Friday, July 7, 2023

“Beyond Blaming and Agonizing”: Lovingkindness Practice in Ordinary Life

“… it is a question about the overall shape of our lives and our society. Will they be characterized by violence, relying on our capacities for coercion and aggression? Or will they be characterized by healthy social bonds, relying on our capacities for wisdom and compassion? Which action will be exceptional, violence or empathy? Which action will be normal, violence or empathy? We can understand both paths as strategies to protect ourselves, and recognize that both possibilities live within us. But the research also points out that these are diverging paths. We nourish one path at the expense of the other. … Each decision we make is something of a crossroads. Collectively and personally, our decisions answer the question: which direction do we choose?” 
  As an example of the kinds of tools and practices that can support this kind of personal and cultural transformation, I reflected a little on a 2008 study led by Barbara Frederickson that investigated the impacts of Buddhist metta (lovingkindness) meditation on participants. They documented slow and small changes that built up both intra- and interpersonal skills, through awareness and cultivation of the daily, mundane experiences of “love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement, and awe.” Significantly, the study demonstrated that more positive emotions in themselves do not make life more fulfilling. Instead, “greater positive emotions help them build resources for living successfully.” When we work together to create conditions characterized by love, joy, gratitude, contentment, and the rest, human beings have a better chance to thrive. And lovingkindness meditation is one tool we have to support this thriving. 

The most popular form of this meditation practice is to bring the heart and mind to focus on a simple aspiration for wellbeing, usually starting with oneself and then moving outward to loved ones, then strangers, then those we find more difficult to love, then to all beings, and then returning to oneself. A common formula is simply: 

May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy. 

Since 2008, studies have continued to show how beneficial this simple practice can be. Emma Seppälä, writing for Psychology Today, collected research on eighteen benefits of lovingkindness meditation. They include: decreasing migraines, chronic pain, PTSD, and schizophrenia-spectrum disorder symptoms; slowing aging; and improving social connections, such as increasing helpfulness, compassion, and empathy while decreasing bias. More recently, lovingkindness practices have been increasingly designed to address specific areas of harm in need of healing and transformation,
 such as the “Black Lives Matter Meditation for Healing Racial Trauma.” And a 2022 study explored how lovingkindness meditation can help people “navigate harmful situations, both individual stressors and systems of oppression.” This study is especially important and relevant because of its enlarged focus beyond the individual, including participants’ social contexts such as a community where they meditate, social justice movements they support, particularly those committed to racial justice, and global systems of oppression that they seek to resist and transform.  

The core commitment is to metta, variously translated as lovingkindness, friendliness, or goodwill. When this goodwill encounters suffering, it arises as compassion. When it encounters good fortune, including and especially the good fortune of others, it arises as joy. And when our goodwill is sustained by wisdom and insight, it arises as equanimity. Ajahn Sucitto, a Buddhist monastic and teacher in the Thai Forest tradition, calls back to the Buddha’s simile of a conch. These four qualities of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity are called “the measureless intent”, “because their sound blows without restriction in all directions: to others as to oneself; to the heart that acted on those energies and to any others who have been affected by them.” He wrote that
“Exactly what ‘tune’ one plays is something that arises dependent on the distortion one is healing. There are pains that bring up the awareness of the basic need for the nourishing quality of kindness; whereas sometimes the awareness of how volatile and vulnerable we all are calls forth compassion, the protective energy. Sometimes it’s the case whereby we recognize the harm that comes from neglecting what is good in ourselves and others, or even through taking others for granted. Then the sense in appreciating goodness, however obscured, can arise. It’s important to not neglect this one – the stream of good deeds that you did do, the kind words that just seemed natural, but were the right thing at the right time. It’s important not to overlook it, because we so often do. Equanimity holds the empathic space and allows things to unfold. It doesn’t ask for results, but attunes to how things are right now.” 
        One of the reasons I mention these studies and applications is because of my own experience with lovingkindness practices, which has been the center of my life for decades. Exploring these different aspects of lovingkindness is helpful in discerning what we are actually experiencing, empowering us to be intentional in our actions. And metta practice has been key in healing, transforming, and empowering me, both personally and in my participation in community programming and social change movements.

Beyond my own personal practice, I’ve most often been invited to adapt lovingkindness meditation to the wellbeing and aspirations of my lgbtqia+ community. Similar to those applications of lovingkindness meditation to healing racial trauma and navigating systems of oppression, I’ve found applying lovingkindness to my experience as a queer person to be an essential part of my well-being and a joy to share with others. For example, as a member of the ACLU-MO’s Trans Leadership Table, I was invited to lead a guided meditation (2020) that adapted lovingkindness to our particular experiences in the world. We began by pausing and cultivating a sense of having “arrived in this moment across sadness and incalculable loss; across joy and innumerable gifts; through the love and concern of yourself and others; against oppression and hardship.” As a nonbinary person whose existence has been debated and erased throughout my entire life, this grounding in the here and now is transformative. To be here, despite the numberless times that people and systems have communicated to me that I don’t belong here, is deeply healing and connecting.

This grounding helped us to center ourselves in our deepest aspirations, pausing and opening to those things that most lift our hearts and animate our lives: “How is it that you want to encounter this improbable and impermanent moment of time and space that you inhabit? What opens your heart and brings forth your love, your joy, your creativity, your fierceness?” And in this example, I expanded the basic formula to include elements that are often stressors that our trans community faces:
May I be safe.
May I have food, shelter, and friendship.
May I have health in my body.
May I care for and appreciate my body.
May I honor my own strength.
May my heart be open and free.
May my wounds, inner and outer, be healed.
May I be generous, creative, and caring.
May I receive the generosity, creativity, and care of others.
May I be equal and free.

We then extended those aspirations toward others, eventually envisioning “a transformed world,” “savoring and being nurtured by this kindness, and our shared commitment to liberation and justice.” We closed by resolving “to let this energy carry and sustain the tasks that lie ahead, embodying and co-creating a new world where all transgender and gender nonconforming folx can live with freedom, safety, and joy.” This kind of meditation intentionally connects our wellbeing with our community and a future where we live in abundance, rather than scarcity. It energizes us, and reminds us of how important it is, to connect with our aspirations, our selves, each other, and a vision where we no longer have to fight for our very right to exist. 

Another, related aspect to lovingkindness practice is bringing attention to areas of our experience where we especially need to direct kindness, compassion, enjoyment, and equanimity. In the case of those of us who have experienced being alienated from our bodies, especially through discrimination and marginalization, cultivating lovingkindness for our bodies is an essential, and often overlooked, practice. This became the theme of a guided meditation I offered for a Transgender Day of Remembrance (2020) gathering with the theme that “Our Bodies Will Be Heard.” In this practice, we began with an awareness and appreciation of the courage and self-love it took for us to listen to, trust, and honor our own bodies: “In the face of a society that told us we couldn’t, shouldn’t, or didn’t exist as transgender and gender expansive folx, we dared to listen to ourselves. And our bodies told us: ‘This is what this body is like.’” We then paused and held the pain and suffering that we’ve had to carry in our bodies, and the grief that has so often worn us down and worn us out. Yet despite all this pain, our bodies have continued to carry the possibility of a different world: “Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I listen to the life in my body.” We then listened: 
“Our bodies teach us what we need. We dream of a world where these bodies are safe, healthy, and rest easy at night. We dream of a world where we access the medical care, housing, food, employment, and enjoyment we need. We dream of a world where we get to decide what supports our well-being, and where all people are free and equal. And in this moment, anticipating a future built by us and for us, we relax into joy and peace. Our bodies will be heard. … So … we make room for more than grief. We make room for our fierceness, our pleasure, and our love. Because when we are included, our communities are stronger, more beautiful, more complete.” 
In this approach, lovingkindness meditation is more oriented around our intentions and aspirations than our emotions or sentiments. At least for me, I am not trying to coerce or manipulate my feelings; I am training my heart and mind to a default of kindness and justice, after a lifetime of learning to survive in a world oriented around violence and oppression. In much of our lives, we are bombarded by messages that we are misunderstood at best, and very often we are unwelcome. Resolving to “Take Our Space in the World” is an expression of lovingkindness to ourselves: “We exist in the face of all this violence, hatred, and grief, and insist on living, loving, and thriving. We create new worlds.” And this new world can be born of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. 

This point is especially important to me due to my experience (many years ago) of being part of a meditation group. When I shared that my own practice was oriented around metta, they responded by teasing me. The general idea was that metta was too sentimental; it wasn’t “real” meditation, like the insight practices they focused on. I also practiced insight meditation, and I found these practices mutually supportive. I didn’t understand their association of lovingkindness with sentimentality, because I didn’t understand that they had been taught lovingkindness in a very different context. My practice was born of deep suffering. It wasn’t weak, and I wasn’t coercing my emotions. I was transforming aversion into goodwill. I was refusing to repeat unhealthy, coercive habits. I was resolving for my own body to be a place where suffering could come to an end, rather than incubating that pain and passing it on to others. 

Returning to Ajahn Sucitto, we get a better sense of how this comes to be and the connections between kindness and equanimity. We learn to discern patterns based on our conditioning, and the conditioning of others: 
“In the world in general, there’s a huge inheritance of abusive patterns based upon violence and deprivation – and who knows where all that began. But, instead of blaming and agonizing, we can regard our own and other people’s actions in terms of cause and effect. That regard is equanimity, the most reliable base for action.”  
Equanimity is perhaps the most challenging quality to develop, but it is well worth our continued practice and effort. My understanding of Ajahn Sucitto’s point that equanimity is “the most reliable base for action” is that equanimity empowers us to act out of insight and understanding. Our brains are meaning-making machines, spinning out stories to help us explain why we feel the way we do and why we are justified in doing what we have done or want to do. Psychologically, what we want is a convincing story, and we’d prefer to have it quickly. Some of those stories may even become old standbys, providing easy answers for how to interpret difficult and complicated experiences. And too often, we are simply caught in stories that praise or blame. These explanations may or may not hold some truth, but they are convenient. However, convenience is not a “reliable base for action.” 

This is part of the reason why, when we begin a meditation practice, it is common for our minds to unearth all sorts of memories, from ridiculous to mortifying. This is part of getting to know our minds and bodies, and how we relate to suffering and the end of suffering. You might be enjoying your first taste of deep concentration in one moment, only to find yourself singing the lyrics of a silly tv commercial you heard as a child in the next moment. During one extended time of sitting meditation many years ago, I found myself listening to a fractured playback of the entire Thriller album by Michael Jackson, pieced together from memories I made as an elementary school student. It had been hanging out there in my mind, undisturbed for decades, until my brain got desperate enough to fish it out and see if it would be the thing that would finally make me give up on my sitting meditation and do something more interesting. It still makes me chuckle. 

But we can also encounter more difficult experiences, which is why we always recommend working with an experienced teacher, tradition, and community. (And, in cases of unresolved trauma or complex mental health issues, it is important to work with your mental health caregivers.) There are several aspects to meditation that can be disorienting and challenging, such as directly experiencing that what we often think of as permanent, unchanging self is a dynamic process. But anecdotally, the most common challenge is that we encounter those patterns of thinking, feeling, and remembering that we find embarrassing, confusing, disturbing, or scary. These are often key parts of our own stories of praise and blame, and they can be cruel. In those moments, it is vitally important that we have the resources we need to respond with kindness, patience, understanding, and wisdom. 

Several years ago, I was leading a workshop on cultivating self-compassion during conflict and stress, which is an important aspect of lovingkindness practice. One of our participants was a retired human resources manager who was volunteering with a non-profit. He had spent the morning looking rather disinterested, so it didn’t surprise me when he approached me at our first break. “This stuff just doesn’t apply to me,” he said. “I don’t struggle with any of this and I’m thinking that maybe I should just leave.” I was quite excited to meet someone who had had already mastered the skills of self-compassion, so I quite enthusiastically celebrated his skillfulness. “That’s fantastic!” I exclaimed to his surprise. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to stay here if the training doesn’t benefit you,” I continued. “But if you do stay, you could take the perspective that our reflections here might help you understand others, because a lot of us do struggle with having self-compassion.” This made sense to him, and he settled into the morning with more interest. 

        But all of that changed during our lunch break. The room’s floor was tile over concrete, the perfect medium in which to shatter glass. Inevitably, we were cleaning up a mess pretty regularly. And on that day, this HR manager was the one who, accidentally knocking his glass of water off the table, proved that gravity was still working after all this time. And as the glass hit the floor, in that moment of shared quiet when everyone turned to see what had happened, our affable HR man said to himself, in the most savage tone that I could imagine, “stupid boy!” 

        With our reflections on self-compassion fresh on his mind, he looked up and locked eyes with me. It was a look of mixed fear and wonder, like some lost secret had just been uttered. “I had no idea that that voice was inside of me,” he later told me. “It was my father’s voice, plus sixty years of shame for every mistake I’d ever made.” The afternoon took on new significance for him, and he came back for the follow-up trainings, too. I don’t doubt that some people have already developed these skills, even without formal training. But most people I meet have quite a way to go, and we need all the encouragement we can get. All of us who are committed to continually growing into compassionate, wise people can benefit from having these skills and resources available to us, so that we can be available to ourselves and others when we need that kind wisdom the most. 
        So may we – our selves, our communities, and our movements for justice - be filled with lovingkindness; may we work together so that all of us have the resources we need to take care of ourselves and enjoy life; may we grow communities where justice is the norm, free of the cruelty of all forms of oppression; and may we be happy.