Reflections from Dan Damerville
In the service today, we’ve talked and sung about and practiced metta — a quality of heart and mind that figures prominently in Buddhist religion and psychology.
Although exotic sounding in the Pali language of ancient Buddhism, metta translates in English as loving-kindness, warm heartedness, goodwill, and, my favorite, plain old friendliness. However we refer to it, this quality is essential to making everyday human interactions enjoyable and positive.
Earlier, Reverend Mark led us in a metta meditation that has the avowed aim of increasing one’s kindness or friendliness, even toward people we might not have such feelings for.
Given that we all value loving-kindness, the idea that we can cultivate such feelings by deliberate practice might seem odd. Typically, we think a feeling is something we either have or don’t have, not something that we can dial up a few notches through practice.
Even so, research shows that even a modest practice of metta meditation – such as several minutes a day, several days a week — can ease us in the direction of thinking about and interacting with others in a more kindly way. As a long-time meditator I know that when I include metta in my daily practice, (something I don’t always do) I am simply a better version of myself, one who is more clearly inclined to think better of and interact with other people in a more friendly and kind-hearted way.
It should be said that practices like metta, ones that target specific characteristics such as kindness, are not what most people think of when the topic of meditation comes up.
Instead, we are probably familiar with more wholistic forms of meditation such as Zen, T M and insight or mindfulness, all of which convey more general psychological and even physical benefits to those who practice them.
Although often presented as something mystical or other-worldly, meditation is nothing more nor less than exercise for the psyche, for the mind and heart. And like with physical exercise, belief is not necessary.
Believe it or not, if you lift heavy weights several times a week for a month, you will grow stronger.
Believe it or not, if you practice any of the more general forms of meditation fairly regularly, results happen, over time your mind will grow calmer, clearer, more flexible and responsive. And if you practice metta meditation your heart will grow warmer toward others and toward yourself.
In closing, I offer good news: Current meditation instruction and support is much better than in the past, Even ten years ago, someone wishing to learn how to meditate might have to learn from a book, (possible, but not easy) pay a lot of money to an outfit like Transcendental Meditation, or even travel to some exotic land to learn from a master. All that has changed, and for the better.
Today, the internet and the cell phone — those notorious weapons of mass distraction and needless agitation — can be used to the opposite effect, to calm and clarify the mind. Numerous websites and phone apps provide high quality instruction, most of it free. Finding these resources is as simple as making a computer search for “best meditation apps and websites). One meditation teacher I particularly like is Tara Brach at tarabrach.com.
If you would like to learn from an actual as opposed to a virtual teacher and, perhaps, meditate with other people, you’re living in the right place, Asheville, not surprisingly, has quite a few teachers and groups that provide instruction and ongoing support in various styles of meditation.
Which brings me to my very favorite local meditation group, one that meets right here in the sanctuary. For over two years UUCA has had a meditation and study group called he Buddhist Fellowship. Despite that name, many, maybe most, of the members don’t identify as Buddhists.
We meet the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of each month from 7 to 8:30 to meditate together and discuss issues related to Buddhist oriented psychology. Information related to upcoming meetings is available on the online congregation calendar. We would love for you to join us. Namaste ya’ll. Dan Damerville
Reflection on Bodhicittta, Metta, Virginia Bower
“All through the day, I, Me, Mine, I, Me, Mine, I Me Mine…”
You know the song—and isn’t it fitting for the time in which we live?! Every day, I collect experiences of “me-ism,” acts involving people being so caught up in themselves that they can’t even imagine the effects of their acts on other people—folks who, for example, block the street with their car because they’re waiting on someone they dropped off while 10 cars, meanwhile, pile up behind them—like that—we all have our own examples—people who we deem “selfish”—“self consumed”—“self-absorbed.” I, Me, Mine…could be a serious condition.
. . .
I’ve had a spiritual practice most of my life—since I was about 15—poetry, gurus, Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga—some of those early concepts for tapping into higher consciousness included whatever might lead to a “higher self,” to “self realization,” to “self awareness”—selfish? Self aware? So as I read my dharma lesson or meditate or practice yoga, I seem to be paying a lot of attention to myself—am I being self-ish? Or self-aware?
I recently had a backache—never had this kind of backache before—and it dawned on me how little sympathy I’d ever had for all those others who’d shared with me their backache—and now, since I was experiencing it myself, I really knew what a backache was—I felt it—and I would never be callous again to someone who shared with me that they had a backache—it hurts! I’m so sorry I wasn’t more sympathetic! Or compassionate!
I was delighted recently, when, after my 47-year-long spiritual journey, I finally had a little bit of insight into a basic Buddhist teaching, which for me is where understanding metta begins. Bodhicitta means “basic goodness” and as a Buddhist concept, it means the basic ground that is at the heart of every human being—kind of like the “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” UU principal?! The problem that many of us have with being in touch with our own basic goodness is that that basic goodness gets obscured, clouded over—through so much living—stayin’ alive—reacting—relationships—competition—losses—feelings of being less than—basic goodness, that essence, can get covered up. If my essence is basic goodness, then your essence must also be basic goodness—but I have a hard time seeing that basic goodness in you because in truth I’m not totally clear on what it is in me—I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to get rid of all that I thought did not measure up: the residue of a crappy childhood; all those times I’ve been really mean in my life; all those bad decisions, all those times I felt like I just didn’t measure up. If people knew who I was with all these flaws, they probably wouldn’t like me; I might not even like myself! Surely I could never reach Nirvana—or even more modestly, a state of feeling like a decent human being—with all this muck and mire attached to my being! I had to get rid of this stuff, all the grime, wash it all off OR maybe pretend like it wasn’t there and maybe pretend to be someone else other than who I am in the process; it all seemed to be handicapping me, preventing me from attaining more saintly qualities, and thus in need of being gotten rid of—wouldn’t that be the way to get back to my basic goodness, i.e., remove the undesirable in order to find the desirable?
Seems my understanding was a bit turned around—and so thank goodness for my study of Buddhism and for my practice—and Buddhism is, after all, mostly a practice—since I have come across some very generous and insightful teachings—specifically that any chance I have for self-realization or enlightenment depends not at all on getting rid of anything but rather of being aware of and making room for, perhaps uncovering…all that is me—those qualities that I’m not glad I have, the habits that too often prescribe the automatic way I look out and perceive the world, that judgy part of myself that never takes a break, with me, with others—but the trick is not in identifying, through self criticism, what needs to go, but rather coming closer to who I am by allowing what exists in me the space to be—and coming to know that—from the pretty to the warty, from what I can accept to what I have a hard time accepting. Pema Chodron, a beloved Buddhist dharma teacher, talks about the need for intimacy with self, for unconditional friendship with ourselves that must be the ground for the possibility of unconditional friendship with others—she calls this maitri or metta. Self-knowing, knowing ourselves intimately is always the starting point. And if I can stay—another pith Buddhist instruction—with everything, esp. those areas I’d rather run away from—and I’m an expert at running away—through food, drink, denial, shopping—then I can come to know my basic goodness—maybe not instantly, maybe not today, but back to that idea of Buddhism being a practice—when I know loneliness in myself, when I can stay with that instead of running away, when I can consider it a way of coming closer to myself, I can see more clearly and compassionately another person who is experiencing the same—perhaps this is also compassion—Pema says that compassion is between equals.
So back to my insight: it involved my clear realization that I could never know what basic goodness or loving kindness is without experiencing it in and towards and for my own self—no platitudes, no intellectual exercises—and that it is really my responsibility to experience this basic goodness, bodhicitta, in myself so that I can see it in others—it’s my work. If I’m to be of any use as a tool or a channel for upliftment in this world, I must take on the mature and brave, maybe even heroic task—putting on those grown-up panties—of accepting my own humanity—and my own basic goodness. Only then can I practice another Buddhist concept which is committing to help alleviate suffering in this world (no small project!)—I can only know basic goodness by experiencing it as my self, knowing that I am one vessel that holds the same basic goodness that every other vessel holds—and in this way I come to know, love, and have compassion for myself so that I can come to know, love and have compassion for others. Bodhicitta, in this way, seems related to maitri, metta…loving kindness.
Mary Oliver was right—we really do NOT have to be good, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting, we only have to let the soft animal of our body love what it loves; we only need to see the sun behind all the obscurations. We don’t even have to wait to get a bad backache before we can develop compassion. We only have to practice knowing ourselves—Pema might say, “Coming closer to ourselves”—and in the knowing, practice loving kindness—for ourselves, and for others.
Self-ish? Self-aware? There’s probably a difference…But all I know is I need to start right here with me and feel kindness towards myself—but perhaps in doing so, I can also know and feel kindness for you. Virginia Bower