Metta from a Lifeboat

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Image (c) Robert Blackwood

The metta bhavana can be a tough nut to crack. Its five stages, outlined in a recent post, are meant to evoke feelings of loving-kindness for different people, first for oneself, then for a friend, then for a neutral person, then for an enemy, and finally for everyone in the earlier stages, with an increasingly expanding circle that eventually includes all sentient beings.

I’ve learned a few ways of going about the meditation from different sources, including teachers, fellow sangha members, books, and even Google searches. The goal is to create a sense of loving-kindness, and how you get there in your own practice seems to be unimportant, so many people have advised me to try different approaches until I find one that works for me. Right now I’m using varying approaches that seem to work better for the different stages.

For Stage 1, where the focus is oneself, I usually visualize myself in a happy and safe setting. I’ve called up images from childhood, probably more iconic than historical, because I doubt I’m the only person who finds it much easier to feel loving-kindness for the child version of myself than for the adult version of myself. But using this kind of visualization opens the door to running away with the storyline, and a metta bhavana meditation can become a stroll down memory lane. Other times I’ll simply imagine myself sitting there on the cushion, from the vantage point of an observer who thinks, “this guy isn’t so bad after all…” That’s not quite metta, but it at least prepares the way.

For Stage 2, visualizing a close friend smiling or laughing usually does the trick, but I sometimes find myself wanting to know what my friend is laughing about. So off I go, following the storyline as I create it. Other times I’ll recite (some version of) the lines that many people use in the metta bhavana: May you be happy. May you be free from suffering. May you be loved…  The danger there of course is that it’s easy to simply recite the lines and forget about the metta itself, to just go through the motions without any emotion. But Stage 2 is generally the easiest stage, probably for most people, because you start from a point of naturally feeling metta for a close friend. That’s why one of my teachers sometimes reverses the order of the first two stages, starting with the one that comes prepackaged with a good amount of metta to get the ball rolling.

In Stage 3, I’ve found that what works best for me, so far at least, is to imagine that neutral person doing something mundane that I’ve never actually seen him or her do. Riding the subway, waking up in the morning, smiling at a partner or friend. There’s no storyline for me to fall into, but there is a sense of familiarity. This person does the same sort of things that everyone else does, myself included. So these images come with a sense of camaraderie, with that crucial recognition that we’re all in this together. That makes metta easier to cultivate.

I’ll skip to Stage 5 now, and then come back to Stage 4, and the lifeboat. Stage 5 starts out easily enough for me, with all four of us in a room, and me feeling by that point in the meditation enough metta to go from face to face and look on each of the players with loving-kindness. It’s the spreading-out that’s challenging for me. The expanding sphere image doesn’t work for me for the admittedly ridiculous reason that a sphere will include the layers of the earth before it reaches people on the other side of the globe, and I find myself fixating on images from high school geology textbooks. (I’ve admitted that this is ridiculous.) Spreading out over the surface of the planet is good enough, but I’m a bit of a map geek, so there are geographical distractions. Plus, it’s all so abstract, with a bit too many special effects for my tastes. What I usually do is a kind of shuffle of faces that I’ve encountered through the day, some real, most composites or complete fiction, and I try to look on each one as a real person, with all the same desires and challenges that I have. It’s a bit like walking down a crowded street and making an effort to look on each passer-by with metta, with a recognition of similarity rather than otherness.

Stage 4 is of course the most challenging, and the technique I use depends on whether I’m calling to mind simply someone who annoys me, or someone who I actually think of as an Enemy. Smiling, happy images tend to work for the former, while using the moon trick works for the latter. One of my teachers, the one who shared the moon trick with me, recently had another great suggestion for when I’m having a hard time getting past the past:

Imagine yourself in a very rough sea, with waves crashing around and on top of you. You’re coughing up water and at risk of going under, of drowning, but your Enemy is a few feet away in a lifeboat, and he or she is reaching out to you, trying to pull you out of danger, to save your life.

That really changes the dynamic! Suddenly the Enemy is not all bad, and maybe even quite good. You can imagine the look on his or her face, reaching as far out as possible to grasp your hands, really desperate to save you from drowning. Obviously you feel gratitude, which isn’t quite the same as metta, but which is at least something you can work with as a foundation for evoking feelings of metta.

I have a feeling that the metta bhavana is always going to be a work in progress, and it’s probably the case that people develop different approaches at different times, or with different players in the mix. The good news is that there’s an endless supply of practice opportunities off the cushion. The guy on his cellphone in the elevator next to me? May he be happy, may he be free from suffering… The woman paying by check in line at the grocery store ahead of me? May she be safe from inner and outer harm… And me? May I be filled with loving-kindness, at least some of the time

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Put Them on the Moon

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Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

In case you’re new to meditation and have never heard of the metta bhavana, it’s a very old and basic meditation meant to cultivate feelings of metta, usually translated as loving-kindness. It’s not romantic love, or attached love, or even familial love, but rather the kind of love, compassion, kindness, courtesy, empathy, and all of those other good things that, if universally applied, would make the world a much nicer place.

You can get far better instruction on the metta bhavana than these few words here, but in a very quick nutshell, it’s divided into five stages. In each stage, your focus is a different person (people in the last stage), but the aim is the same. You actively seek to evoke and feel metta for the person (or people) you’re focusing on, maybe by conjuring up an image of the person in a tranquil and safe setting, maybe by saying his/her name, maybe by reciting – with heart! – words like “May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you…” You get the picture.

The stages of the metta bhavana have as their focal points or objects of concentration:

  • Stage 1: Yourself
  • Stage 2: A good friend, someone you love dearly but not in a sexual way, ideally with as little baggage and as few attached strings as possible
  • Stage 3: A neutral person, someone who you see regularly and maybe know by name, but don’t have strong feelings for one way or the other
  • Stage 4: An enemy, someone you know and dislike, have a negative history with, or someone who you’re bothered by or are having difficulties with
  • Stage 5: Everyone from stages 1 through 4, then gradually a wider circle that expands to include all living beings.

When I first learned the metta bhavana, I remember thinking, “I don’t have any real enemies!” And it was probably even true at that time. I had people who annoyed me, just as I annoyed them, I’m sure, but that didn’t seem like much of a challenge. How hard is it to evoke feelings of compassion and kindness for someone who only annoys you?

As it so happens, I would soon enough be supplied with someone who genuinely rises to the level of enemy for me. A person who, on some days at least, I can’t think of without feeling a whole host of bitter and negative emotions. I don’t wish harm on this person, but I certainly have a hard time wringing any sort of compassion and kindness out of the tangle of emotions I do feel. Usually, I simply don’t think of this person, but every so often, when I’m feeling strong, I have my enemy for Stage 4 of the metta bhavana.

This can be tricky. On the one hand, it seems to be precisely the kind of challenge the metta bhavana offers us. If we can bring ourselves to feel compassion and kindness when it’s hard to do so, to say “we’re all human beings in the same boat, so I feel for you and your suffering because it’s mine, too,” we’d all be better people for everyone, ourselves included. On the other hand, most of us aren’t immune to flashes of strong emotion, and a perfectly well-intentioned metta bhavana can wind up creating hatred and ill will, and that’s not something we want to let ourselves steep in.

My solution is usually to simply pick an “easy” enemy. Someone who’s bothering me for some silly reason. But every once in a while I feel that my practice deepens if I come back to the Enemy, and actively look within myself to find and nurture the part of me that recognizes common suffering, that’s able to set aside a very real and bitter history and simply say, “despite it all, we have dukkha in common,” and that’s enough to create even a small spark of compassion and loving-kindness.

It helps that one of my teachers, a Triratna Order Member, had a very simple trick for me to use. I’d gone to him with the concern that my practice was getting clouded by feelings of hatred and ill will, and that I wasn’t able to handle a real enemy in the metta bhavana. He said that I didn’t always have to force myself to confront such a difficult person, that sometimes the “easy enemy” is practice enough. As for the Enemy with a capital E, he said, “put them on the moon!” It took me a moment, but I think I understood what he meant. Make distance, give yourself space. Encourage so wide a perspective that you don’t see the details of betrayal and anger and all the rest, just the outline of a person, far away, who’s trying to get through life the same as you are. Slowly, you can bring them back toward the Earth, and slowly the negative emotions will be replaced by genuine compassion and loving-kindness, with time and practice.

And if you have set-backs, hey, there’s always Pluto.

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That Eureka Posture

I think it’s safe to say that right after I began meditating, the object of my concentration was neither the breath nor the cultivation of metta, but rather the pins and needles in my feet, the cramps in my legs, the ropey knot in my back, and the soreness in my buttocks. I tried many different postures – sitting on the mat, sitting further forward on the mat so that my knees touched the ground, sitting in a chair, straddling the cushion… they all seemed great at first, but within five minutes or so, the pins and needles, cramps, knots, and soreness began, then slowly got so bad that I was silently begging for the final bells.

Many of the books I was reading at the time had sections or entire chapters devoted to posture. At first I scanned them only because posture just didn’t seem important. I wanted to get on to the “real” stuff of meditation, and I couldn’t imagine that to be related to how one places one’s butt on a cushion. But soon enough I saw that my failure to take meditation posture seriously was going to be a huge hindrance to my practice. I went back to those books and read those sections carefully, but I still couldn’t quite understand what, exactly, I was doing wrong.

It wasn’t until my first retreat that I asked more experienced meditators for advice. We eventually decided that straddling was the best position for me, and then several of my sangha mates when to work erecting some strange contraption involving a folded yoga mat, two meditation cushions, a rolled up towel, some blankets, and some sort of foam block. The keys ingredients of my position on the contraption were:

  • knees on mat, foam, or something soft
  • proper height of cushions so that I was neither slumping nor teetering, so that…
  • …my sitz bone acted like a fulcrum, balancing the weight of my body above it
  • …and my ankles were lifted a bit off the ground so that my feet weren’t bent under too much weight

I was a bit skeptical, but we sat for an hour-long meditation, and at the end, I was thrilled to report that I felt no cramps, anywhere. When I got home from retreat I quickly reconstructed my meditation contraption.

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If you’re new to meditating, do not underestimate the importance of posture. And do not underestimate the advice of experienced meditators who can help you work your way through a few different options. Straddling the cushion is just one solution, and it worked for me, but it may not be the best solution for you. In our sangha we have people who straddle the cushion, people who sit cross-legged on it, and people who sit upright in chairs, with all sorts of minor variations. You’ll know when you’ve found your eureka posture, and then you can get back to the actual practice of meditation.

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Right Tweets, Right Posts, Right Comments

Speak only the speechThe concept of Right Speech comes up a lot in the Dharma. One of the Eightfold Path steps or spokes is dedicated to it, it’s one of the Five Precepts, and it’s a part of various suttas, for example the Subhasita Sutta of the Sutta Nipata. That makes perfect sense. Today, as in the Buddha’s time one imagines, most of us do more day-to-day harm with our speech than with any weapon. We lie, we insult, we belittle, we speak without thinking, we say things that bring others to anger or indignation.

Truthful speech is a major part of Right Speech, but for most of us telling the truth is not terribly difficult. It might be uncomfortable at times, but we don’t (usually) outright lie out of habit, and we don’t (usually) have to make a special effort to tell the truth.

It’s all those other kinds of Unskillful Speech that are the real challenges! Thoughtless speech, provocative speech, insulting speech, belittling speech, gossip… And it seems that there’s no easier place to engage in all of that unskillfulness than on the internet.

Go to the comments of just about any article of an online newspaper, and you’re likely to find an insane amount of vitriol being flung back and forth between anonymous strangers. The article can be about anything; some people seem bent on turning even the most innocuous topic into a chance to vent their anger, their prejudices, their political tribalism, their sense of religious supremacy, their hatred for anyone who thinks differently than they do.

It’s entirely possible that some of these comments are nothing more than sport. People are engaging in a virtual conversation, not with other people, but with strange screen names that aren’t attached to real human beings. And maybe everyone knows the rules of the game, so no pain or mental suffering is actually caused.

I don’t really buy that. I’m sure it’s true for some, but for those of us who don’t spend a lot of time in comments sections, reading some of that is just depressing. And it’s hard to imagine that none of the anger that one sees is genuine, that the cycle of insult and counter-insult doesn’t heap on more and more anger, hatred, and ill will.

I used to be guilty of this on Facebook. If I found a gem of a gotcha article or meme that insulted people of a different political leaning than my own, I was all too happy to share it. This obviously wasn’t anonymous. I was sharing these things with people I knew, real human beings I’d gone to school with, or worked with, or friended for whatever reason. I suppose I told myself that I was in the right, and by sharing these things, I was making a case for that ‘enlightened’ position.

But that’s just wrong. How often do snarky Facebook exchanges turn anyone’s political opinions? And, in the un-virtual world, if we set out to explain our thinking on an issue, how often would we start with an insult? And hey, maybe, just maybe, my opinion isn’t the best!

So the first manifestation of Right Speech that I recognized I needed to work on was Right Online Speech. I’ve never been one for leaving anonymous comments, but I admit that I enjoyed a bit of snark in my Facebook updates. I’ve made an effort to put an end to that, and I’ve vowed not to read comments on online articles. Mostly I’ve been successful, but Practice will make (at least something closer to) Perfect.

-Chris

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Change Your Mind by Paramananda

Change Your MindOne of the first books I read after coming to Triratna-NYC was Change Your Mind: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation, by Paramananda. It was a wonderful resource as I started to practice meditation, with a simple and friendly tone, and clear instructions and advice on everything from cushions and posture to tips on how to bring the benefits of a Buddhist practice into your daily life. I’ve since recommended Change Your Mind to family and friends as an excellent introduction, or as an approachable tool to get back in the habit of regular practice.

Change Your Mind starts with the basics, answering the question What is meditation? and then moves to the essentials in an inviting and personal way. The author gives a thorough explanation of the importance of posture and the different postures a meditator may use. This was particularly helpful to me, since invariably my back knotted up, or my foot fell asleep, or my leg began to ache about five minutes into any meditation I started.

The first meditation covered is a simple body meditation, which helps new meditators become acquainted with their own physical presence as they sit. It’s a very accessible approach that helps beginners learn to focus on the now. Then the author covers the two traditional meditations we do at Triratna, the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana, or the cultivation of Loving-Kindness, with clear explanations as well as led practices. The author also discusses the role of intention and balanced effort in meditation, and the link between mental, emotional, and physical states and meditation, and how all of that is connected to how we (can) lead our lives.

While Change Your Mind does not focus on Buddhist philosophy, even basic points such as the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, there is an introduction to the brahmavihāras, or the Four Immeasurables, the compassionate virtues that arise from practice of the Metta Bhavana. This is written in the same friendly, down-to-earth style as the rest of the book, inviting practitioners to experience for themselves the link between meditation and living in a healthier, more compassionate way.

Finally, anyone who’s meditated is doubtlessly familiar with the Five Hindrances, which are also covered, along with time-tested methods for dealing with them and always coming home to the object of concentration. These tools are key to sustaining a practice, especially when you’ve reached a plateau, which most people experience.

All in all, Change Your Mind is a wonderful book to read if you’re a beginner, or if you’ve been meditating for a while but want to go back to the basics for a fresh, friendly, creative, and inspirational point of view. It is neither dry and mechanical nor full of Pali and Sanskrit terms for unfamiliar Buddhist philosophical concepts. It goes right for the middle path, and makes it easy for the reader to follow along.

-Chris

 

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Head and Heart

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I found Triratna-NYC by googling something like ‘meditation classes nyc’ or ‘Buddhist meditation Manhattan’. I had at best a superficial understanding of Buddhism. I’d taken a class on Eastern religions in college, more than two decades earlier, so I was foggily familiar with very basic concepts like the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. I’d read a little on Buddhist philosophy, and that small taste appealed to me, although almost entirely on an academic level. I had the obligatory copy of the Dhammapada, not to mention a Buddha statue or two. I’d meditated, but honestly only understood meditation as a relaxation technique. The closest I ever came to a sangha – and to be clear I had no idea what a sangha was – was a Buddhist Explorer’s Group at a Unitarian Universalist church I belonged to.

So when I first found Triratna, I’d never practiced Buddhism in any real sense.

Practice wasn’t my goal at first. I didn’t even understand the concept well enough to have it as a goal. I just went because I wanted to meditate, and I didn’t think much beyond that. I enjoyed the Introductory Classes because classes appeal to me on that familiar head-level. I learned more about Buddhism, asked questions, took part in discussions, and quickly began to get a sense of how much more there was for me to learn.

At the same time, I was growing fonder and fonder of the people at Triratna, and of the experience of being together with them for a purpose that was increasingly about more than just the head. Slowly, as I made my way through the classes and moved into the regular sangha, Buddhist practice began to make space for itself in my life, and, at the risk of sounding sappy, in my heart. I began to meditate every day, and I caught glimpses of how it was changing me. I found myself looking for expressions of the Five Precepts in my behavior, I noticed that I was becoming more patient with myself and others, I started to think more carefully about what I was saying and how I was saying it. I was more present, more attentive, less distracted. I kept reading books on the dharma, but more and more, I was feeling Buddhism rather than just thinking about it.

At this point I know enough about Buddhism to know how much more there is to learn. And that’s nice; it means that there is a lot more food for thought ahead. But I’ve also had the pleasure at Triratna of being surprised by what happens when the head and heart are in it together. And that’s a comforting feeling.

Chris

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Sangha

Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 1.04.58 AM “Love where there is no reason to love”
― SangharakshitaMind: Reactive & Creative

“Through the eyes of a real friendship an individual is larger than their everyday actions, and through the eyes of another we receive a greater sense of a self we can aspire to, the one in whom they have most faith. Friendship is a moving frontier of understanding, not only of self and other, but of a possible future.
– David Whyte: Excerpt from Readers’ Circle Essay, “Friendship”

I’m always conscious of the need to keep my practice alive and connected to the endeavor to wake up, and it is the Sangha jewel that remains always the most relevant and potent in this journey.  That’s because the practice of Sangha, rather than the theory of Sangha, requires reaching beyond myself in so many ways.

Within the confines of my meditation practice and study, it can all become a bit self-centred, or to use a phrase of Bhante’s, it can become superficial.  I can study in order to be more knowledgeable; I can meditate to have strong experiences; I can even practice ethics to be looked upon as a good person.  But what this path is truly about is becoming more aware and more compassionate – and ultimately trying to undermine selfishness and harshness and gain more wisdom and equanimity.

When I’m engaged regularly in working on teams and supporting classes, I’m rubbing up against my limitations endlessly.  I love that.  It keeps it real and keeps my feet on the ground.  So whilst sometimes it seems that the biggest trials I meet on the spiritual path are the people around me; they are in fact my greatest teachers.  And if I’m honest I can feel sometimes I’d be better off without all the emotional messiness of my interaction with others.

Yet without communication with my friends in the Sangha, even ones that have been painful and challenging, there would be no path and no progress. The path is not distinct from the people in it, and it is the communication between us that keeps the teachings of Buddhism alive and fully embodied, both as the way of compassion and the way of Wisdom.

It is in the practice of creating and maintaining spiritual community that ego transcendence is most potently and directly approached. And of course we are going to be hindered and sometimes disappointed by the expectations we hold of ourselves and others.  Yet for Sangha to function and remain potent, it requires enough of us to take that leap into the unknown and risk what friendship can reveal.

To take that leap, we need to hold in our minds and hearts the twin realities of a spiritual community that is imperfect, inadequate, stumbling and struggling, alongside a spiritual community that is the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Ideal – a manifestation of the compassion of Avalokitesvara. These two realities are the same reality – one is trapped in time and the literal mindedness of self-centredness, and the other is free of the limitations of time and always creating itself anew in the free space of imagination.

As we move into a new year, let’s celebrate this precious jewel of Sangha.  Let us celebrate this, “moving frontier of understanding… of a possible future.”  To acknowledge the love that can be expressed through the generosity of giving and sharing with others; to work together to bring into existence the possibility of growth and of awakening.  Make a New Year’s resolution to, “love where there is no reason to love.”

Padmadharini

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Welcome to Our Blog

meditation-dayWe’ve been talking about a blog for a while now, and as Buddhists trying to live by the old saying “there’s no time like the present,” we figured we’d better get to it. So, welcome to our first blog post.

First a little bit about us. Triratna NYC is part of the worldwide Triratna Buddhist movement. We’re a growing sangha (a community of Buddhist practitioners) in New York City, with members from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, New Jersey, and all around the NY metropolitan area. We’re a pretty diverse bunch, something we like about ourselves. We’re women and men, old and young, straight and gay, black and white and brown and everything in between. Some of us are professionals, some are artists, some are students, some are retired. Some of us have been Buddhists for decades, and some have just found the dharma. We all support and learn from one another.

We meet for sangha nights on Tuesdays in Manhattan, but we also have practice days, retreats, sangha dinners, outings, study groups, and all sorts of other things. Look for events on our site, but if anything particularly interesting is coming up, we’ll let you know here.

With this blog we hope to share a bit about ourselves and our sangha – our personalities, our interests, our individual experiences with the dharma. We also want to share our experiences with a Buddhist lifestyle, so you’ll find tips on meditation and posture, book recommendations, Buddhist resources on and offline, vegetarian restaurant reviews and recipes, film recommendations, information on museum exhibits… anything that one of us finds interesting from our individual Buddhist perspective.

So, again, welcome, and we hope to see you online or in person if you’re in the area.

-Chris

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