For the past few weeks I’ve been slowly reading Sandra Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Alice Walker refers to Salzberg in her own We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, and one of my students, Brandi, bought and tried some of the exercises and suggested it to the class. What can it hurt, I thought, and with two such strong recommendations, who wouldn’t put in an order. . . .
Still, it’s not the sort of title I usually rush to . . . “revolutionary” anything sounds over-stated, and especially with “art” and “happiness.” And yet, a simple “are you happy? have you attained it? do you want it?” is enough to stay one’s cynicism, perhaps. Besides, I’d rather give my money to Shambhala Publishers than some others. Shambhala is a mythical kingdom somewhere in Asia, apparently, referred to in ancient texts that pre-date Tibetan Buddhism. In Buddhist Kalachakra readings, Shambhala is a place of peace/tranquility/happiness. A kind of utopia, apparently, with external and internal meanings. The external meaning refers to a literal place. The internal refers to one’s body and mind, and an additional meaning refers to meditation. Much like other prophecies, there is a time in the future (2424) when the world will kill itself with greed and war, and at this time the King of Shambhala will come. I see that (at least according to Wikipedia), he will arrive with a vast army and vanquish the evil side, thus ushering in a Golden Age.
Oh, okay. The good guys will finally crush the bad guys (see my post on why I am not a guy). Sigh. I think I’d like to go back to the internal meanings and find what’s there. Is militarism really the only way to defend our Shangri-las? And by that, I mean what we’ve got here and now, not later, not mythical, not over there.
There’s much of the exotic here, the notion that cultures other than my own, especially those rooted in ancient mysticism, have an answer for us. Hence some white folks’ attraction to Native American spirituality (usually with little attention to actual people or historical and other contextual factors, like tribal affiliation or the physical place of the original peoples). But I read on, trying to tamp down my magical thinking (while secretly wanting to be open to it). And in fact, I do believe “other cultures” have answers–certainly our current worshiping of consumption and image over all else is as bereft and in need of a happy alternative as a society can get. I went to a movie last night–all about magic and image (Now You See Me)–and was appalled at the number of aggressive coke-sponsored ads prefaced the actual movie. I said to myself, “I’m not coming to a movie again,” though I’m unlikely to be able to stick to that.
And speaking of “sticking to things,” I began this reflection with a question and introduction of the book I’m reading. It’s not a new book, published in 1995, the year I was finishing my dissertation on, well, “blood, spirit, place,” and could have used some assistance with lovingkindness. I find myself wondering, why didn’t I know about this book, or give it a try, and why now? When does a suggestion fall across our path like a friendly shadow, leaving it to us whether to attend to it or not? Well, we’re never too late for a little kindness and I suppose we know as well as anyone how our own internal Shambhalas are faring.
I rather like that “metta,” a Pali word, can be translated as lovingkindness. I’m not sure what other kindness there is–kindness seems by its very definition all bound up in (open to) love, but perhaps there’s something else in this context, something tied up with the Buddhist notion of compassion for the self and all others that our consumerist self-loathing, self-aggrandizing, other-worshipping culture needs. And only a deeply cynical burdened self would respond to the notion of lovingkindness with a sneer. I don’t want to bear that burden, and perhaps that’s why I got the book and began reading.
Is is “revolutionary”? Is it an “art”? When I compare what it takes to practice compassion with what happens to me/us when we sit in the movie seat assaulted by and absorbing passively the bright colors and fast-flowing images promising pleasure, relief and urging buybuybuy—given where we are and where I/you might be, then maybe. And maybe for once the “revolution” need not come with a big army.