We need to develop the Buddhist practice of metta or lovingkindness…and the benefits are worth it.
When I read the phrase To reteach a thing its loveliness…just let that sink in for a minute… it felt like a lifeline, like a comforting beacon of light after being lost on an uncharted sea of anxiety, fear, and growing anger.
Reading further in Sharon Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, I learned this is the nature of metta, which can be translated from Pali, the ancient language of Buddhist scriptures, as unconditional love or lovingkindness.
It is the first of the brahma-viharas, heavenly abodes, and supports the others that include compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The metta meditation is an opening of the heart and a wish for not only our happiness, but also for all beings. The Buddha first taught the metta meditation as an antidote to fear when it arises and feels overwhelming.
Could there be a better time to practice this?
Hitting month three of quarantine here in NYC, along with the ensuing explosion of the BLM movement, I needed a soothing balm to quell the guilt and an almost self loathing, for not having contributed more to society in some meaningful way, for being an elder and higher risk burden.
The pandemic has become more and more about politics and the economy uniting us in different camps of hatred: the haves vs. have nots, liberal vs. conservative, red vs. blue, entitled vs. essential, black vs. white. Social media, originally created to feed our very human need to connect, has, instead, amplified our separateness, and it has spilled on to the streets.
I’ve read about regular people lashing out verbally at others for not wearing a mask or social distancing. Plenty of times I’ve passed pedestrians on the street and police at protests and silently judged them for being arrogant and selfish for the same thing. Hating this reaction, I found myself stuffing my feelings to lessen the pain. This is where we get in trouble as Salzberg aptly explains:
Sometimes as individuals, or as members of a group, we may sacrifice the truth in order to secure our identity, or preserve a sense of belonging. Any thing that threatens this gives rise to fear and anxiety, so we deny, we cut off our feelings. The end result of this pattern is dehumanization. We become split from our own lives and feel great distance from other living beings as well.
When I read the words, To Reteach a Thing Its Loveliness, I was blown away by the beauty of the message and recognized instantly this was something I could do, as just one small person, to be an agent of change.
The practice of metta begins with loving/befriending ourselves, no small feat. I know. I’ve been a heavy weight titlist in the “beating myself up”ring for decades. But we have to begin with loving ourselves…despite our weaknesses and failings…before we can mirror it back to others. This mirroring brings it full circle.
The practice of metta begins with short meditations that begin with oneself, and then work outwardly to a loved one, someone neutral, and, the most difficult, an enemy. The meditation focuses on silent repetitions of phrases such as “May you have ease of well-being,” May you be free from danger,” “May you be healthy and strong.” Yes, it gets more difficult as you move outward. It is especially hard to wish happiness to an enemy, but this is the work of unconditional love, the driving force of healing. Even if you aren’t feeling the love, don’t give up. You are planting a seed, setting an intention, and that is enough.
As if the nature of metta isn’t just beautiful in and of itself, the Buddha outlined eleven specific benefits. Your practice will reap the following rewards:
You will sleep easily.
You will wake easily.
You will have pleasant dreams.
People will love you.
Celestial beings and animals will love you.
Celestial beings will protect you.
External dangers ( fire, poison, weapons) will not harm you.
Your face will be radiant.
Your mind will be serene.
You will die with a clear mind.
You will be reborn in happy realms.
If you’ve always wanted to start a meditation practice but felt it might be too hard, this is a great place to start. A few minutes a day is all you need to begin. I’ve recently added metta meditation to my regular meditation practice, and I’m feeling more hopeful and optimistic.
On daily walks now there are more frequent, tiny moments of connection with total strangers I pass on the street or on a front stoop. It might be a verbal hello or a silent, mutual nod of the head that says I acknowledge you. Smiling eyes behind the mask. It’s a small moment of connection, a much needed dopamine hit of goodness. Lovingkindness is a powerful energy to radiate.
And I’m sleeping better.
So, if we should ever pass each other on street, know I am silently wishing, “May you be safe from harm,” “ May you be healthy and strong,” “May you be truly happy.”
Although my view of the world has literally narrowed, it is no less entertaining,yet, intimately, human.
And it seems that when we think no one is looking, whether under the cover of darkness, or in plain light of day, someone is.
In mid March, after the state of emergency was declared, much like Prospero and his guests in The Mask of the Red Death, people began fleeing the city to country homes. One early evening, I looked out my window to see a middle aged man (not from this Bed Stuy neighborhood) across the street furtively removing his NY plates from, first the front, then the back of his Audi SUV. He quickly stashed them on the floor of the back seat, got in, and drove away plateless, to … I can only assume… a suddenly sprouted pandemic entrepreneur who would attach a set of out of state plates so he could covertly blend in.
I was indignant. What a coward. Selfishly exposing a community with limited heath care facilities. But then I caught myself.
I Took a moment to be still, rather than running away with judgment and asked myself the question, would I do the same if there was a second home somewhere with lots of space and fresh air to enjoy? Ah.. probably, yes. But I’d like to think no.
A few weeks later, meat packing facilities are stricken with positive tests and must be shut down. Will hoarding of meat begin? I look out my window as a pickup truck pulls up, double parks, and a neighbor comes out to collect what looks like eight to ten large packages of assorted cuts of beef. It’s started already.
But then I remember the same guy who lives alone with his dog and who speaks lovingly and takes this pit bull mix out each morning and afternoon for a walk. Could this stash be a treat not only for him but also his companion, a reward for unconditional love in times of loneliness?
On Sunday morning, a homeless man sporting a huge, flapping coat and Nike flip flops shuffles by pushing his shopping cart overflowing with scavenged goods. He stops, carefully unpacks items from a plastic bag one by one, and selects an article I can’t quite see. He rolls it on in quick, short strokes to his mustache, rubbing it in, then his scruffy beard and neck and gives them a good rub too. It isn’t until he reaches under his coat and shirt and applies it to his under arms that I realize what it is.
I’ve worn the same clothes for a week and haven’t washed my hair in days. I’ve even skipped deodorant a few times in the process, yet I have the same warm, safe place to stay every night.
It’s Saturday night and a car pulls up and idles out front. A woman ambles to the side window, and an exchange is made. She quickly does an about face and returns inside. In these times of high anxiety, we can all use a little help from our friends, be it Johnny Walker or Crimea Blue. People gotta stay medicated in this plagued economy.
My drug of choice is chocolate, so I play the odds taking unnecessary trips to the local bodega.
Since the world has been put on pause, this virus has brought into focus our human frailties. Those frailties come from a place of fear. A fear of separateness.
Perhaps if we practice loving-kindness with ourselves and then mirror it back to others, we just might be a little more forgiving all the way around — get through this in one peaceful piece.