To Reteach a Thing Its Loveliness

We need to develop the Buddhist practice of metta or lovingkindness…and the benefits are worth it.

Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

When I read the phrase To reteach a thing its lovelinessjust 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:

  1. You will sleep easily.
  2. You will wake easily.
  3. You will have pleasant dreams.
  4. People will love you.
  5. Celestial beings and animals will love you.
  6. Celestial beings will protect you.
  7. External dangers ( fire, poison, weapons) will not harm you.
  8. Your face will be radiant.
  9. Your mind will be serene.
  10. You will die with a clear mind.
  11. 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.”

What a lovely thou

Is Sheltering in Place in the Big Apple an Opportunity for Personal Growth?

After searching for an answer, the big reveal is, yes.

Author photo. Greene Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

I kept asking myself over and over again, Why now? Why the hell now?

In October of last year, I fulfilled a life-long dream of moving to New York City. After months of journal writing and mulling it over, I made the decision it was the perfect time. The winds of change propelled me forward, and magically things fell into place. My adventure manifested, and I was challenging myself doing new things and working hard. In February, as a result of a written piece I submitted, I got an interview with The New York Times, in one of their regular feature columns.

And then … BOOM.

After a short, four-and-a-half months of New York City WOW, disaster struck. The greatest city in the world suddenly crippled. Its beating heart of creative energy, suffering cardiac arrest was left an ICU patient with no visitors allowed.

Without notice, and cut off from all the art and culture I was drawing inspiration from, I found myself alone in quarantine. Like everyone else, I was left reeling in a state of confusion and fear. At the same time, I kept wondering why had this happened when prior to the pandemic all systems were go? My adventure was looking more like a quest, and my biggest trial was facing an invisible foe who could, quite literally, take me down. I was going to have to dig deep to answer this one.

Nagged by this question of why, I, nevertheless, held steady and made the best use of my time writing, painting, reading, and observing.

And then one day going through some old notes, I came across a quote I had written down . It was from a list of “68 pithy bits of unsolicited advice” to the young, compiled by author Kevin Kelly, who helped launch Wired magazine. Even though I’m old, it hit like an resuscitative electrical charge:

“When crisis and disaster strike, don’t waste them. No problem, no progress.”

Well, I certainly was experiencing a crisis, but how was I going to change my perception and make it positive? I had come to the city to foster my own curiosity and creativity. Maybe quarantine and sheltering in place were just the environments I needed to buckle down and make real progress with my writing and painting. Feeding a passion takes solitude and focus.

So I dove in and keenly observed the changing world around me. Every day I wrote or painted with an energy that surprised me. I discovered a new painting medium using recycled trash and even submitted a couple of articles to different publications.

I had nothing to lose.

But it was hard.

Any creative endeavor or change of habit requires us to access our higher nature. And you will know you are on to something because resistance, in its many forms, will rear its ugly head . For me, resistance comes from things like Netflix, social media, and Zoom constantly calling me to come play. Of course, I enjoy these things, but only after I’ve completed some work time. Wrestling resistance requires a Herculean effort, but staying focused yields results.

My confidence kept growing.

As further proof that I was on the right track, I happened to read through more notes I had taken several years ago and was jolted by another message that was waiting for me. In Letters to a Young Poet #7, written in 1904, the poet Rilke( only 27 himself) writes back to a young man looking for advice about his writing. Rilke’s response echoes the very same stumbling blocks of resistance and hard work. That in his practice of solitude, the young man might find himself distracted by the conventions of his day, might be tempted to take the easy route rather than trust in what is difficult, which would reveal his true artistic self:

“…it is clear that we must trust what is difficult; everything alive trusts it, everything, in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason to do it.”

So crisis and disaster have struck, and I’ve found the answer to my question, Why now? I’m choosing to see this problem of a pandemic as a personal challenge in making progress towards becoming the best that I can be.

I’m currently working on a series of paintings I hope to show in the near future and writing articles I hope to see published. I’m even entering a large scale commissioning art program here in NYC. Completing the application has been mind bending; I know it’s a long shot.

Working on it is hard.

But when I hit the send button to submit my proposal, regardless of the outcome, I will be happy I gave it my all, knowing…

“…that something is difficult must be one more reason to do it.”