,"If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher."
This famous quote by Buddhist nun and teacher, Pema Chödrön, appeared in my Facebook news feed last night like an auspicious sign. Pema's many books and lectures often center around opening the heart to radiate metta, the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness. Metta is part of my regular meditation practice, but it's practical application often still alludes me.
As a spouse, mom, and a person blessed with dear friends, my heart sometimes feels so open that I don't discern any barriers between me and my loved ones. But going about my daily life with everyone else in the world, I often feel overwhelmed by social disconnect.
Yesterday morning, I encountered the most agitated and unsettling man I've come across in a very long time. My benign gesture in a crowded coffee shop completely set him off. His language was so demeaning and emotionally abusive - words meant to cut straight at my self-confidence - that I found myself dropping back into old patterns.
I'm a fighter by nature. I'm easily driven wild by even small injustices. I engaged this man when I should have walked away, and this is why all of this - yoga, meditation, loving-kindess, perhaps life as a whole - is a practice. Sometimes we rise up to the occasion, and sometimes we don't.
While it was plain as day that this man is abusive by nature and probably has big issues with women, it was also clear to me that anyone who gets this worked up when someone moves his newspaper is not operating with a balanced mind. What would Pema have done in this situation?
I didn't take a breath. It's that simple.
The Buddha, in his infinite wisdom, offers a light in the darkness of our closed off hearts. Metta, or loving kindness, is the first of a series of meditation practices designed to cultivate the four qualities of love: metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy) and upeksa (equanimity). Practicing loving-kindness (metta bhavana) begins a process that, when mature, leads to a more accepting, kindly, and caring relationship towards one's self and others.
To practice metta is to cultivate the wish that everyone, including those that drive us crazy, be well. When I think of that man now that I've had the space to breathe, I honestly do wish him well. I know enough about the psychology of abusive behavior to know that he has probably suffered immeasurably. Now that I've opened my heart to him a little bit with metta, it's quite easy to extend to him my compassion. In fact, I have come a long way from my old, fight-at-all-costs self.
Start by positioning yourself comfortably, either lying down or sitting cross-legged. Spend a minute or two centering on your breath, allowing the signals from the body and mind to settle.
Bring up the image of yourself, and say to yourself with each breath: May I be happy. May I be happy. May I be happy. Say this as many times as you need to begin to touch your heart.
Bring up the image of a person you love unconditionally, and say to yourself with each breath: May [this loved one] be happy. May [this loved one] be happy. May [this loved one] be happy. Repeat this mantra to yourself over and over, feeling your heart swell with love.
Bring up the image of a neutral person, someone you encounter regularly but don't know much about (your mailman, a neighbor you see on your morning walk, etc). Say to yourself with each breath: May [this neutral person] be happy. May [this neutral person] be happy. May [this neutral person] be happy. Allow yourself to recognize this most universal of needs.
Bring up the image of a difficult person, someone with whom you have conflicts. Say to yourself with each breath: May [this difficult person] be happy. May [this difficult person] be happy. May [this difficult person] be happy. Remember that we all want the same thing in life, even if we disagree.
Bring up all four - yourself, your loved one, your neutral person, and your difficult person - and extend the wish for happiness to all of them equally.
Now expand your heart to radiate loving-kindness to all living beings everywhere.