Archive for spirituality

The Practice of Lovingkindness Meditation

In 2011, I had the good fortune to attend the Spiritual Directors International’s (SDI) Conference in Atlanta, GA.  Without really knowing many of the presenters, I chose to sign up for a three-hour session on what I thought was compassion.  Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who I had experienced briefly at an Academy for Spiritual Formation conference, was the teacher.  The presentation was an eye opener for me to a whole other way of practicing meditation and prayer. 

Rabbi Shapiro presented from his book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice.  One of the practices he taught us was called Metta or Lovingkindness Meditation.  Metta is a Pali word, which can be translated as love. The best translation of this type of love in Christian terminology is agape. It is a love that is unconditional: open and unobstructed.  According to Sharon Salzberg, who is the cofounder of Insight Meditation Society,

Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world.  Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves.  We can open to everything with the healing forces of love.

Metta has two root meanings; gentle and friend.  It is likened to a gentle rain that, without choosing or selecting, falls indiscriminately.  This reminds me of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).  The practice of metta begins with us gently befriending ourselves.  This is sometimes even harder for us then praying for our enemies.  We are more likely to judge ourselves harshly and not spend much time in self-compassion. With the metta practice, we can uncover the possibility of truly respecting and loving ourselves as part of the human race. 

There are various phrases that meditation teachers use for this practice but the overall flow of the practice is the same.  One begins by taking a comfortable posture, either sitting in a chair, on the floor or lying down.  In metta, we always start by saying the phrases for ourselves.  We focus on our breath and imagine our heart being open and welcoming.  We then say some phrases that are a variation on the following traditional phrases (some alternatives are in the parentheses):

  • May I be free from danger (May I have safety, May I be free from fear)
  • May I have mental happiness (May I be peaceful, May I be liberated)
  • May I have physical happiness (May I be healed, May I be healthy)
  • May I have ease of well-being (May I dwell in peace, May I live with ease)

I prefer to use Rami Shapiro’s phrasing as it resonates with our American life for me. His suggestions are:

  • May I be free from fear
  • May I be free from compulsions
  • May I be blessed with love
  • May I be blessed with peace

One suggestion that Rabbi Shapiro made when we pray for ourselves is to invite a mental image of ourselves as a young child, especially if there is one that is wounded within us.  As we say this prayer, we say it to that child. And then we get an images in a progressive sequence of our teen age self, our middle age self and one of ourselves when we are much older than we currently are, ending with one when we are on our deathbed.  As we say this prayer to each image, we begin to feel the warmth of compassion extending to all various selves we carry within us.  This can allow real healing to take place.

After praying this prayer in a repetitive fashion for ourselves, we move on to say it for a person close to us whom we love or are friendly towards.  Next we extend it to a person we know but not very well, such as the person we buy our coffee from daily.  Lastly, we bring to mind the image of “an enemy” or a person with whom we are currently in a conflict situation.  We say the same phrases to them without anger or judgment but with an open and loving heart.  It can change the attitude we have towards them and thus be a change agent in the conflict situation.  We can also extend this metta prayer to include all living beings and our world. 

This practice has been a life changer for me, especially in the current state of the world that is full of divisiveness and hate.  If I seriously pray with an open heart for those who I feel are “enemy,” I can begin to look at them though other eyes.  I can see them as humans with fears and compulsions.  I can see that their desires are similar to mine: for peace, acceptance, and love.   I will be honest, for some people, I have to repeat this prayer over and over again before I begin to feel a shift in my own attitude.  That is all that I have any real control to change—my attitude.  This practice gives me the spaciousness of heart that allows acceptance of reality.  It helps to connect me to the oneness that connects us all, which I know stems from the heartbeat of God.  It is in that oneness that I know that Julian of Norwich’s statement is true; “all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”

Resources:

Shapiro, Rami. The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice

Salzberg, Sharon. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree/loving-kindness

https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-on-lovingkindness/

https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditation-loving-kindness/

The power to choose is yours

Power to choose“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings. As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.”      Buddha, Dhammapada

This week in my yoga class my teacher shared a saying that spoke to me and I have been thinking about it ever since.  She said “If you don’t choose your feeling tone, your past will choose it for you.” As I pondered it, I knew that it rang true.  If each day, each moment I am not conscious of what intention I have my life then I can only react out of my unconscious habits.  Those habits have been shaped over my life, most of them being formed in my childhood and early adulthood.

It is the same for all of us.  The past  shaped us and will continue to rule us unless we become more mindful of the new path we desire.  For example, if we are raised in a family where shame was used to control us, we will easily sink into shame  even when others are not intending to shame us.  If we were raised in a very judgmental family, we will be quick to judge others and ourselves, even when we would prefer to be compassionate. This reaction results from our need to be vigilant to such tactics to deal with the environment in the past.  As such, we continually scan for evidence of the same negativity in our current situation.  Our brains are programmed to be aware of any such “threats” that exist, even when there are really only a few of them in the present moment.  Being able to  spot them immediately helped us to survive when we were children.  Our brains are hardwired to notice and  respond to the threats, real or imagined.

If we are to choose a different path, we need to heal the wounds of the past.  One way to do that is by using positive experiences to counter the negative one.  Rick Hanson, in his book Buddha’s Brain*, suggests two methods of doing this.  The first option is to let all the positive experiences that occur in the present  sink into the old pains.  To do this we have to maximize the positive experience. We need to replay it over and over in our mind, making a full colorful “movie” of it to see in our mind’s eye so that we really can get a full body experience of it.  Savor the positive moment.  Let it strengthen and replace some of the negative experiences in the past.  This helps to give us today what we should have received as a child.

The second option is to replace negative material that surfaces with positive emotions and memories that will be its antidote.  For example, if you have felt weak and dependent in the past, let a current experience of strength bathe it with healing.  If hurt from past neglect or rejection in relationships continues to make you feel unworthy, bring to mind where you are loved by other people or God.  Hanson suggests adding a thought such as “I got through all that, I’m still here and many people love me.”  While the memory of the pain will not vanish, using these two techniques will help it to diminish.  It will allow you to move on to the future you desire, rather than have the past choose it for you.

For more information about the use this technique and how it impact us at a neurological level, I refer you to Hanson’s  book.  Cognitive behavioral therapy also has many different methods to help us change our thoughts.  As quoted in the passage above, our thoughts lead to words, deeds, habits and character.  Our feeling tone or our intentions are intrinsically related to our thoughts.  By watching both our intentions and our thoughts we can begin to change our character.  One of the best places for this thought to spring from is from love and compassion, both for ourselves and the world.

* Hanson, Rick and Mendius, Richard, Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom, New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

Lenten Journey

Today begins the tradition called Lent.  Lent began as 40 days of fasting and repentance to prepare for the Easter celebration.  It has fallen by the wayside for many denominations even while the tradition of Mardi Gras continues.  Mardi Gras, or fat Tuesday, was a time to use up all the eggs and milk before Lent as these were not consumed during this time.  What would it look like if we moderns chose to enter into a time of intentional fasting?  Fasting from overeating, over-consuming, busyness, noise or other things that distract us from our spiritual life.  What would it be like if instead we took up a new habit that led us closer to health–physically, spiritually or emotionally?

I challenge each of us, myself included, to take up the practice of Lent.  In these 40 day until April 24 I will try to journal each day on things in my life that bring me gratitude.  I do this because by nature I tend to look at what is not right, what needs to be corrected and in the process miss the blessings in my life.  Today, I am grateful for the mild weather that blew a fresh smell my way as I walked my dog (even though it was overcast and rained a bit on the walk). I am grateful for my husband who is taking on the burden of completing our taxes.  I am grateful that my middle son has at least one acceptance to a Medical school so that he can pursue his heart’s desire. What are you grateful for this day?