Saturday, August 1, 2015

Meeting meanness with metta

I don't have to tell you that the world is a mean place. You know that -- you're on the Internet, which some days seems like nothing more than a place to share hatred and rage and stories of the awful way people treat other beings. It can feel overwhelming.
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What can you do when faced with a tide of aggression and ignorance?

Practice lovingkindness.

Lovingkindness -- often known by its Pali word, metta -- is a quality of friendliness, "a steady, unconditional sense of connection that touches all beings, without exception, including ourselves," according to Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist teacher who literally wrote the book on loving-kindness 20 years ago.

I love that her book calls lovingkindness "the revolutionary art of happiness." Kindness, it seems, is directed outward, toward others. We do kind things for other beings. And yet we reap the benefits.

In lovingkindness meditation, we make the aspiration that several categories of beings (ourselves, a mentor, a loved one, a neutral person, a difficult person, a group, and all beings) experience happiness, health, freedom, and ease. We don't necessarily take action, just make the aspiration.

But thought is precursor to action. As the Buddha said, "With our thoughts we make the world." So if we see the world as filled with hate and aggression that threatens us, we react defensively. If we aspire to keep people a safe distance away from us, we don't create the connections we innately crave and need to have in order to thrive.

If we practice sending out kind thoughts in meditation, we begin to send out kind thoughts outside of meditation.

Last month I was coming home from a meditation retreat in Colorado, and I met the nicest people all along my two-airplane, multihour trip -- from the shuttle bus driver who talked about the herds of rabbits that live along the airport access road in Albuquerque to the woman who commented on my giant cinnamon bun to the other people squeezed into the second-to-last row of the plane (who spread out once we realized no one had been condemned to sit in the last row).

Did I have extraordinary luck in the people I encountered that day? Nope. But I had spent a week cultivating kind intention, so I didn't take offense when a stranger remarked on unhealthy snack. I didn't write off the talkative man as a distracting loudmouth. I experienced it less defensively, as people looking to connect with other people in their own ways.

It's not always easy to maintain that view outside of retreat when you're actively working on that. But it is possible to make time to work on that. August is Metta Month at the Interdependence Project; there are many opportunities to practice together in real life and online.

Besides, metta meditation can be practiced steathily. On my way to retreat, I sat outside a Starbucks at Love Field in Dallas, silently wishing happiness and ease to the stressed-out passengers going by me. I don't expect it did anything for them, except put one less cranky person in their path, but it made my trip more pleasant. Try it.

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