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Metta

At the opening of a class at Hot Yoga Charlottesville not long ago, my teacher, Julia von Briesen read this by Roshi Joan Halifax:

All too often our so-called strength comes from fear not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet – strong back and soft front – is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply.

Right away, I recognized the false “strength” of a brittle, defended heart that strikes out in an unskillful attempt to protect.
I do this a lot in traffic.
And while reading the news.
And otherwise being a scared judgy-pants.

Since hearing this quote (and subsequently printing it out and reading it daily), this has been my practice: (1) when I find myself snapping out at someone
(as in “what do you think you’re doing, pulling out in front of me in your enormous SUV with a bumper sticker I don’t like?”
or as in “what kind of heartless, thoughtless, short-sighted politician are you?”
or any other snarky, angryness that pops out of me),
(2) I pause and say a little metta (or loving kindness) for myself
(as in “may I be safe, may I be loved, may I know peace”)
and
(3) I say a little metta / loving kindness for the person I just snarked on
(as in “may you feel safe, may you feel loved, may you know peace”)

When I do this, I feel a little taste of the choiceless compassion that Roshi Joan Halifax tells of. It’s not much, I grant you. But it’s a start.

What can you do today that will strengthen your spine, your core, and soften your heart?

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In February, meditation teacher and author, Sharon Salzberg sponsors a 28-Day Meditation Challenge. Everybody is invited to commit to meditating every day for the month and join the mindfulness community. As part of the challenge, I’ll be blogging throughout the month (along with other meditator/bloggers) about the experience. You can find the posts on Sharon’s site and I’ll share mine on Focus Pocus.

28-Day Meditation Challenge ~ Day 26
Thursday, February 26, 2015

28 Day Challenge aspen leaf pub dom

I’m sure there is some evolutionary reason that we make ourselves different from other people. I’m sure in our hunter-gatherer days, it increased our survival rate to “other” the people at the next fire circle ~ to say they are different than I am and in some way not as good.

One way metta (loving kindness) helps me is to remind me that everybody, every single person and being, at an essential level is just like me. Everybody wants to be happy ~ just like me. Everybody wants to avoid suffering ~ just like me. Everybody is doing their best ~ just like me.

Even if they cause me inconvenience ~ they are just like me.
Even if they drive a car that I don’t approve of ~ they are just like me.
Even if they don’t do what I think they should do ~ they are just like me.
Even if they believe in things I don’t believe in ~ they are just like me.
Even if they break the law and cause harm ~ they are just like me.

Especially when I feel myself bristle with irritation or indignation or anger, it helps me to silently note that this irritating, infuriating person is just like me. It doesn’t mean I approve of them or forgive them or even like them. But reminding myself that they are “just like me” preserves their humanity and mine.

In February, meditation teacher and author, Sharon Salzberg sponsors a 28-Day Meditation Challenge. Everybody is invited to commit to meditating every day for the month and join the mindfulness community. As part of the challenge, I’ll be blogging throughout the month (along with other meditator/bloggers) about the experience. You can find the posts on Sharon’s site and I’ll share mine on Focus Pocus.

28-Day Meditation Challenge ~ Day 24
Tuesday, February 24, 2015

28 Day Challenge aspen leaf pub dom

Metta (Loving kindness) meditation is an offering of good wishes to a variety of categories of people: benefactors, teachers, friends, people who are struggling, difficult people, and neutral people. Neutral people are those we don’t know or don’t know well, who we may see or interact with glancingly in the course of our day.

Pema Chödrön calls them (dramatic pause, cue organ music) “The Neutrals.” She says it with a funny, ominous voice, like The Neutrals are aliens or some unusual species. On the contrary, even for those with wide circles of connection, The Neutrals are just about everybody in the world.

When I’m consumed with my To Do list, and my vision is narrowed to my tiny personal perspective, I paste The Neutrals into the collage of my days hastily with a sloppy slather of glue. I see the people at my periphery only as their function or their appearance or their bumper sticker.

Practicing metta opens my vision and reminds me that every single one of these people has a story, a rich life full of happiness and hardship, struggle and pleasure, delight and difficulty.

Errands are awesome for connecting with The Neutrals. Today, the woman at Staples with tired eyes and her hair in a crazy bun, the smiling lady at the dry cleaner who liked my pants, the bank teller who called me “hon”, and the bored-looking young man at CVS, all took on a three-dimensional quality as I thought, “May you be happy.” My eyes and heart softened around them all.

Metta stretches my heart. It opens me to my own humanness, to my connection to those that I love, reminds me that even the most difficult people just want to be happy and free. But one of the most profound effects of metta is that The Neutrals, the hundreds and hundreds of people I cross paths with, become more real and more whole to me.

May you be happy.

In February, meditation teacher and author, Sharon Salzberg sponsors a 28-Day Meditation Challenge. Everybody is invited to commit to meditating every day for the month and join the mindfulness community. As part of the challenge, I’ll be blogging throughout the month (along with other meditator/bloggers) about the experience. You can find the posts on Sharon’s site and I’ll share mine on Focus Pocus.

28-Day Meditation Challenge ~ Day 22
Sunday, February 22, 2015

28 Day Challenge aspen leaf with snow pub dom

All week, it has been crazy cold in Charlottesville. We rarely get temperatures in the teens here but for many days last week it was in the single digits. Yesterday, it snowed stunningly and steadily all day long. The predicted few inches stacked up to nearly a foot. As it got dark last night, the thick white blanket was frosted over with a coating of freezing rain and sleet.

This morning I ventured out to see the state of things and to determine whether the noon yoga class was in the realm of possibility. All around me, everything was melting. I could see it dripping off the trees and the eves of the house. I could hear it falling through the magnolia tree and trickling down the driveway. Everywhere, everything was melting.

Melting is the sensation of metta. Lovingkindness meditation melts the frozen places in me that want everyone to think, act, and live like I do. Metta softens the hard, irritated parts of me that push away others’ messy habits and feelings. It melts my tendency to see strangers in two-dimensions and reminds me that everybody – everybody — just wants to be happy and free from suffering. Metta chips away at the crystallized part of me that sees some people as good and others as bad. It thaws the crunchy delusion that we are separate and disconnected from each other.

But most of all, metta softens my own heart toward myself. Metta warms the icy places of harshness and self-criticism. Lovingkindness reminds me of my own humanness and that I, too, am worthy of care and compassion.

Metta melts.

halloween 2013Deepening our attention to our own experience. It seems like it would be selfish and self-absorbed to do that. But instead I find that when I connect to what is actually happening for me, I am reminded of the realness of others. How we all just want to be happy. How we are all struggling with something.

Metta meditation is one I often use when I feel disconnected from myself and others. (Metta roughly translates to lovingkindness or friendliness in Pali.) It’s also a helpful way to open my heart to everybody. Metta begins with simple statements of well-wishing to myself that expand in ever-widening circles to others. Phrases such as:
May I be safe & well.
May I be happy & content.
May I be healthy & strong.
May I be peaceful & at ease.

Can then be extended to teachers, friends, family, neighbors, neutral people, people we are in conflict with, people in our country, those in other countries, (any categories you like, actually) and ultimately to all beings everywhere.

Below is the music from classes this week. Many people asked me about Mary Gauthier’s Mercy Now. It’s a beautiful song that really reminds us that we’re all up to our necks in it and need some kindness and care.

May you be safe and well and happy on this Halloween.
Dance on. Shine on.
Susan

sjm halloween 2013

PS Here’s me in my Halloween costume (I think it’s my 7th Annual Word-Play Costume). If you can guess what I am, put it in the comments below.

Monday, October 28, 2013, 1045am – Practice on Your Own Mat…And Practice With Other Mats Around

Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes – 5:48 – Paul Simon
Living In The Moment – 3:55 – Jason Mraz
The Obvious Child – 4:10 – Paul Simon
Drifting Away (Paradiso Mix) – 5:07 – Faithless
I Know What I Know – 3:13 – Paul Simon
Drop – 4:56 – Cornelius
Fill Her Up – 5:39 – Sting
So Beautiful Or So What – 4:09 – Paul Simon
Sorrento Moon (I Remember) – 4:54 – Tina Arena
Sacred Love – 6:03 – Sting
Spirit Voices – 3:56 – Paul Simon
Under African Skies – 3:37 – Paul Simon
Mercy Now – 5:51 – Mary Gauthier

Tuesday, October 29, 2013, 9am – Practice on Your Own Mat…And Practice With Other Mats Around

Aquarius – 4:48 – Hair, the Musical / Renn Woods
What I Got – 3:21 – Gift Of Gab, Michael Franti & Spearhead
Quero Saber (fest. Orieta Pines) – 6:29 – Rodney Hunter
No Quiero Nada Mas – 4:46 – Sancti Spiritus
Qalanderi – 6:55 – Cheb I Sabbah
A Little Bit Of Riddim (Featuring Cherine Anderson) – 4:19 – Michael Franti
Oye Como Va (Latin/Trance Mix) – 4:17 – Celia Cruz
Deeper (Into Places) (Silk Spinner Mix) – 6:23 – Afterlife
Just Say Yes – 4:41 – Snow Patrol
Sacred Love – 6:03 – Sting
Mercy Now – 5:51 – Mary Gauthier
Bruno Groening Track 4 – 2:21 – Bruno Groening & Friends

Wednesday, October 30, 2013, 1055am – Practice on Your Own Mat…And Practice With Other Mats Around

Qurna – 7:09 – Banco de Gaia
Mulatica Mia (Cuba Remix) – 5:32 – The Tao Of Groove
Palais Mascotte – 5:47 – Patrick Duvoisin
No Quiero Nada Mas – 4:46 – Sancti Spiritus
Keep On Searching – 5:08 Kraak & Smaak
Mafich Aravi – 8:03 Banco de Gaia
Ooh La La – 3:24 – Goldfrapp
Cantaloop – 4:38 – US3
Kissing (Instrumental) – 6:14 – Bliss
Lux Aurumque – 4:16 – Eric Whitacre Singers

Thursday, October 31, 2013, 9am – Practice on Your Own Mat…And Practice With Other Mats Around

Spirits In The Material World – 4:09 – Pato Banton Feat. Sting
Witchy Woman – 4:11- Laurie Horn
Superstition – 4:26 – Stevie Wonder
Deja Voodoo – 6:10 – Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Werewolves of London – 3:29 – Warren Zevon
Twilight Zone – 7:52 – Golden Earring
Zombie Jamboree – 3:33 – GrooveBarbers
Diavolo In Me (Devil In Me) – 4:05 – Zucchero & Solomon Burke
Mysterious Ways – 4:04 – U2
Ghosts in My Machine – 3:33 – Annie Lennox
Men In Black – 3:47 – Will Smith
I Put A Spell On You – 3:08 – Queen Latifah
I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You – 4:09 – Linda Ronstadt/Nelson Riddle & His Orchestra

Happy New Year!!

Did you know that in the 13 Moon Natural Time Calendar, a new year started this week?

Up until a few years ago, I didn’t either.

When I did my first Nia training in 2000, I learned about the Natural Time calendar and while I’m no expert on its intricacies, I do enjoy following its patterns of symmetry and uniqueness.  At its core, it’s pretty simple:  rather than the 12 uneven months of the Gregorian calendar, the Natural Time Calendar follows the moon cycles.  As the Law of Time Web site describes in its tutorial:

13 Moons x 28 days = 364 days = 52 seven-day weeks. The 365th day of the year is called the Day Out of Time, a day to celebrate peace through culture, time is art and practice universal forgiveness so that everyone can start the next year fresh!

Wednesday, July 25 was this 365th day:  the Day Out of Time.  This is a unique day that is separate from the perfect order of 13 moons with 28 days each.  The Day Out of Time is a pause between the old year and the new, and it’s used to celebrate and reflect.  Natural Time folks around the world celebrate “peace through culture” on this day, but I prefer to focus on forgiveness and releasing resentments for the Day Out of Time.

On Wednesday, I was thinking about the Day Out of Time and I wondered, “Who or what do I need to forgive today?”  No big grudge or transgression that I needed to let go of came to mind.  As is my radical sabbatical practice, I did an early-morning loving kindness, or metta, meditation – offering good wishes for safety and health and well-being to people in my life.  As I went through name after name, offering my good wishes, I noticed when I came to a couple of people that I had a little tightening or holding.  Not a great wrenching, just a little tightening.  I was somewhat surprised since some of those people I tightened up about are near and dear to me and I love them very much.

So what’s up with that?

I remembered a post from Rick Hanson about forgiveness, so I went back to it.  What he wrote was helpful.  He said,

 forgiveness can seem lofty, like it only applies to big things, like crimes or adultery. But most forgiving is for the small bruises of daily life, when others let you down, thwart or hassle you, or just rub you the wrong way.

And I realized that this was exactly what I was feeling.  No major wrongdoing, just little nigglings of resentment.

For me, it’s easy to either ignore or devalue these little upsets.  It might be a sense that a friend is too busy for you, or that your teenager isn’t being responsible in the way you think she should.  Maybe you find your partner’s habit of leaving the dishes in the sink an annoyance, or you feel resentment that you haven’t gotten any decent sleep since the new baby arrived.  We may have different things that give us the sense of being slighted or bruised.  I often find these little splinters of feelings come up with those who I’m closest to, and since I love them and care deeply for them, often I don’t give myself the chance to really feel  and acknowledge them.  Some part of me says, “You shouldn’t feel that way about your friend/partner/child/baby,” and I nudge the feeling aside.  It’s still there, like a tiny splinter of glass in my foot that hurts when I step a certain way.  That splinter has me walking off-balance until I take the time to find it and take it out.  Dr. Hanson reminds me that forgiveness can be for the little things, and the Day Out of Time is an opportunity to notice the feelings of resentment or hurt and let them go.

Importantly, forgiveness doesn’t mean either approval of offending behavior or letting someone have a free pass for what has happened.  As Dr. Hanson writes, “Finding forgiveness can walk hand in hand with pursuing justice.”  And forgiveness doesn’t mean that I don’t need to address the situation that is causing the hurt or resentment.  If someone keeps leaving her peanut butter sandwich remnants on the coffee table, that someone needs a reminder about what to do with leftovers and dirty dishes.  Forgiveness, in my experience, isn’t about avoiding the conversation or setting the boundary or even taking legal action.  Forgiveness allows me to do those things more skillfully and with compassion for everyone involved. Forgiveness allows me to release the pinch of bitterness.  Forgiveness is about letting go and being ready to either take the next steps or to start again.

Dr. Hanson goes on to point out that paradoxically, when I forgive someone, it’s me that gets the benefit.  He offers, “Consider two situations: in one, someone has a grudge against you but then forgives you; in the other situation, you have a grudge against someone but then let it go. Which situation takes more of a weight off of your heart? Generally it’s the second one, since you take your own heart wherever you go.”  Sitting on my cushion on Wednesday morning, that’s exactly what I felt:  a loosening of my heart as I recognized the hurt and chose to let it go.

It may seem like a small thing:  to notice an injury and let it go without speaking a word to anyone.  A small act and one that frees up a lot of energy.  For me, it is a great way to clear my heart and mind for a new year.  So whether you’ve ever heard of the Natural Time Calendar or not, whether you even knew we were starting a new year or not, the invitation is the same:  take some time this week to notice any pinching feelings you have about anyone in your life (or even on the news) – be it your family, friends or the cashier at the grocery store.  See if you can take your own Day Out of Time to let the resentment go, and make choices from there about how to move forward skillfully.

Happy New Year, everybody.  In Lak’ech!*

 

* In Lak’ech is a Mayan greeting that means “I am another you” or “I am you, you are me.”

 

 

This weekend is a big celebration of love in my family:  my cousin is getting married on my sister’s birthday which is two days before my mother’s birthday (which was also my maternal grandmother’s birthday) which is four days before my father’s birthday!  We’re all gathering in New York for the first time in a long time to be together and celebrate all the people we are so lucky to have in our lives.

On my Radical Sabbatical, I’ve been reading and exploring a variety of lines of inquiry.  Last week, I came across two quotes about love:

“Neurons are not very efficient at getting across information. They are slow – they work a million-times slower than electricity runs in copper wires, they leak signals to their neighbors, and they are probabilistic rather than deterministic. They only do their job some of the time. … This is absolutely central to our humanity. It is absolutely central. It is the reason we have love. The reason we have love is because neurons suck as electrical processors….”

— David Linden, PhD

“Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit word that means ‘noble or awakened heart.’  Just as butter is inherent in milk and oil is inherent in a sesame seed, the soft spot of bodhichitta is inherent in you and me.  It is equated, in part, with our ability to love.”

— Pema Chödrön

A neuropsychologist and a Buddhist nun, remind us that love is built-into us:  it is who we are.  Dr. Linden and Pema Chödrön are both brilliant and it would seem that they are coming at the question of love from hugely different perspectives.  And yet they end with the same conclusion:  love is our essence.

I just love this:  we are love.  It’s literally in our cells.  I wake up in the morning, feel the cool spring air, hear the birds (those melodious chickens!) and see my beloved beside me and I can feel it.  I am love.

Until I stub my toe on the way to the bathroom.  And I can’t find my hair brush.  And I trip on the sneakers that were left in the living room.  And the cat knocks over her water dish.  And I think about that uncomfortable conversation last night.

Love may well be my essence and everything, but it feels like I’ve got a good bit of irritation, anger, worry and fear in there, too.  If I’m love at my core, why is it that these other feelings are so quick to flood the premises?

Part of what I’m experimenting with on my sabbatical is really paying attention to what is going on in my internal landscape.  I’m meditating more regularly.  I’ve been choosing to slow down my decision-making process so I can feel what I need or want in the moment.  Whether I’m picking the kind of movement I want to do, who I’m spending my time with, or what I’m eating for lunch, I’m doing my best to pay attention to what’s going on in the moment.

And darn barn, people, I’m amazed at how often I’m annoyed or worried or anxious or hoppin’ mad.  Even if it’s low grade, background noise, there it is:  that nagging tug at my sleeve.  Will I have enough time?  Would she stop talking to me with that tone?  Will he be angry?  Why doesn’t she pay more attention and be more thoughtful?  Can I do this?

All these clouds in my internal landscape.  All these dust bunnies in the corners of my mind.  And in the corners of my heart.  Because when she talks to me in that tone, for example, I tend to focus on how I want her to be different.  When I am focused on her being different, I am disconnected from feeling love as my essence. Which feels crappy.

Metta meditation is a simple practice that serves not just as a reminder of my love-essence, but actually as a way of retraining my nervous system to be more at ease even when I trip on those sneakers.  Here is where neuroscience and mindfulness intertwine:  where we might see that Dr. Linden and Pema Chödrön’s approaches aren’t so far apart.

“Metta” in Pali is roughly translated to “loving kindness” or “friendliness.”  Metta meditation is the practice of repeating four phrases of care and good will, first to the self, then to others.  Traditionally, these phrases offer wishes for safety, happiness, health and peace and meditators are encouraged to choose phrases that work well for them.  The phrases that I use are:

May I be safe and well.

May I be happy and content.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

Metta always begins with the self since if we are rattled or upset, we are unable to offer care to others.  From there, the metta is offered to various categories of people, including benefactors (teachers or anyone who has helped us), friends and family, neutral people, and those with whom we have challenges or difficulties.

My experience is that even when I’m feeling strong emotions – resentment, anger, fear – practicing metta meditation (even if it’s while I’m driving or sitting at my desk and not in a more formal sitting session) calms me and brings me back to my center.  It softens me and makes me more easeful with myself and others.

Dr. Linden’s contention that human beings have love because neurons suck as electrical processors, frankly, cracks me up.  The idea is that because neurons are inefficient, it takes a long time to grow the nervous system of a self-sufficient human.  Humans have, by far, the longest dependent childhood of any animal on the planet (in any other species, a five-year-old offspring that isn’t independent is unheard of).  Given the long haul of human parenting, the human nervous system needed to cultivate a strong sense of love and care in order to raise a child to adulthood.

The neuroscientist tells us that we are hard-wired for love.  And the Buddhist nun tells us that love is in us like butter in milk.  Both the research of the scientist and the traditional practices of the nun argue that the connections we make more often, will color our moment-to-moment experience.  So if I chew and stew on that which is irritating me, I will strengthen those pathways in my brain.  The next time I trip on somebody’s sneakers, I will go quickly to anger and irritation.  If, on the other hand, I focus on offering myself and others loving kindness on a regular basis, especially when I’m feeling upset, the next time the sneakers and I collide, I will be more inclined toward patience and ease.  Just like anything, what I practice creates my experience.  Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” I would say, that not just excellence but ease or happiness or love is not an act but a habit.

On a weekend full of celebrations with loved ones, it can be easier to remember that love is at our core.  In the energy of excitement of a wedding, we can see that love is really all we are.  And after a few hours in high heels, I could imagine myself going down the road toward cranky.  The work of Dr. Linden and Pema Chödrön reminds me to come back to that which is my essence:  the loving-kindness that I am.  When I do that, I can kick off my heels and dance.

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