Friday, September 28, 2007

Metta -- Practicing a Lovingkindness Meditation

For PGK, should she stop by.

I like to live intuitively. I like to believe that as I hike up a dry canyon, I'll find a spring of fresh water before I dehydrate too badly; that beauty is spontaneous; that solutions will spring Athena-like fully grown from my mind; that understanding will be revealed like a curtain swept away from a window.

Often enough, that is exactly what happens.

So I was pretty delighted when I heard about the notion of a Buddhist meditation practice, metta, that engendered lovingkindness.

And I was equally dismayed when I learned the mechanics of the practice. (A basic set of instructions can be found here.)

What? I'm supposed to practice by repeating this blather to myself about "May I be healthy, may I be happy, may I be whatever"? How can that help anything? This is just one of those self-delusional New Age indulgences. I don't want contrivance. I want to be filled with divine love.

And so I set metta practice aside for several years, focusing myself on more "important" stuff.

Then, more recently, I ran across Sharon Salzberg's book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1995. Reading it, she provided more context for practicing a lovingkindness meditation, and I was probably more ready for the instruction at that point. As I recall her instruction, she recommended starting the practice by reference to oneself, and sustaining the practice not just for a five minute session, but for a week or a month of daily sessions, before even venturing beyond oneself and applying it to others.

Compromiser that I am, I figured that I spend 20-30 minutes each morning on an elliptical trainer, usually reading something. I could do a week's worth of elliptical trainer time practicing the metta meditation, rather than reading. (Yes, I know. Elegant image. Now lay it aside. ;-)) The first day, the practice felt pointless. The second through fourth days, I started to become aware of the ways that I resisted really allowing myself to feel lovingkindness toward myself, even at the basic level of the meditation. By the end of the week, something inside me had relaxed enough to settle into the practice.

So the next week, I started with myself, then shifted the meditation practice to someone I loved. The instruction I had told me that it was best to choose someone to whom I was not sexually attracted, to avoid confusing the experience with the attachment that can easily arise to supplant lovingkindness. With such an instruction, I knew exactly whom to use: the 18-month-old daughter of a family in my ward. She had a penchant for wandering down the aisles of the chapel during sacrament meeting, finding me, and plopping herself down, either on my lap for a nap, or on the pew beside me for a more elaborate game of giving and taking, usually involving the sketch pencil and kneadable eraser I usually bring to Church for sketching during sermons. It was easy to desire her health, happiness, peace, and clarity. So the second week, I enjoyed the practice of desiring the best for her.

The third week, I was supposed to start with myself, then move to the loved one, then move to a person about whom I felt neutral. Feel neutral? What does that mean? I don't know that I feel neutral toward anyone. I got over the intial confusion, picked out someone whom I didn't know very well, and used him. The meditation wasn't particularly illuminating or easy that week, but it wasn't terribly burdensome, either.

The fourth week, Salzberg's book instructed me to choose someone I disliked -- an enemy. The selection proved to be more of a challenge than the neutral person. I don't have enemies. I get along with everyone. Duh. Finally, I selected a person whom I perpetually seemed to be cross-wise with online. So I started the meditation with myself, shifted to my loved one, my neutral one, and added my antagonist.

So what did I find? Much to my surprise (and with a degree of chagrin, given my preference for Athenian-birth events, rather than deliberation and incremental ones), I found that I was happier that month than I ever expected to be, even though often enough, the happiness didn't seem directly traceable to the meditation practice. But some things were more readily traceable.

By seeing how I resisted allowing myself to feel lovingkindness toward myself, I was able to relent a little, let a little more light, a little more space in. I didn't have any earth-shaking revelations about loving the loved one, though the meditation did lead me to acknowledge explicitly how much I enjoy her company. I found myself paying a little more attention to the person I was so neutral about. In realizing neutrality, I realized that much of it stemmed from just not knowing him very well. The more I noticed, the more I found to value. The antagonist? First, the practice led me to look more carefully at antagonism and adversity. (I am a litigator, after all.) Attending to it more allowed me to see more antagonism, and more subtle ways that I am antagonistic, and more ways that I project antagonism onto others.

It also made me want to test some of the hypotheses I'd developed about my interactions.

Now, more than a year later? I've decided that love is mostly a muscle -- it can be developed with practice, it atrophies with disuse. Most of my life, I've loved what I've loved and I've been perplexed by its absence when I noticed I didn't love someone.

But mostly, I'm happier. My world has expanded a little bit. I'm less inclined to flip people off during freeway commutes. I notice more when I get mad, when I think someone is being intentionally contradictory, when I am about to dismiss someone as irrelevant or boring.

And I've concluded that there really isn't any clear line between loving myself, loving my little sacrament meeting companion, and loving Bin Laden.

A pearl goes up for auction
No one has enough,
so the pearl buys itself.
-- Rumi