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March 1999, Volume 6 Nr. 7, Issue 67

Meta-metta

I minted this word to help me write about this practice, this practical art of loving. Meta is a prefix, variously meaning change and transforma- tion, or a highly organized form, or transcending. Metta is a Pali word meaning lovingkindness. The paradox of practice, that is, of living consciously, is that we use words to find that which is beyond words. We use forms, including our bodies and tools, to enter formlessness. We develop concepts to go beyond concepts.

In the spirit of this marvelous paradox, called being human, I humbly offer some ideas about love, about meta-metta. Here is a teaching, a prayer, an affirmation, a song of the heart-mind. It is very old in this form, maybe 2,500 years old. It is the classic metta meditation saying:

  • May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.
  • May all beings be well.
  • May all beings be peaceful and at ease.
  • May all beings be happy.

Radical Self-Friendliness

This is a very powerful practice. Don’t take my word for it. Begin with yourself. With movement of deep compassion toward yourself, affirm:

May I be filled with lovingkindness.

This initial phase of metta practice is often especially difficult for occidental cultural people. Self-loving is equated with selfishness. With traditional western moral training, we may find it unseemly to say, "May I be happy."

I think the discomfort goes deeper than an assumption about selfishness. It is rather a failure to acknowledge and challenge deep self-hatred. This violence against self, so obvious, is the raw material as well as the product of a delusional and fragmented society. It is the key to the seduction of advertising and also to the ashes that follow the fleeting and vapid satisfaction of such consuming.

Metta toward oneself is a radical practice in our culture, a practice that fosters integrity, self-reliance, civility and altruism. If I am to practice compassionate action toward all beings, that includes me: "May I be filled with lovingkindness."

Widening the Circle

After awhile, extend that, to someone whom you know you love, a child, a parent, a friend, a sweetheart, a teacher – and bless them:

May (this person) be well.

You may be visualizing a light expanding, or your heart enclosing more and more people or your loving breaths traveling further into the world of forms. About visualization: I am aware that there is both a common belief in, and common skepticism against, the idea that visualization and intention mean actual change in the world (beyond the individual meditator). Readers are aware of my own optimistic, romantic skepticism. The debate on "non-local effects of prayer" I’ll save for another Metaphoria.

I encourage "visualization", (perhaps better called "sensory imagining" since we can use other than internal pictures), because it can deepen the effect in the practitioner: acting accordingly, integrity, self-reputation.

Eventually, as you deepen in awareness of lovingkindness, you may expand to others: neighbors, co-workers, people everywhere, mammals, insects, the whole earth, all beings:

May all beings be peaceful and at ease.

Difficult Practice

The tricky part, the difficult part, is the next expansion. "What next expansion?" you may wonder; I’ve already expanded this practice, this prayer, to "all beings." Remember the song from hair, "Easy to be Hard"? Here are the lyrics:

How can people be so heartless?
How can people be so cruel?
Easy to be hard.
Easy to be cold…
Especially people who care about strangers
Who care ‘bout evil and social injustice
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?
I need a friend.

This song is about this part of practice, about the ability to extend lovingkindness to the nameless bleeding masses, and yet be unable to peel the plasters from the eyes of the heart and see the suffering person in your own living room.

The tricky part is to extend lovingkindness to the most difficult people in your world. Notice, I did not say the worst people. I said the most difficult for you. These could be people you are angry at, or disgusted with, or don’t understand.

Examples in my life and practice have included:

  • My racist neighbor
  • A homophobic ministerial student
  • Richard Nixon
  • My old boyfriend (violent, abusive, alcoholic)
  • The man who murdered my sister’s best friend

These are some people whom I have tried to include in my metta meditations, and some days I can, with an open heart; other times my heart constricts and the names catch in my throat. It is easy to say, "may all beings be happy." It takes practice to say - and mean - "May Slobodan Milosovic be happy."

Metta practice is not for the weakhearted. It is for creating the tender heart. It is to develop the strength of an exquisitely, painfully, vulnerable heart, the open heart of lovingkindness, which finds us standing with our chest open, our hands empty.

The shell, the plaster cast, the defensive armor we have forged to protect our heart, can break open like a chrysalis, and we can emerge like a butterfly, aware of our true self - which is like a butterfly:

Fragile, beautiful, ephemeral, graceful, joy-giving, and soon gone.

With practice, we may cultivate lovingkindness. Cultivate. You don’t buy this bouquet at the florist, you cultivate it in the garden of your own life.

An especially interesting part of this practice actually is metta for those whom we don’t understand. With Milosovic we can send love in the hope of healing, with reflection on a perceived pathology; we can develop creative non-violent responses, and we can truly practice with compassion and not condescension.

Silence

There is a word, "ahimsa", meaning non-harming. It is the heart of Ghandian non-violence, the human power which transformed the subcontinent and founded the largest democracy in the world, India. Pacifism is anything but passive. Ahimsa is a central tenet of Buddhism.

What of those whom we don’t understand, or whom we are uncomfortable with, especially when we don’t understand our discomfort.

This takes practice. And reflection; and work. We must examine the root of avoidance. Our fear. Our misunderstanding.

In our culture today, and in our little local cultures congregation, workplace, family, union, neighborhood and in the even more local culture, the horticulture, the garden of each person, there is a conversation.

It is the conversation about humanness and otherness. Us-ness and them-ness. It is about the imaginary lines scratched in our psyches. About racism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism.

It is a conversation in which the participants are variously: speaking, shouting, cajoling, lying, praying, testifying, singing, silent. Too often they are silent in avoidance.

Metta-lovingkindness for ourselves can allow us to examine those fearful places within where anger, confusion and hatred are bred.

Metta-lovingkindness for others can allow us to have compassion for them, even as they may express, fear, anger, confusion or hatred of us. Metta allows us to develop responses to such actions and attitudes without succumbing to the seduction of violence, without demonizing others.

When I speak of meta-metta, I mean the transformative, organized practice that contains and transcends the rest of the dharma: compassion, lovingkindness.

May you be filled with lovingkindness.
May you be well.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
May you be happy.

Homily of the Heavenly Homes

A little glossary of words, offered here because the intellect loves to collect new gems (and these jewels are also very old), and because the heart loves to be reminded of itself, and because the body loves the feel and sound of fine words. Saying the same words people have said for thousands of years connects us to a lineage of the heart-mind, to a long community of caring and doing, to humanity.

The brahmaviharas (heavenly abodes, divine homes) are four qualities of consciousness we may develop, ways of being in and with the world:

Metta – love/lovingkindness
Karuna – compassion
Mudita – sympathetic joy
Upekkha – equanimity

Metta has two root meanings: gentle and friend. The Tibetan word for this quality of lovingkindness translates as basic friendliness.

Karuna: Compassion is the strength that allows us to see clearly the suffering of others (and of ourselves), and to act. Compassion is not sentimental; it is not pity. Karuna (from Sanskrit and Pali) translates poetically and graphically: It is the feeling of the heart moving – trembling or quivering – in response to some being’s pain.

Mudita: is not that fleeting happiness we tend to cling to (and suffer as it inevitably passes). Sympathetic joy is a gladness, a gratitude and rejoicing in the happiness of others. Therefore, it is a quality not to be impeded by judgement, comparing, scorn, envy or boredom.

Upekkha: equanimity is to be at home in one’s own life. It has to do with patience, courage, integrity. This is not about detachment. One may be (cannot help but be) engaged in the world. Equanimity is how we cultivate balance; upekkha shows the difference between detachment (a species of avoidance) and non-attachment.

Parrot Bodhisat

The Jataka tales are hundreds of stories which are traditionally told of the many reincarnated lives of the one who was finally born around 563 BCE as Siddhartha Gautama, the Sakya prince, whom we call Buddha. A little knowledge of folk tales will make it clear that many of these stories are older tales which have been adapted into the Buddha’s legend, because they are teaching tales which highlight wisdom and compassion. Here is a popular story of meta-metta, compassion turned into action.

Long, long ago, the Buddha was born as a happy little parrot. He lived in a great forest and delighted in his life, spreading joy to the other forest-dwelling animals with his playful gladness, his joy in living.

One day a great storm roared by and lightning struck one ancient tree which burst into flames, popping and cracking with sparks which the gusting wind carried to ignite the whole forest.

Terrified animals ran wildly, desperate and blind in the smoke and flame. The little parrot, who could have flown out of the fiery forest, raced through the smoke and fear crying to the animals, "Run! Run to the river!" His voice rang clear and cut through the clouds of their fear as it cut through billows of smoke, and many did run to the safety of the river.

But other creatures were trapped by the flames, the smoke. The brave little parrot flew above the fire, wondering how to help them.

Suddenly, he went flying to the river himself. He dipped himself in the water and flew back to the roaring, consuming fire. He swept low among the flames and shook his wings, letting fall the few drops of water. Again and again and again, he flew from river to forest, forest to river, scattering a few drops of clear water with each pass. His feathers grew tarry with soot; he reeled with exhaustion and with lack of oxygen, which the fire was breathing in only to breathe out heat and smoke and destruction. It was a desperate quest, but the little parrot kept on, vowing not to stop his meager, brave attempt to save others.

In the heavenly realms there were devas, angels, gods, relaxing on rich cushions in precious palaces, feasting on ambrosias and nectars. They idly watched the drama far below them, and some of them mildly laughed at the foolishness of the little parrot. They found him silly, absurd in his attempts to fight a blazing forest fire with the few glistening drops he scattered.

But one god was quiet, and found his heart moving within him, moved by what he saw. He became a large golden eagle and flew to the bedraggled little parrot. In a great golden voice the eagle called over the crackling blaze, "Little bird, give up. This task is hopeless. Save yourself. Before it is too late, save yourself!"

The little parrot heard the eagle, yet he flew on. He heard the sense in the eagle’s words. He heard the voice of his own death in the roaring fire. Yet he heeded the other voices, those of the suffering and terrified animals still trapped below in the blaze. He continued to carry his sticky wet wings to scatter droplets.

The golden eagle continued to call, "Foolish bird! Stop! Save yourself!"

But the little parrot swung into the flames coughing, "Advice! I don’t need advice at a time like this! What I need is someone to help!"

And the god eagle, the golden angel, felt his heart moved, and, his own golden voice choking with compassion rather than smoke, he called out, "I will help!" With that, the eagle began to weep. What happens when a god weeps? Streams of clean, cool, sparkling tears rain.

Soon the flames were gone, the smoke disappeared, and all was washed clean and fresh, including the little parrot who flew laughing into the sky, wheeling through the restored forest now miraculously green and whole. All the animals were well, and buds and flowers were blooming glistening with teardrop raindrops.

Action

I followed the metta meditation and the description of the brahma- viharas with a tale of radical action in the face of overwhelming odds, the Parrot Bodhisat. Intelligent, compassionate action is the present requirement of human beings in service to others, to themselves, to the world.

We shall not, can not, pray or meditate our way to freedom. We cannot meditate or pray our way to peace. While prayer, meditation, affirmation can help our intention and attitude, the real work of changing the world is through action. Acting with intention and compassion, a guided intelligence.

There is a tendency for some folks, whether from fear or laziness or just misperception, to think meditation or prayer is a better or higher, more spiritual response to pain in the world. Those people are fooling themselves. Acting in the world may be confusing, uncertain and difficult at times, yet it is the calling of human beings - to care; to serve; to love.

The present Dalai Lama, when discussing attachment to anger as related to loss of mental peace, was asked if it wasn’t also necessary to practice meditation to obtain mental peace. He answered, "My experience is that it is obtained mainly through reasoning. Mediation does not help much." In the same interview he was asked, "What is the main method to foster inner awareness?", and responded, "Introspection and reasoning is more efficient for this purpose than meditation and prayer."

In modern western psychology this is called Cognitive Therapy (and it has many names through different cultures in history).

So, I conceive of metta-meta, in my life, as intelligent, compassionate action, bringing the intention of meaning of this meditation to form in the world by acts of service, acts of witness, acts of speaking truth to power.

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be peaceful and at ease.
May all beings be happy.

Quotations

"The greatest challenge of our day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?"

  • Dorothy Day

"…service is the rent each of us pays for living - the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time or after you have reached your personal goals.

  • Marian Wright Edelman

"Compassion and nonviolence help us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition."

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Great becomes the fruit. Great the advantage of earnest contemplation, where it is set round with upright conduct."

  • Buddha

"We must cultivate our garden."

  • Voltaire

"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous positive action."

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.

" ‘There’s no use in trying,’ she said: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’ ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice’, said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’ "

  • Lewis Carroll

"The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

  • Edmund Burke

"Complacency is a far more dangerous attitude than outrage."

  • Naomi Littlebear

"My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular."

  • Adlai Stevenson

"In the struggle for justice the only reward is the opportunity to be in the struggle. You can’t expect that you’re going to have it tomorrow. You just have to keep working on it."

  • Frederick Douglas

"To love without role, without power plays, is revolution."

  • Rita Mae Brown

"Being on a tightrope is living, everything else is just waiting."

  • Karl Wallenda

"Lean liberty is better than fat slavery."

  • Proverb

"In the end more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. Where the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them. When the freedom they wished for was freedom for responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free."

  • Edward Gibbon

JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

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