Meditation 101

About a 6 weeks ago, upon the advice of Alice Walker, I ordered one of Sandra Saltzberg’s books, Lovingkindness, and began trying some of the metta (lovingkindness) exercises. They begin with a focus on oneself and then move outward to include all beings. There are typically four phrases (easier to remember), and you can adjust them so they are right for you. Saltzberg also has a CD series (3) by the same name, which is pretty much the same as the book without the exercises, but I found the repetition good.

The four go something like this: May I live free from danger. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease. You can adjust them–one I like is “May I make friends with my body” instead of “May I be healthy.” For some of us this has enormous (no pun intended) consequences. I like the idea of repeated phrases, mantra like, because you can do them anywhere, anywhere. In the midst of a committee where some ego-stroker is going onandonandon, you can a) get annoyed as hell and begin wishing he’d go jump, or b) practice metta, thus rejecting all the negative energy and focusing instead on his common humanity his internal desire to be happy. As Salzberg would say, “This is an eternal law.” I suppose there’s a combination of a and b, a sort simultaneous hope for happiness while he takes a jump in a cold lake.

In a typical metta meditation (as I understand it), one begins with “I” then moves to a series of others–a benefactor, a friend, a neutral person, a difficult person. Then to groups: all female beings/all male beings, those enlightened/those not enlightened, and I add my own depending on where and what I’m doing: everyone who lives on my street/all who do not live on my street, all people who are healthy/all those who are dying. When I think of all the males and females in the world, my mind goes to boys and girls beaten and threatened and violated, and usually I think of someone on the other side of the globe, or down in Peru, where I have been and love the people there. When I think about anyone else, it’s just a group, a conceptual entity of beings. Only the little boys and girls leap into my mind with faces and smiles and tears. What you are doing with metta is eliminating the us/them separation, you are seeing the life force in all, recognizing that all beings “just want to be happy.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving to work, approaching the light at Veterans, when a woman in a van cut in front of me. I saw her looking at me in her rearview mirror, so I made a gesture–raised my hands in a wtf way or like I was throttling someone’s neck. She returned the gesture to me, and I said, “May you live free from danger. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.” It was automatic, and I found myself saying it out loud and then, as I drove on, thinking, so what was that all about (meaning me throttling her nonverbally in the mirror), and then laughing a little, because before I started metta, the last word, so to speak, would have been the gesture. Somehow that seems an ominous way to begin a work day.

Since then I’ve continued to try to meditate–I won’t say I’m bad at it, as that’s not the point. Instead, as Salzberg says in another book on mediation (28-day plan), the magic of meditation is the coming back. Everyone’s mind will wander, it’s impossible for it not to. But whether we get lost in it or pull our attention back (to breathing, metta, or whatever) is the distinction between mindfulness and monkeymind.

At a retreat last week, our outstanding retreat guide suggested that given my tendency to analyze, metta may be too “heady” (my paraphrase) and that I need to go for the heart. That gave me pause. I am still practicing metta, but I am thinking (analyzing?) what it might mean for me to also get down and dirty with the heart. It’s not like my heart isn’t in my mouth a lot of the time, because it is, but it’s just possible that this one on occasion uses her mind to restrict access to certain truths or realities that it might be good to embrace or feel or whatever the right heart-word is. And, I’m guessing, so do most of us. May I be happy. May I make friends with my body. May I live with ease. As the Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

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