be questioned: Is that true? How do I know that’s true?


If we let go of the idea that we are waiting and instead really pay attention, we gain clarity, compassion and courage.

So next time you find yourself waiting, explore the experience and see for yourself what is true. Maybe you will find you never have to wait again!

It would be great to get your comments or questions on this topic. Click below.

Metta resistant? Exploring deeper.

Some people are uncomfortable with sending metta (loving-kindness), but metta practice is an important part of awakening to the present moment. Why? Because metta is the way we can stay fearless in the face of what terrifies us in any given moment. That’s right! Loving-kindness may sound like some wimpy practice, but it is brave and valiant! Practice it and you will see this for yourself.

In class we did another extended metta practice. Metta uses phrases in the form of “May I be…”, ‘May you be…” and “May all beings be…”. These blessings are empowering. They are not begging for something from someone far away. (If you believe in God, don’t imagine your God as small and distant. Let God be infinite! That is the nature of God.) Metta is infinite and we quiet down enough to attune to it. In this state we are able to be both receptors of and conduits for metta. This is most definitely not a wimpy practice!


But perhaps if you feel resistance, it is not the wimpy factor but the woo-woo factor. Okay, I get that. I’m very uncomfortable with anything that seems too ‘out there’ myself. There’s this inner skeptic that just shudders. That’s good in that I don’t easily succumb to any old idea that comes down the pike, but it’s unfortunate in that even something that is valid and valuable may just be too much for me to embrace. 

There are two things that can help you if you feel the same. First, Buddhism’s been around 2500 years and is a solid established set of teachings that works. Second, science is catching up! The deeper research goes into understanding the nature of energy and matter, the more it sounds like Buddhist teachings. I doubt there’s a scientific study on metta per se, but I also have no doubt there will be. Waiting around for some white-coat in a lab to tell you it’s okay is kinda wimpy. Give metta practice a try and see for yourself.


Even though I always use the same four blessings: ‘May you be well’, ‘…at ease’, ‘…at peace’ and ‘…happy’, you might choose variations on those. For example, a traditional one is ‘May you be free from harm.’ I don’t use that one because it is more complex and incorporates a word — ‘harm’ — that brings forth constricting mental imagery.


If you find different phrases that feel right for you, feel free to use them instead. But remember that they are not requests for specific outcomes, like, ‘May I win the lottery” or ‘May my son ace his test.’ This kind of specificity cuts out the infinite nature of metta. It’s back to just you thinking you know best, wishing for something out of fear. Very constricting and definitely not metta.

Here is a deeper look at the ones I use:


May you be well.
This covers all physical and mental imbalances that cause any kind of disease. By sending the metta of wellness to ourselves and others, we are attuning the balancing energy of wellness. We do not have to provide any other prescription or cure. We do not have to define the illness. May you be well is sufficient for the purpose.
Clearly this is not to be confused with any anti-medical agenda. May you be well might include, without actual mention, ‘may you be smart enough to go see the doctor’. But for the purposes of well wishing, if we get specific we are putting too much of a constraint on the energy, putting it too much through our own knowledge based, instead of allowing it to activate a field of energy and allow for whatever needs to happen to happen.
Sometimes ‘May you be well’ is in effect, ‘may you be well in this time of transitioning out of life’ when sent to someone who is dying. ‘May you be well’ accepts Wise View of the nature of impermanence and interconnection.


May you be at ease.
As we sit in meditation, we become aware of tension in the body and mind. We learn ways to release the tension to whatever degree we are able. We can see how this tension is the way the body holds onto the stories of the past and the fears for the future that keep us from being fully present. If we let go of the tension in the body then the mind is better able to stay fully present in this, the only moment that exists. All other moments are just thoughts — memories and imaginings. This is the ease that we are wishing for ourselves and others. May you find ease in this moment. It’s not about having an easy life, living in the lap of luxury, only sitting on the softest of chairs. However, if you find that you tend toward harshness and spartan ways, a little of that kind of ease would not go amiss!


May you be at peace.
This is a blessing that acknowledges that within each of us is an ongoing struggle. Various aspects of self (rooted in misunderstanding of experiences we were too young or too blind to understand at the time) vie for power over our thoughts and actions. As we sit in meditation and our thoughts settle down, we are able to hear the ones that arise more clearly. We can see the contentious nature of the things we constantly tell ourselves. We can see the inner struggle.
So this blessing creates a spacious quality of awareness and understanding that creates a peaceful abiding within us. When a fear-based thought arises, it is seen, acknowledged but as it passes through the spaciousness of metta and awareness, it is just a thought, and doesn’t have the power to cause harm. This is blessing we give ourselves and others through our wish for peace.


May you be happy.
This blessing may feel like someone is suggesting we just ‘snap out of it’ and put on a happy face. Given all the good things in life, they feel we should be happy or we are ingrates.


When sending this and other blessings to a ‘difficult person’ we might have resistance as well: If that person is bent on doing something immoral, aren’t we wishing them success in this wrongful endeavor?


In both cases, we need to better understand the nature of metta. The happiness we are talking about is not the result of any external cause or condition. It is not the thrill of achieving or acquiring anything. It is a joy that arises when we savor the experience of being alive in any moment, regardless of circumstances. This comes from understanding the nature of impermanence and interconnection; and that grasping, clinging and pushing away cause suffering. Challenging experiences are seen more clearly. With metta we are empowered to face fear that in the past has made us run the other way. We are better able to hold the joy and the sorrow of life with equanimity. This is what we wish for ourselves and for all others. We recognize that harmful behavior is a reaction to fear. So if someone is behaving badly, sending metta is not condoning their behavior. It is addressing their core fear, and in doing so might cause a shift of understanding within them. But when we send metta we are not trying to change anyone. We don’t need to! Accessing metta is powerful beyond measure and doesn’t need or benefit from specific instruction from us.


Metta in any moment
Sending lovingkindness is not something we reserve for a particular time of day when we are sitting in meditation. In every moment we have perfect opportunities to practice metta. For example, when driving, if another driver does something really unskillful, that could have killed us, we naturally contract into fear. Often that kicks us into judgment, anger and sometimes causes us to do something unskillful ourselves. What if instead of reacting, we take that action as a reminder to be present and to be compassionate. We might remember times when we been unskillful on the road. Perhaps this person is going through some life challenges, is racing to the hospital to be at the bedside of a loved one who is dying. We don’t know! And because we don’t know, there is room for us to negotiate a little with our judgments and anger. We can decide to give that person the benefit of the doubt. In that moment we may feel moved to send them some loving-kindness. ‘May you be well.’ And in that instant, something shifts within us. We are present, alert, alive and sensing our connection with all of life.
There are moments when we would benefit from sending metta to ourselves. We notice we’re upset about something. We focus on physical sensation, and probably notice tension in the body. We send some loving-kindness to ourselves and to the person or situation we are upset about, and we find we can come back into balance.


Always keep your access to infinite loving-kindness handy. It’s free and it has so many valuable uses!

Metta Questions Answered Here

At the end of every meditation I lead, I offer some guided metta (loving kindness) practice, usually just to ourselves and then to all beings. In this week’s class I led a series of metta exercises to more fully explore and experience the power of metta.


Traditional metta practice is to first send metta to ourselves with well-wishing phrases like: May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.


Then we send out metta to a person it is very easy to send such well-wishing to: a small child, a beloved elder, someone we wish all good things without any undertow of grumbly qualifications.


Then we send metta to what is called a neutral person. This is someone we know only through brief interactions, such as the grocery store checker, a neighbor, a mail deliverer, etc. May you be well, etc.


Then we send metta to ‘a difficult person’. This could be someone close to us with whom we have challenges. For whatever reason, they push our buttons. We just don’t get along. Interactions are frustrating, unsatisfactory and unsettling. This is probably a person whom we don’t like to think about too much because we get agitated.
If there is no such person that comes to mind, we can focus on a high-profile person whose beliefs, choices or actions we find reprehensible.


Of course, we can always send metta to someone we know whom we feel especially needs some extra blessings right now.


We always end by sending out metta to all beings. May all beings be well, etc. This is not just a nicety, but a reminder of the infinite nature of metta, and a reminder that we, as part of the circle of beings, are worthy of metta too.


Sometimes people have a difficult time sending metta to themselves, but we cannot skip this part or the rest will not work. In order to demonstrate this, I did an exercise where we skipped the metta to ourselves and just did the easy, neutral and difficult person. We checked in to see how that felt after each one.


If you would like to demonstrate this to yourself, try sending metta out to a ‘difficult person’. Then do a round of sending metta to yourself. Then try sending metta to the difficult person again, and see what shifts.


After the practice, I gave a dharma talk on metta, but because I have talked and written so much about metta, I think here I will provide a little Metta index with links to the various metta talks as they answer a variety of questions you might have.





















As you can see there are lots of posts on metta. Why? Because it is SO central to the cessation of creating suffering for ourselves and others. It can also help us be more present to savor and engage in this moment. So give yourself some metta and then share it far and wide.

Ours is not a caravan of despair

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
Come, come again.
— Jalal ad-din Muhammad Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic


Ours is not a caravan of despair! Why? Because we carry within us an oasis that, if only we take the time to sit and savor, fills us with joy, a sense of connection, a lightness of being. Yet so often we fill our meditation period with harsh inner commentary about our sorry state, how ill-fitted we are to the task of meditation. We do this at the very moment of realization that our mind has been wandering. If only we could realize that in that moment we are quite fully present in our experience, and this is cause for celebration. Instead of gratitude for this moment of presence, we so often choose instead to sit in judgment of the minutes before. Instead of sensing the pleasure of awareness, we fall back into an oh-so-familiar but uncomfortable pattern of making disparaging remarks. Off our mind goes again, into the brutal desert, into despair. We do this in other parts of our life as well, don’t we? We think of someone we care about, and instead of feeling joy, we suffer guilt, shame, dread or some other discomfort, because somehow we believe we have not done enough for them, have not done right by them or have not stayed in touch. Is this based in truth? Or is the very discomfort that arises what keeps us from fully engaging? Who put the discomfort there? Most often we create it ourselves. Sometimes we have in mind something we want to do with our lives, yet we spin our wheels in this very same cycle of despair, torturing ourselves with schoolyard bully taunts, and we are stopped in our tracks. Sometimes these taunts set us up for non-action. Sometimes they set us up for destructive action. Listening in, recognizing the fear-based quality of these inner conversations is very important in order to recognize the the murky, sometimes downright nasty, motivations, so that we can apply the wisdom of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path to help us. After a period of meditation is an especially good time to explore and question, one by one, as they arise in our field of awareness, these murky motivations. Resetting Intention — Wise Action includes resetting our intentions, our vows, again and again. In this we understand and accept that we are human, by our very nature prone to error. This resetting of intentions is not casually undertaken, the way my granddaughter gaily calls out ‘Sorry!’ as she repeats whatever annoying thing she has done. (We’re hoping it’s just a phase.) Most of us know someone who is equally casual with their apologies and doesn’t have the excuse of being only three years old. We don’t want to be that person who thinks an oft-repeated ‘Sorry!’ is sufficient to repair damage done, who justifies unskillful actions as if they are the hapless victim of some incorrigible personality trait, a trait that they seem in fact to find particularly endearing. Through meditation and working with the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we learn to see the patterns of our own behavior. We see how our mind creates justifications and excuses, how it takes shortcuts and dodges around any reasonable challenges to what we believe to be true. We have skillful questions we can ask of these thoughts that prompted this unskillful action: What was our motivation in that action? If it wasn’t grounded in our intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves and all life, then we were operating out of the murky mire of mindless motivations! We believed we had something to fear, something to hide, or something to prove. Whenever we get bogged down in these motivations, we can pause to recognize the nature of our current quagmire, and reset our intentions to be present in this moment, however uncomfortable, and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. What was the nature of our effort in that action? We were striving, focused on our goal, becoming mindless? Or half-hearted in our effort? Wise Effort is anchored in the present moment, attune to what is needed now. Did we stay on the couch channel surfing when the body wanted to move? Did we keep working on a project when the body wanted to rest? Did we push our agenda through without regard to others? What was the nature of our world view in that action? Did we believe that:
  • The world is a hostile place filled with threats?
  • We are this body, separate from the flow of being?
  • We are these thoughts, unique and in need of defending?
  • If we just held on tight enough things would stay the same?
  • If we grab onto something new, it will make things all better?
  • We are the appointed referee of others’ behavior?

These kinds of beliefs constrict us and force misery upon us and potentially on those around us as well. It’s worthwhile to question all beliefs that fly in the face of Wise View which sees clearly the nature of impermanence (anicca), no separate self (anatta) and the ways we create suffering through clinging to and pushing away our current experience (dukkha). Were we being mindful in that action? Very unlikely. Wise Mindfulness tends to keep us out of trouble. It offers more spaciousness within any moment to make wise choices. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice, stirred by Wise Concentration. The more we develop this muscle of mindfulness, the less often we will cause harm through our actions. The Eightfold Path sheds light on where we strayed and what to do about it now. We attend this moment, and the next as it comes. In this way we deepen our experience of being, and we learn the wisdom and beauty that is present in every moment. If we have wronged someone else, once we recognize it and have reset our intentions, we can do whatever is mindful and compassionate to right the wrong, and if there is nothing that can make it right, a whole-hearted recognition of the wrong may be appreciated. With the help of the Eightfold Path we can see where we went wrong and how we can assure that we will be wiser in the future. Our intention is not to remake ourselves into paragons of virtue. That is just grasping at some identity, and any identity we try to create just sets us up for misery, and Miz Perfect is particularly fraught. We will err, time and again. But with the handy dandy Eightfold Path to show us how we we came to make that mistake, we will spend less time steeped in misery and more time actively engaged in life, with deep appreciation for this fleeting gift. When Others Mess Up
We might notice that our thoughts and emotions are not just entangled in how we may have erred, but in the errors of other people. We might be caught up in blame. We might be stuck in defending the state of victim-hood. The Eightfold Path can also help here. We can look at the action of this other person and see where they strayed off the path. And in so doing, we can begin to see that the action came from mindlessness, from murky motivations, from over- or under-efforting. Seeing this, we can perhaps activate a little more compassion within ourselves. Certainly we have seen how easy it is to go mindless, to follow misguided motivations instead of Wise Intention. If we are struggling with the effects of what someone did to us, the Eightfold Path offers us the means to understand both the other person and what we can do in this moment ourselves. We can look at our intentions toward them. We can see how we may be held in the past by what is unresolved in our heart. We can see how our sense of defending this separate self that has been wronged keeps us from accessing the infinite nature of being. But it is not just people who did us wrong whom we have difficulty with. Perhaps we are in the habit of playing the referee in this game of life, and getting upset over other people’s behavior, even when it does not affect us and we have no say in the matter.In this process, we begin to recognize that those who do wrong are also in a state of mindlessness and lack of understanding of the way of things. How does this alter our feelings towards them? Can we send them metta, loving-kindness, in the form of well-wishes like: May you be well, May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. Perhaps metta practice is most challenging when it comes to people convicted of horrendous crimes, people who are serving life sentences or who are sitting on death row. We in Marin County are given the often uncomfortable gift of thinking about these very people every time we take the ferry to and from San Francisco, as we pass close by San Quentin State Penitentiary. That old dilapidated structure holds within its walls men who have committed the most heinously unskillful actions possible. Metta is not selective. It is like the sun, shining on everything in its path. This can be a really big challenge, but it is a challenge worthy of the effort. It is a challenge that requires us to be mindful, to notice our own resistance and be compassionate with that within ourselves that struggles, that reacts, that wants to strike out in anger against perpetrators who struck out in anger. We can see how anger for anger hyper-reactivity creates a dense field of fear-based misery. As we practice compassion and mindfulness, we create spaciousness to hold everything with equanimity, even the existence of the most troubled and unskillful actions. Over the past decade there has been a great revolution inside prison walls all around the world. Prisoners are learning to meditate, to spend time noticing the patterns of their thoughts, to contemplate the actions they have done and to look more clearly at what pain they have caused and to feel compassion for the victims of their actions. This simple practice has transformed many hearts and minds. And in the process it has begun a potential transformation of prisons from violence compression chambers that exacerbate the problem into places of potential healing for both the perpetrators and the victims of crime. May this trend continue! Whoever we are, a regular practice of meditation helps assure that ours is not a caravan of despair, but a caravan of clarity, compassion and joy!

What to do when we feel helpless

I attended a dharma talk by Rick Hanson this week about the Three Marks or Characteristics: impermanence (anicca), the universal sense of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and no-self (anatta).

Then Thursday our traditional brief reading of an excerpt from ‘Pocket Pema (Chodron)’ also happened to talk about them. So I shared with the class a little of what Rick had said because I felt the way he explained the relationship between the three, rather than just listing them, was very useful.


He said that impermanence is a given. (This is exactly what we have been learning week after week in our exploration of the Five Aggregates.) But we have the choice of whether to react to it with the grasping, clinging and aversive reactions that cause suffering –dukkha, or respond to it with anatta, no-separate-self, and hold the impermanence of experience with ease and even joy.


So, thanks to Rick for that nugget of wisdom.


As we have looked at each of the Aggregates over the past weeks, we first recognize the quality of impermanence. All arises. All falls away. Sometimes immediately, sometimes eventually, but if you attend it closely you’ll see the process is always in cycles of motion.


Every moment is a pivotal moment of change. (If we stay present in the moment we can have a conscious effect on the nature of that change! If we are living in the past or future, whatever change we cause by our actions or words is unconscious, and therefore often unskillful.)


Wanting things to be permanent or imagining things to be permanent and reacting negatively to that belief causes us to suffer. (And when we suffer, we never suffer alone. We always cause suffering to others with our resulting unskillful words and actions.)


What a relief to discover that we do not have to shore up or cling to a sense of separate self in order to be happy.


So if you have been asking the perennial student question How will this help me in real life? here’s your answer!


Everything we learn as we explore the Buddha’s teachings, and as we create through meditation practice the opportunity to have our own insights, is for one purpose, and one purpose only: To create spacious ease and happiness in you, that you may be in the world as a conduit of loving kindness, compassion, joy and balance.


We all have created suffering through unskillfulness, and we have all witnessed how suffering in one person can activate sometimes extreme suffering in others. What can we do as witnesses? So much depends on the situation, of course, and one hopes that our practice gives us the presence of mind to respond skillfully. But even when we are thousands of miles away watching on television a horrific event unfolding before our eyes, as many of us did this past week, there is still something we can do.


We can send metta.


Metta is universal loving-kindness that is a powerful practice we can do at any time. It is especially useful when we feel overwhelmed and things seem to be spinning completely out of our control. Send metta to the victims, to their families, the first-hand witnesses, the responders, and yes, to the perpetrators of this act.


Whoa! What? Why would we send loving-kindness to them?


Think about it. Their incredibly unskillful violent means of making whatever statement comes from such an unstable delusional place. So we send metta to them.
‘May you be well.’ Yes, may you be well enough in you mind to understand that this is not the way to make your concerns known.
‘May you be happy.’ Yes, if you were happy in your own being, you would never have thought up this violent scheme in the first place.
‘May you be at ease.’ Yes, it is the dukkha-driven restlessness and dis-ease that brought this thought to painful action.
‘May you be at peace.’ Yes, if there were peace in your heart, you would never have thought up this action in the first place.


Although we don’t send metta with the hopes that people will be different from who they are, still metta does have transformative power. But it is only powerful if it is as generous as the sun, shining on all life, not just sent out selectively to the ‘deserving’.


We challenge ourselves to recognize that sense of no separate self. We cannot send metta only to sweet-faced children or baby animals. We make no distinction while sending metta between those who we think deserve a good life and those whom we might instinctively wish hell on earth for the suffering they have caused.


Metta is not a reward. It is a universal well-wishing that actively creates a peaceful world. Those who are kind and generous do so because it flows through them as a natural response to the goodness they know to be the world they live in, even as they see unskillful painful behavior erupting sometimes.


Those who do violence do so because that is the world they know, the people they hang out with, the path of least resistance. This is not to justify their actions. It is to settle the reactivity that forces more actions and reactions within the rest of us until the violence feels entrenched and permanent. It is not permanent. When we allow the violence of others to activate the same violence of spirit within ourselves, then we are seduced by Mara, the tempter*, into mindlessness and unskillfulness. So we say, as the Buddha said again and again, ‘Ah Mara, I know you.’ Because we do recognize that quality, we are tempted by it from time to time. But knowing it for what it is, we see through it. We are spacious in our minds and spacious in our hearts, radiating loving kindness 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.


* An interesting note for those of us who are Christians: A quote from Catholiceducation.org: ‘The word Satan comes from the Hebrew verb satan meaning to oppose, to harass someone; so Satan would be the tempter, the one to make us trip and fall, the one to turn us from God.’
The tempter, just like Mara, who tempted Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. And just as Jesus preached wholesome living, kindness and compassion, so did the Buddha.