Sunday, 24 February 2008

“We All Could Use Some Metta”

When I saw that my meditation center was having two upcoming workshops on metta, or the Buddhist practice of sending loving-kindness to oneself and others, I knew it was a class I should take. Practicing mindfulness steadily for six months had helped me to notice my constant judgment of others, especially people I did not know— passersby in the street. But I was unable to cure myself. I could not edit out the critiques in my head. I had something insulting to say about most women’s hairstyles and men’s clothing, but our small interactions also bothered me. “OK, don’t get so close to me,” I thought, or “Alright, tourists, we’re in the city now, so move it!” Of course, judging goes both ways, I also judged people in complimentary ways, noting nice outfits or an attractive man. But ridding oneself of all critique is the goal in Buddhism, and I had a long way to go.

Two workshops were offered, one for sending loving-kindness to oneself, and one for sending it to others. I thought about just attending the second one, but decided to start at the beginning, having never done metta meditation before. These workshops might be just the thing to help me confront my judgmental nature. Wouldn’t it be nicer to simply spread warmth to passersby, rather than critique?

When the day arrived to attend the workshop, I was glad that my husband, William, had agreed to come. He has much less trouble judging others than myself, but I wanted the company. We arrived at the meditation center twenty minutes before the workshop began, but already there were thirty people sitting on cushions, silently waiting to begin. William and I, hungry as usual, interrupted their silence with a debate over when we thought lunch would be. We also debated over where to put our lunch. “I put it downstairs, by our coats, no one will take it,” William said. “These are meditation people!”

When the teacher arrived, we quickly learned some metta meditation phrases, and were instructed to repeat these in a concentrated way for a forty-minute sit. We repeated the newly learned phrases in our minds.

May I live in safety
May I have physical happiness
May I have mental happiness
May I be fully at ease

It was actually difficult to remember these phrases in order with a sleepy mind at 10AM on a Saturday morning, after a long walk to the meditation center. After this forty-minute session of sending metta to myself, and a twenty-minute walking meditation repeating the same phrases, I was ready and eager to start sending this loving kindness to others. It was pleasant to send metta to myself but already I had begun to judge the people sitting next to me. “Does he have to sigh every minute in order to maintain concentration?” “I know this is a meditation retreat, but is it appropriate to wear pajamas?” were some of the comments that slipped into my mind while I was trying to wish myself safety and serenity.

After this lapse in concentration, I noticed how I had begun to change the phrases. My metta thoughts became variations of:

May I live in danger
May I have physical suffering
May I have mental suffering
May I be ill at ease

I began to wonder; maybe I secretly felt that I didn’t deserve these joyful thoughts? Is that why I changed the word ‘happiness’ for ‘suffering?’ I just shook off these thoughts, and laughed a little, because the mind changes words when repeating them over and over again. In fact, that was the only difficult thing about it, remembering the phrases, and trying to say them correctly. I had no adverse feelings to actually repeating them to myself and had no idea anyone else would, until we approached the participant introductions section of the workshop.

The teacher asked each of us to say our name and tell a little about why we decided to come. The participants on cushions near the front went into detail about their self-hatred and feelings of unworthiness. They said that sending metta to themselves was very difficult because they felt they didn’t deserve it and felt guilty for taking this time to help themselves instead of others.

Having lived in American society all my life, and realizing how the media and celebrities make many feel inferior, I suppose I shouldn’t have been so shocked by these casual confessions of inner self-hatred. I’ve had my share of friends with low self-esteem and tried to bolster them with compliments and praise. But I had not realized that these issues were so strong in some people.
I figured, of course, women traditionally have problems of guilt and self-sacrifice, having to be the nurturer in almost all social dynamics. But in this workshop men also confessed that no one loves them and they needed to start loving themselves. In fact, I was most shocked by the ease with which my fellow workshop participants spoke about their feelings of unworthiness, as if such confessions were as common as saying, “Hi, how are you?”

The teacher nodded her head with concern and understanding. Obviously, she had heard this before. When it was my turn, I simply stated that I came in order to control my criticism of others. I expected some type of reaction to my reason, but the teacher and others just nodded, and we moved along to William. Always the unexpected comedian at our meditation center, his remark, “I came because I could use some metta,” produced a full belly laugh from most of the participants. The teacher responded laughingly “Yes, I think we all could.”

After the introductions, the teacher spoke about metta’s use in American society. She emphasized that we need help sending metta to ourselves. But she also told us a little about how metta meditation came to the US. A renowned Burmese master named U Pandita had taught metta to some of the American meditation teachers, most notably, Sharon Salzberg. Salzberg then taught metta workshops all over the country, and some of her students became teachers of it themselves. After this brief history, I wondered, if sending metta to oneself is so desperately needed in America, was it also needed in ancient Asia, during the Buddha’s time? Did Asian people feel guilty, or unworthy of sending themselves loving-kindness? Did this practice only become prevalent in America, where metta meditation is a combat to our collective low self-esteem? I went home after this first workshop with these questions in mind, and did some research on the ancient Buddhist texts and contemporary literature on the topic.

Looking through two Buddhist sutras, and two commentarial works on the subject of loving-kindness, I found no reference to the idea that sending metta to oneself should be difficult. One is supposed to start with what is easiest, meditating on oneself, then move on to a loved one, and then the more challenging neutral person and difficult person. The whole point of starting in this way is to build up enough metta to be able to send it to one’s enemy. The sutras explained why the metta meditation is laid out in this order in the same way the metta meditation teacher had. But she added that sometimes it is ourselves who can be the enemy or difficult person, and we should start out with the loved one in order to build up our personal metta. This seems to be a skillful adaptation of the sutras for our guilt-ridden society.

When I went back for the second workshop on sending loving-kindness to others, I had more compassion and less judgment for my fellow participants. How could I judge people who have trouble wishing themselves loving-kindness? This experience, aside from the practice of meditating with the actual phrases, has helped me to see our frailty, and how we all need compassion. Of course I have not stopped judging altogether after this one experience, but I have tried to be more compassionate. It is sad that American society has many who hold such self-hatred, but at least they admit it and are doing something about it. This experience shows how the meditation techniques of Buddhism are being used for self-improvement, to stop judging oneself and others. This may be only part of the message of this tradition, but for some people, this is a necessary beginning.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Activity in Buddhism

[x-posted at And Now For Something Completely Different]

Whitney Joiner over at wrote an interesting appraisal of the Dharma Punx phenomenon, which she playfully titled "Dive-bar Dharma." Specifically she considers how this new phenomenon within American Buddhism relates to the more original phenomenon of American Buddhism itself (i.e. Buddhism that rushed into America after WWII and proliferated with the then counter-culture). In the end she comes out with what, I think, is the typical utilitarian/skillful-means defense of the movement. Rather than strive for appeal through the quasi-authority of Eastern exoticism---which may or may not fairly describe the original appeal for '50s and '60s counter-culture-warriors like Allen Ginsberg, who like many other disaffected youth of his time was already enamored with quasi-mystic figures of the Romantic movement like William Blake and the less mystical but no less romantic Walt Whitman, not to mention being steeped in the Jewish and Christian mystic traditions---Joiner thinks Levine and a fellow dharma punk, Ethan Nichtern, are on the right track with their edgy new approach to spreading/practicing the dharma. What I think is missing from this sort of account is the flip-side of even this movement. I'll digress for a moment in an excerpt from the lengthy comment I left, which I think says my point about as well as I care to right now.
The key to understanding how active Buddhist practice is already (before getting hipsterfied or whatever) is in understanding how active our minds are already.

We are typically dominated by a more or less mild froth of mental activity, both in the moment but largely also out of it. That is to say, when we pull out the drawer to get a spoon for eating our freshly poured bowl of cereal, our minds are probably engaged in that activity, but more likely than not a bunch of other stuff too---whatever we were doing before we made our bowl of cereal, whatever we anticipate doing afterwards and associations and thoughts of other sorts. What happens is we are constantly pulled out of the moment and to the extent that we are in the moment, the weight of the rest of our mental activity can make things that are not in this moment feel very present. Isn't it common to be in a bad-mood and to take what someone said or did, or some otherwise inadvertent circumstance, as we put it "the wrong way," only to realize later that "I was just in a bad-mood" and feel crumby about it?

Tarrying with this mental activity, which takes us out of the moment when we don't even normally realize it until after the fact, is the core of Buddhist practice. Stilling the mind is not simply turning our inessential mental activity off, because we can't turn our thoughts off like that. Luckily for us, what comes goes, and the same is true for our thoughts. So, the trick of Buddhist practice, at least when we're talking about meditation, is staying with these thoughts long enough to notice that they are there, but not so that we become unaware of everything else that is going on around us. This is, on the one hand, profoundly difficult, more difficult than anything else someone can try and do, because it is asking that we stay in full contact with every nook and cranny of our mental activity so we don't lose track of it. On the other hand, it turns out to be profoundly simple too, since after establishing our mindfulness, the mental activity goes away by itself. We're just there to watch, engaged enough to know what's going on, but not so much that we're really worried about what's going to come of it, since we already know: when this arises, that arises; when this ceases, that ceases.

In this way, Buddhism is already profoundly active from the get go. I'm very much on board with what one of the commenters said about the ease of this practice perhaps unskillfully being put before its simultaneous [depth and] difficulty. As much [as] overly esoteric practices and teachings are unskillful (not in themselves, but because they are brought [up in] an inappropriate context), I think that overly exoteric practices and teachings are probably just as unskillful. The idea that "you aren't doing anything" isn't wrong, as I already pointed out, but it's incomplete, and it is incompleteness of a view or a practice that makes it unskillful. What we do on the meditation cushion, or however you meditate is, first of all, tremendous work, but it isn't to be just something we do on the meditation cushion. The goal is bring this practice we have in meditation into every moment of our lives. If that doesn't sound like positively the most difficult thing anyone has ever suggested to you, then I don't know what will. Nonetheless, somewhat in defense of the article, it doesn't matter what's going on the outside so long as the same practice is happening on the inside, whether you say "Peace, man" or "Oi!"

That's pretty much all I have to say, but I should still add a bit more. What is at stake for Buddhists brought up in Generation X and now Generation Y is still very much what was at stake for the first mentionable generation of American Buddhists in the last century: suffering and its cessation. The way I see it, people have come to the dhamma because they are ready to begin taking up the path to the cessation of (their) suffering and dissatisfaction with life. If they aren't, then allure of the exotic (whether its from China, the hippie commune, or the tattoo-parlor) wears off, as everything does, and they get on with their lives---still unsatisfied.

The point I fear is missed by many in the Dharma Punx movement and those surrounding it is that we practice the dharma for its own sake---not because it's cool or fun or whacky or edgy or however you want to describe the vehicle. I think this marks one of the difficulties for the development of a truly Western (or American) Buddhism, because we have a deep cultural penchant for commodities (i.e. things whose first and practically only purpose is to be consumable by as many people as possible, which is to say, things that are all exterior), which translates into approaching something like the dhamma asking "so what is it good for?" The only meaningful answer I can think of is: everything, and nothing less.

This reminds me of a story I've heard from somewhere about the Buddha and a farmer. The farmer comes to the Buddha, who he heard has this great teaching, and asks him if it can help him with this or that mundane problem of his life (nagging wife, unruly kids, failing crops, etc.). The Buddha says his teaching cannot help with any of those problems. He tells him that life is full of all kinds of problems, 83 to be exact, and the Buddha's teaching will help him with none of them. The farmer, kind of ticked off, asks the Buddha just what good his teachings are then, if they in no way answer to any of these issues in his (or anyone else's) life. The Buddha points out that his teachings are good and only good for one still yet unmentioned problem, an 84th problem enveloping all the other 83 problems: the farmer wants to have no more problems.

In a similar way, Buddhism's task is not to remain popular (i.e. prolific in a social context insofar as that context stays the same), like when the farmer asks if it can fix this or that problem (i.e. a fix for a problem only when it's a problem), but to remain effective. By effective I don't mean in the sense that there is any particular, conventional issue it addresses, but because it remains true to its only purpose: the cessation of suffering.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Comparing China to Nazi Germany

This weekend it was reported (AP) that British Athletes would have to sign an extra clause to their contracts, "prohibiting politically sensitive remarks or gestures during the Beijing Games." In a statement to reporters, British Olympic Association communications director Graham Mewson said Sunday that "The reality is, given the level of political scrutiny of the world's media on these games and the way China will handle them, the BOA felt it was sensible and proper to flag that rule to our athletes." The order is not a complete gag on athletes, however. If they are asked questions about the situation in China, they are free to give their views. However, voluntary/unsolicited statements (such as wearing a FREE TIBET t-shirt) are not allowed.

The British paper, the Daily Mail, has noted that the ban "raises the spectre of the order given to the England football team to give a Nazi salute in Berlin in 1938." (sic, the Berlin Olympics were in 1936)
Photo caption: "National disgrace: In a picture from a German archive never before
published in Britain, the England football team give Nazi salutes in Berlin in 1938 (sic)"

Meanwhile, England's Prince Charles has already stated that he will not be going to China, even if invited.
However, after "a storm of protest from human rights groups" (in just one day) the British Olympic Association has backed down on the proposed ban, and is rethinking its rules for British athletes.

In the next few months more countries will struggle between maintaining the basic freedoms of their athletes and appeasing the Chinese government. With luck, the commotion will heighten awareness of the underlying and very serious human rights issues in China, especially regarding Tibet.

The Olympics has long been a venue for raising otherwise ignored social and political issues. Several over the years have been boycotted. Obviously the sports can serve the noble purpose of bridging gaps between peoples, but this cannot be at the cost of basic rights and freedoms, especially the freedom to point out the suffering so near, and yet pushed so far from our attention.