Saturday, February 25, 2012

Loving-Kindness


Where does the time go? It’s been all year long so far that I’ve been exploring the Brahma-viharas, the “Four Sublime Abodes” of compassion, equanimity, sympathetic joy, and loving-kindness (Sangharakshita, 1980, p. 141), and their respective “near enemies” of pity, indifference, comparison, and attachment (Kornfield, 1993, p. 190). Nonetheless, I think we’re ready to bring this series to a close. If you’ve had the opportunity to read the previous posts exploring attachment (all four of them!) you’ll know that it’s quite the near enemy of loving-kindness, the usual English translation equivalent of the Sanskrit word, metta, which is referred to by Rahula (1959) as the extension of “unlimited, universal love and good-will… to all living beings without any kind of discrimination, ‘just as a mother loves her only child’” (p. 75).


The Buddha Calms An Enraged Elephant With Loving-Kindness

Clearly, the universal and non-discriminatory nature of metta as spoken of here reveals why attachment is its near enemy – especially the attachment that is romantic love! Indeed, romantic love almost always encompasses the singling out of but one individual from the multitudes of beings all around us on which to shower our attention and affection. Yes, and it almost always consists of the expectation that such attention and affection will likewise be showered back on us by that favored individual. And, of course, you know full well that any failure to win such reciprocity is considered a failure of epically tragic proportions – a failure worthy of (in the movies, anyway) the forfeiture of life itself!


I think the preceding paragraphs sketch out reasonably well the relationship between loving-kindness (metta) and its near enemy, attachment. I’d like to shift gears, then, and present a passage that I think highlights some of these recently addressed aspects of attachment, aversion, and loving-kindness while at the same time re-introducing a metta practice that I mentioned in my tribute to Ginny Morgan, from whom I learned it. (Please see May Their Compassion Embrace Us.) I hope you find the stylistic difference refreshing. Here goes…  


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Jenna steered her car into the parking lot of her daughter’s school and maneuvered it into the usual spot where she could sit watching the building’s entrance. She was early, as was now her habit. Over the past couple of months that parking spot had become something of a refuge for her – a place where she could sit quietly and peacefully knowing that her daughter was safe inside. It was one of the few refuges that Jenna had anymore – since the tension level had begun to mount at home, anyway. Gary was out of work…, again; and drinking…, yet again. Back home she had to tiptoe around as if on eggshells. Here she could simply be herself, without having to feel the weight of all the crap that had somehow managed to pile onto her shoulders over the years.


She turned off the engine and let her hands slide from the steering wheel into her lap. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly a number of times until her breath had settled into her belly where she could feel the steady in and out movement of her diaphragm. With each breath, she settled deeper and deeper into stillness. This was why she’d come here. The stillness was like a cool drink of water on a scorching summer day; it was like a deep breath of fresh air after having dreamed that she was drowning.


Her daughter’s face suddenly appeared before her in her mind’s eye…, smiling…, glowing with the joy of youth. “Oh, my God,” she thought. “Where would I be if I didn’t have her in my life to give it meaning? What would keep me from simply disintegrating into nothingness?” Everything else she’d ever done already lay about her in a shambles: the career that she’d left behind after learning that she was pregnant; the marriage that she’d rushed into in order to make it all okay; her relationship with her parents, who never did like Gary, anyway; and her faith…, yes, even that which had seemed so solid for so long now lay like a pile of rubble strewn around. Samantha was all that she had left – the only thing left in her life that was still good and pure; the only thing left that she hadn’t messed up in one way or another. And now…. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes as she realized what a toll her strained marriage was having on her daughter. It seemed like a long, long time since she’d been able to smile as she was in that image.


Jenna listened to the sound of tires on asphalt as a car pulled in just a few spots away. The engine revved and then clattered into silence. She took advantage of the distraction to brush the tears from her cheeks and concentrate once again on her breathing. The stillness returned, but in that stillness was now an awareness of the presence of another human being. Her curiosity got the better of her and she turned to sneak a peek at whoever it was that just pulled in. Shit! It was that knuckleheaded father of the girl that had been bullying her daughter!


In an instant, the stillness that she had known was upturned. Her adrenaline surged and her breath rose up into her chest. It was all she could do to keep from throwing open the car door and bounding over to his car in order to give him a piece of her mind! What was that jerk doing, anyway, to have instilled such a mean streak in his daughter? She caught herself, though, when it suddenly occurred to her that she might very well be asking that question of herself in another year if she didn’t do something to change the toxic situation that was building up at home. Hmmph; how different were they, really? Could she say with any certainty what it was that separated one from the other?


She concentrated for a time until her breath had settled back down into her abdomen, and then she began a loving-kindness exercise that she’d learned from her meditation teacher. She imagined the man sitting calmly in front of her as she recited the following words in her mind:

May you be safe and protected.

May you live with ease and wellbeing.

May you be free from both inner and outer harm.

May you come to embody the gift of true freedom in this very life.


She repeated this over and over again with the man’s image in her mind until all the feelings of animosity that she’d felt toward him had faded into the stillness. She then imagined his daughter – the girl that had been bullying her Sammi – and she repeated the verse a number of times just for her. She pictured her husband, as well. She knew all too well the demons that he faced. Indeed, there was a time when she thought that her love might be enough to shoo them all away. Ah, but that was a long time ago….

May you be safe and protected.

May you live with ease and wellbeing.

May you be free from both inner and outer harm.

May you come to embody the gift of true freedom in this very life.


She imagined her daughter sitting before her as she repeated again and again on her behalf the offering of metta – loving-kindness. Of course, this was easy. There was no strain of any kind when she said those words. They were words that she could say just as easily right to her face – maybe as a nighttime lullaby of sorts. It was much harder, though, to give that offering to herself. She knew that she was weak. She knew that she was flawed. She knew that she was trying her best and yet it still never seem to be good enough. She knew that she had to start approaching life differently. And that was all the more reason that she needed some loving-kindness for herself.

May I be safe and protected.

May I live with ease and wellbeing.

May I be free from both inner and outer harm.

May I come to embody the gift of true freedom in this very life.


After reciting the metta offering a number of times on her own behalf she offered it up to the world, over and over again:

May all beings be safe and protected.

May all beings live with ease and wellbeing.

May all beings be free from both inner and outer harm.

May all beings come to embody the gift of true freedom in this very life – not one left out.


She didn’t know how many times she’d repeated the offering. After a time she was just sitting there in silence, experiencing a deep sense of stillness and a profound sense of acceptance and love for everyone and everything. After a time, the sound of children’s voices entered into the stillness and she opened up her eyes. The front doors of the school had opened and children were streaming out. One of the first to cross the lawn was the girl who’d been bullying her daughter, but Jenna didn’t see her as a bully anymore. She was just a child worthy of love like any other child. Jenna watched as the little girl opened the door to her father’s car and settled in somewhat awkwardly beside him. The father barely glanced at her before starting the engine and backing out of the parking place. It broke Jenna’s heart to realize that karma was playing out right before her eyes. He was just like her in never really feeling the love that he was worthy of, wasn’t he? He’d never learned to show the love that he certainly must feel in some measure. She was his daughter, after all!


Jenna didn’t know the reasons why. She didn’t know how to make it any different. All she knew was that she was capable of loving them as she loved her own daughter. At least, she’d caught a glimpse of that possibility, anyway. And as she turned to see the children still streaming out of the school’s entrance, she saw children streaming out of schools all over the world. She saw them stepping through the doors of one-room schoolhouses and rising up from the circles that they’d formed around their teachers. She saw them hopping into cars and running along dusty trails back to their villages. She saw their parents waiting for them, silently hoping for them the best – wishing for them something better than they had ever had. It didn’t matter where they lived or what religion or politics they might have come to embrace. Jenna loved them. She realized that she really loved them.


“Oh, my God.” She buried her face in her hands.

“Mom… what’s wrong?”

Jenna suddenly realized that her daughter had opened up the car door and slid into the seat beside her. She studied her face for the longest time, as if she’d never really seen her in that light before – which perhaps she hadn’t.

“Oh, nothing’s wrong, Sammi.” She wiped the tears from her cheeks. “I guess I was just thinking about how much I really, really love you. That’s all.” She leaned over to hug Samantha as if she hadn’t seen her in years. At least, that’s the way it felt.


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I hope this brief sketch brings to life at least a little bit the nature of and the potential interactions between attachment, aversion, and loving-kindness. In it we can see how Jenna’s attachment to her daughter for reasons not entirely related to unconditional love (i.e., it is Samantha’s existence that gives Jenna’s life meaning) actually heightens the aversion she feels for the bullying classmate and the father whom she holds responsible. The fact that Jenna has appropriated Samantha’s wellbeing into her own sense of self prompts the arising of aversion towards those who would do “her” harm. Of course, we should be averse to harm being perpetrated on others; however, Jenna’s attachment causes that aversion to manifest as personal animosity towards the bullying girl and her father. It is Jenna’s subsequent metta practice that allows her sense of self to expand such that it encompasses the wellness of all beings; and as her sense of kinship with all beings grows, the various attachments and aversions that had arisen from her previously smaller sense of self begin to lose their charge.


But what will happen to Jenna’s and her daughter’s relationship as Jenna’s attachment to Samantha diminishes? Will that mean that Jenna’s love for her daughter will have diminished? Will Samantha suffer from a diminished sense of specialness in the eyes of her mother? It would seem that familial and close partnership relationships do require some shared sense of specialness between and amongst all parties, wouldn’t it? Perhaps that is simply our shared karmic heritage, born of the social evolution of the human species. Hence, ordinary relationship dynamics might require shared attachment of some form. It’s just that we shouldn’t mistake that shared attachment for love in its highest form.


Indeed, I think it is fairly safe to conclude that the diminishment of attachment can actually make room for the growth of love in a higher form. How is that? Note that Jenna was, at least in part, living her life through her daughter. After all, it was Samantha’s existence that gave Jenna’s life meaning. Certainly we’ve all witnessed parents who live their lives through their children. The forms that this can take are myriad, from being unduly protective (I won’t let you make the same mistakes I made), to controlling (you will take advantage of the opportunities that I did/could not), to behaving quite literally as though their children are extensions of themselves (we went to the state finals this year!). However, when attachment of this kind is relinquished, room is then made for a more nurturing form of love – a form of love that seeks only to allow the loved individual to fully actualize the very uniqueness of their being. Of course, attachment can creep into even this form of love; e. g., “You know, you may not realize it right now, but one day you’ll see how what I’m doing is allowing you to fully actualize the uniqueness of your being.” Who decides, anyway, when someone is fully actualizing the uniqueness of their being?


Jenna experiences this deepening of love in the sketch above when she senses that she is seeing Samantha in a brand new light. She has stopped focusing on her as an extension of her own being and has begun to see her as an individual in her own right. When we no longer look at people through the lens of what they do for us, how they make us feel good, how they give our lives meaning, or how they fulfill our desires, then we become free to really see them as they are – and we become free to really love them as they are. So, awareness of attachment – the near enemy of loving-kindness – can indeed allow our love to move beyond a lesser, more self-serving form, and towards a form that we probably think we’re manifesting already!


Thanks for staying with me these past couple of months! I hope it’s clearer how the cultivation of these Brahma-viharas really does enable us to fulfill our bodhisattva vow to “save all beings”. I know these “sublime abodes” have become much clearer in my mind, anyway. Ironically, though, even as I feel that I’m seeing them with greater clarity, on another level these four attributes of compassion, equanimity, sympathetic joy, and loving-kindness seem now to blend together into but one entity – being in the world with unhindered awareness.



References


Chakrabarti, K. K. (1999). Classical Indian philosophy of mind, The Nyaya dualist tradition. State University of New York Press.


Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India, Three phases of Buddhist philosophy. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press.


Conze, E., Horner, I. B., Snellgrove, D., & Waley, A. (1964). Buddhist texts through the ages. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.


Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.


Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html


Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.


Loori, J. (2004). The whole earth is medicine. Featured in Mountain Record 22.3, Spring 2004. http://mro.org/zmm/teachings/daido/teisho35.php


Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.


Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.


Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Company.


Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.


Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.


Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html


Yoshida, R. (1979). Verse of repentance (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website. http://www.missourizencenter.org/SundayService.pdf


Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.


Young, S. (1998-2010). How meditation works: An introductory overview of techniques for mental development within the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Tantra and Zen and including reference to Christian contemplative practice. http://www.shinzen.org/Articles/artHow.htm


Zimmer, H. (1956). Philosophies of India (ed. Campbell, J.). Meridian Books, New York.



Image Credits


Buddha with the Elephant Nalagiri via:


The Wikimedia Commons description accompanying this image is as follows: “Nalagiri was an elephant with a bad character. Devadatta, a nephew of the Buddha who was jealous of Buddha and wanted to kill him, made Nalagirl purposefully very angry and set him loose in the street in which Buddha was walking with many other monks. As Nalagiri, running wildly and trumpeting, came closer to the Buddha, the Buddha mentally directed his loving kindness and friendliness (metta) to Nalagiri, because of which Nalagiri calmed down, and subsequently bowed low before the Buddha as a way of showing respect.”


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

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