TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
American historian, author, playwright, social activist
Powerful thoughts – especially for this time. Now I recognize that I share this not as a youth from Gaza or a Muslim in Burma or a mother of Mexico. I am a privileged, white American. If I had a Twitter, I could fill my feed with #FirstWorldProblems. And yet I sense that this passage’s message, while immensely valuable to the whole of the world, must especially move those of us who are comfortable (read: can sleep knowing we will be safe in our shelter of a home and have abundant food and water the following day). In my mind, those of us blessed with much bear the responsibility to, at the very least, live lives full of compassion, tolerance, patience, and kindness. Because it really is a grass-roots operation, this motive to bring lasting peace to our world. What we begin ourselves, in the most mundane of moments, can build gradually, spreading through our communities to our neighbors, and on and on. So we can hope, and so we can try.
I realize that much of our world’s suffering probably wouldn’t list peace as their first priority at this point. There are more dire, essential needs at hand. But if we could cultivate qualities that promote care and love for those we know well, as well as the strangers we pass on the street, could other social, economic, and political issues be dealt with in a more efficient, altruistic manner?
The situations that prompt a push for peace often exist as a result of years of historical strife, which unfortunately could not be solved by one measly blog post. However, what we do on small scales can effect change, and that change can be contagious. Think of random acts of kindness or the expression, ‘Pay it forward’. If we give worth to such small acts, we can recognize the capacity for change that loving-kindness meditation can proffer.
I recently read that the Buddha first taught loving-kindness, or metta, as an antidote for fear. How fascinating, no? We may imagine those who are fighting in the Gaza Strip, for example, as angry, and perhaps they are, but could we not attribute some, or even much tension over land or between ethnic groups to fear? Fear of other? I don’t mean to simplify the incredibly complex sagas around our world, but it’s something to consider, even in regards to the milieu of our personal lives.
With loving-kindness meditation, we work to quell negativity and self-doubt, in an effort to develop a stronger acceptance of ourselves. From there, the meditation extends our attention beyond ourselves to others. Different teachers offer differing methods as to who you consider, but often, they encourage us to develop loving-kindness towards people we love and admire, then someone more neutral in the sense that you interact with them on a less personal level (i.e. the man or woman who served you coffee this morning), and finally, someone you are challenged by. Sending loving-kindness to each of these can break down any barriers that have arisen in our hearts and minds and open us to the possibility of compassion’s workings on our relationships. If just five minutes of morning meditation can alter a day, how powerful could the practice of loving-kindness meditation be for our wounded world?
I began giving more thought to loving-kindness meditation after a friend recommended Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness 28-Day Challenge. Since the exercises for this ‘challenge’ live in a book and corresponding CDs, I downloaded the audio files onto my iPod and continue to listen to them when I sense I need some guidance in my meditation practice. It can be especially nice to have on the subway! What I appreciate about Sharon’s work is that she makes meditation accessible. Before each meditation exercise, she educates you on the purpose and method of each meditation practice within the series (Breathing Meditation, Walking Meditation, Loving-Kindness Meditation). When she speaks of loving-kindness meditation, she talks about taking an interest in other. We don’t need to pretend that we have no problems, that everything is good; instead, we look to this practice as a means of attaining a more realistic, full picture of the people and matters around us. Loving-kindness meditation does not promote the manufacturing of feelings. It gathers our attention behind mantras – repeated phrases that wish ourselves and others well, in this case. Sharon offers the phrases below:
May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.
Sitting comfortably, not trying to force anything or make something happen, we present this mantra to ourselves, for ourselves. Then, after a time, we extend these same phrases to others. Again, the people we offer up these phrases for can differ, but here are those Sharon proposes:
-Someone who helped or inspired you. Imagine a countenance, or say a name to yourself; get a feeling of that person’s presence. Wish for them what you have wished for yourself.
-Someone who is hurting or having a difficult time right now.
-Someone you encounter now and then. You might not know much or anything about them.
-A difficult person, whose words and actions are hard to bear. If you struggle to offer up these well wishes to this person, she recommends you center your attention once more on yourself, so that you can soften the barriers obstructing you. Clearly you need some compassion in regards to this relationship!
-All beings everywhere, the boundlessness of life.
As with any meditation, we may find ourselves following or attacking emotions or thoughts that arise. Simply let go, and begin again. This chance to continually begin again is a beautiful piece of meditation that can be drawn into our everyday lives, promoting patience, faith, and hope.
Loving-kindness meditation doesn’t necessarily have the capacity to be the singular savior of our suffering world, but at this point in history, couldn’t our world use a little or a lot of it to get us started? Let us consider how we foster or mar the peaceful potential of our own lives each day, so that the compassion and spirit of generosity built inside our homes can swell and spread throughout the world. It’s at least worth a try.
- Liz Beres