So I'm back home in the Washington, DC area after 10 days in the mountains of California. On land where the silence and stillness was so potent that the wings of a prey bird flying overhead sounded like a jet plane swooping by. As one can imagine, it's quite a jarring experience to come back to a world where sounds and stimulation is bountiful. And while I've been retreating in various locations with different teachers and returning to DC for nearly a decade now, it's still tough to come back.
The "it's tough" to come back is not because I don't love where I live. I do. I find the city and the people in it fascinating. But this is where the rubber hits the road. Where integration of insights, openings, moments of clarity, and experiences of awakening mesh themselves into the folds of every day life. And it's always a bit clunky, easy, tough, joyful, sad, and everything in between.
You want to know the funny thing, everything that is here when I come back to the city is also there in its own way on retreat. The stories you get from people coming back from retreat is how transformative they are. But they don't always include the whole story line. Moments of doubt, wondering why on Earth I put myself through the torture of meditating for hours on end for days on end. (Of course I love it, otherwise I wouldn't go back. But anyone who's been on retreat knows the moments where you question EVERYTHING inevitably happen). Moments when my back hurts so much I might just collapse into a puddle on the floor and never get back up. Moments where the silence even feels a bit too loud. Moments where practice feels clunky and confusing. All dancing with moments of estatic joy that I've never felt before. Purifying tears shed. Illuminating smiles felt in my entire body. Deep ease and rest. And so the human experience goes and the path of self exploration.
That being said, this retreat was special. Each one is special in their own unique way. But this one provided clarity in ways I wasn't expecting. Moments of experiential seeing that I only dreamed in my lifetime I might experience. Moments of deep understanding that I didn't know was possible. And most of all, a deep recognition of just how profoundly important this thing called Love is.
Now if you know me, you know that Love shows up a lot in my writings, my teachings, in my classroom, in my conversations with clients, friends, and family alike. My dance with Love is a long one. And mainly I've been in a Love affair with Love for my whole life.
My latest chapter in the book of Love is rooted in self love. Something our world desperately needs more of.
Metta. The Pali word for loving-kindness. The practice of meditating with, soaking in, generating and sending, sitting with, dancing with Metta has been profound. I wasn't as skeptical about it as I was with gratitude when I started playing with gratitude several years ago. But I also recognize I completely underestimated its power.
It reminds me of a story Sharon Salzberg shared when I sat with her earlier this year. Many years ago she traveled to Burma to sit with her meditation teacher and he gave her a Metta meditation practice for her 90 days there. Every day for three months she kept practicing with Metta. She was skeptical. Which is perhaps one of the things I love most about her as a teacher. Her skepticism allows realness in her practice and teaching. As she skeptically and dutifully practiced for 90 days with this thing called Metta, she one day found herself dropping a glass jar on the bathroom floor. She found herself saying to herself "you're so clumsy....but I love you anyways." Whoa she thought. The "I love you anyways" was a new one. Perhaps this metta thing was actually having an impact...
Her story resonated with my own experience with Metta. For the last 10 days throughout my days, unexpectedly, Metta became my song. It infused every day of my practice without any plan for it. I had no intention to have it become my anchor. But then...I found that somehow...it just had. One day while I was sitting on a bench on a hilltop completely alone in nature, I realized Metta...Love has been hanging out in my meditation practice and every day life increasingly for quite some time. And it's been having huge impacts.
Loving-kindness towards myself has given me unexpected strength the last two days as I land physically, emotionally, and mentally in DC. Leaving the safe nest of retreat for the wide vast world of every day life. It's given me clarity and connection when I'd otherwise feel overwhelmed by the to do list waiting for me. The unanswered e-mails waiting for my reply. It's given me an anchor when I find my mind worrying about an unexpected encounter with an old romantic partner in a phone call.
Which brings me to a book I just started reading. I rarely share about a book I'm reading unless it's having a huge impact on me and I'm either done reading it, reading it for the second time, or almost done. But today's a different story. Because just the introduction of this book summed up why Metta practices are so powerful and necessary.
In John Welwood's book "Perfect Love. Imperfect Relationships" he talks about our inherent wounding at the center of our hearts that create human conflict.
"The mood of unlove -- a deep-seated suspicion most of us harbor within ourselves that we cannot be loved, or that we are not truly loveable, just for who we are.."
is what he attributes to arguments, misunderstandings, anxiety, loneliness, anger. With ourselves. Between people. A hole that we try to fill by all other means. It's the hole we try to fill by cravings and habits, and addictions both substance and otherwise. It's a feeling we have aversion to and turn away from rather than sit with.
What are you taking refuge in when the going gets tough?
We were asked this question on retreat last week. What boat are we jumping in when discomfort comes? When we feel lost? When we feel we are drowning? When it all feels too much? I realized, my refuge, when I remember it...is Loving-kindness. Metta. Towards myself. Towards others. And when I take it's invitation, it somehow makes everything right. It makes the challenges I'm facing a little more faceable. It makes the part of me that feels a pang of longing for my teachers back in California feel held. Embraced. And the best part is that it's free...and it all starts with me. One the phone call with an old partner when I feel a part of me constricting, closing, gripping, and wanting to hang up from fear...somehow Metta allows me to see the indestructible nature of my spirit and has the strength to stay open and simply...listen.
That's it. Metta has taught me just how indestructible I am. How everlasting my Spirit truly is. No matter what.
It sounds lofty. It sounds like a stretch perhaps. I bet I'd even think it was lofty and a stretch if someone told me that about Metta practices before I started using them. So that's why for this week's Joy Tip Wednesday, I want you to invite you to just try them on for size, give them a whirl, faithfully, and see what happens.
If I know anything about Metta, I know it's a practice that requires consistency, dedication, and patience. A practice that asks you to just do it because you decided you would. And to remain open to see what happens. Here are some ideas on how to get started:
Start with yourself:
- Create a mantra that you silently repeat in silence. You can silently say it while walking in your office building. Riding the subway. Driving your car. Making dinner. Drinking tea. Or if you meditate...as your focus of meditation. Wherever you want. Make a commitment to silently repeat the phrase to yourself. Mine is "May you be happy. May you be joyful. May you be peaceful. May you live in ease. May you fully awaken." Your's can be shorter or the same length. For some people, mine would be way too long. The trick is you find one that feels like it would work for you and stick with that.
- Imagine that air is infused with Love. I love this practice that one of the nuns shared on retreat. Just like you inevitably breath in oxygen, you imagine you inevitably breathe in Metta. It's just everywhere...all the time. And when you breathe it in...let it fill and nourish your heart center. Your entire being.
- Generate Metta at your heart center. Are you a visual person? This may be your practice. Imagine that you are generating a golden light at your heart center that is warm and starts radiating throughout your entire being. And find yourself bathing in a glowing embrace of Love.
- Feel and embody Love. Open your heart. When I connect with Metta, the best way I can describe my heart is as if someone opens a camera lense in my heart. I actually feel it opening. Physically embody that sense of love in your body. It can be helpful to remember someone or something that connects you to pure love. My African Grey Parrot Odi is my go to for this. In moments you feel closed, reopen your heart by opening the camera lense of your heart through remembrance of what connects you with love.
Expand the circle:
- Take the practices from above and expand them to others. To family. To co-workers. Perhaps to all beings everywhere.
- Using a mantra? Change it to "May you be happy." Send it even further and include yourself "May we be happy." Feeling expansive? Send it further, "May all beings everywhere be happy."
- Breathing Love? Exhale even more love back out with every breathe for the benefit of those around you or all beings everywhere.
- Generating Metta at your heart center? Once it's permeated your body, radiate it out beyond yourself.
- Feeling love? Share it through a hug. An honest expression of "I love you" with someone you care about. A smile to a stranger. A bouquet of flowers as a gift to someone.
Make a commitment to this practice for at least a few days. Maybe three. Maybe a week. If you are feeling ambitious, try it for 30 days and open yourself to see what changes. Often the shifts we experience are subtle. It can seem like nothing has changed, and then suddenly you may have a Sharon Salzberg "But I love you anyways" moment and the shifts you've generated suddenly become clear.