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May you have ease of well-being

Do I really want to spend this entire day with whatever might come up about my mother?
By Kim K. Crawford Harvie
Summer 2013 5.15.13

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At the beginning of a six-day meditation retreat led by all-star Buddhist teachers and authors Sylvia Boorstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein, we take a vow of silence. Additionally, we vow not to read, write, or look at one another; we will spend the next six days at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, sleeping, eating, and meditating with seventy-five people, engaging with no one but ourselves. But this is no solitary venture. The intention of the retreat is, in essence, to put Unitarian Universalism’s seventh Principle—affirming Unitarian Universalists’ respect for the interdependent web of all existence—into action, to connect me in a profound way to every other person in the meditation hall, and far beyond.

On the first night, Sylvia Boorstein instructs us in memorizing four simple phrases, translated from the ancient Burmese language Pali. The phrases say:

May you be free of danger.
May you have mental happiness.
May you have physical happiness.
May you have ease of well-being.

These are the metta phrases, the practice of generating loving-kindness, a twenty-five-hundred-year-old gift from the Buddha, the awakened one. “Saying metta,” one does nothing more—and nothing less—than silently repeat these four phrases. I am told that a Tibetan nun, imprisoned by the Chinese government, survived torture and solitary confinement on the knowledge that somewhere in the world, in every moment, someone, somewhere, was saying metta for her and her jailers. I’m all in.

The wake-up gong sounds at 5:15 a.m. Seated meditation begins at 5:45; at 6:30, it’s time for breakfast. Breakfast is followed by an hour of walking meditation. And then it’s back to sitting. Day after day is just this: seated meditation, followed by walking meditation, until the final evening sitting ends at 10 p.m. And the metta phrases, over and over and over. The routine is punctuated only by a one-hour talk by one of the retreat leaders each evening; a two-hour work period, for which my assignment is to help in washing the lunch dishes; light meals; and using the bathroom.

I am a student of Zen Buddhism; this vipassana (in-sight) practice is new to me. I feel, at times, as though I were in prison, especially at night in the large, open room I share with sixteen other women. At other times I feel like I’m in the back ward of a psychiatric hospital, as we all shuffle around with our eyes averted: meditation, or medication? This is Joseph Goldstein’s image; in one of his evening talks, he says, “In a way, you are in a mental hospital. And your mind is getting better.”

The retreat begins with sending metta to yourself: “May I be free of danger; may I have mental happiness; may I have physical happiness; may I have ease of well-being.” You progress from yourself to a living benefactor—a teacher or spiritual guide for whom you feel respect and gratitude—and send metta to them. Next, you choose what is called a “neutral” person—a person you don’t really know, about whom you have formed no passions or dispassions—and send metta to them: “May you be free of danger; may you have mental happiness; may you have physical happiness; may you have ease of well-being.” Sharon Salzberg says it is important to approach increasingly difficult people gradually. High-wire metta is naming your enemy—the literal translation from Pali is your “difficult person”—and send metta to them. Finally, you send metta to all beings—every being who has ever lived, is living, or ever will live. When you have it down, the entire sequence runs in a continuous loop. And then it’s the sixth day, and time to go out into your real life again. Six days wholly devoted to cultivating loving-kindness!

This is the story of the second morning. We have been meditating for perhaps two hours when we are instructed to choose a living benefactor, a teacher for whom we feel gratitude, and to send them metta. The first person who surfaces in my quiet mind is my mother, a single parent to my younger sister, Lisa, and me.

This is a surprise; our relationship has not been uncomplicated.

I’m sitting on my meditation cushion, absolutely still, and my mind begins to wander. Do I really want to spend this entire day with whatever might come up about my mother?

No, and yes.

If I’m really going to make something of this retreat—if I’m really going to experience something transformative and wake up—is there any other living benefactor whom I might invoke at this time?

Yes, and no.

My mother has grand mal epilepsy. As I sit there in the early morning light with my yes-no hanging in the wintry air of the meditation hall, the woman behind me falls to the floor in a familiar thud: a seizure.

As a half dozen of us leave our cushions to help, I realize for the first time the kind of chronic fear my mother must have felt throughout my childhood: When she seized at home, there was no one to help her but a child. The compassion I feel opens up the possibility of connecting with her at a deeper place, deeper than our personalities. As deep, perhaps, as her soul.

Mum, may you be free of danger.
May you have mental happiness.
May you have physical happiness.
Mum, may you live with ease of well-being.

Two days later, it is time to send metta to our enemy, our difficult person. Having devoted so many productive hours to my mother, it seems only right to spend a day with what might surface about my father. I don’t wait for a sign, but start right in. I am after that expansive vision, that liberation of the heart promised by the Buddha’s awakening.

It is not easy. I spend much of the morning making deals with myself: For every five, “Dad, may you be free of dangers,” I get to do one for my daughters. During three periods of walking meditation, I choose to go running, giving me the illusion of getting through the metta phrases faster. I make up a little running meditation tune, a little metta tune, which turns into a metta symphony. Anything for distraction. I am silent, but it’s noisy inside my head.

Glancing at my watch, I notice the date and realize, with a jolt, that this is an anniversary: It is twenty-seven years to the day since my father walked out on our family. Twenty-seven years! A long time to bear a burden of grief and despair and anger, a burden that serves no one. Suddenly, it’s the perfect time to lay that burden down.

And then, out of the blue, it comes to me that my daughter Jamie is exactly the age Lisa had been when our father left. Six years old: innocent, guileless, open and tender hearted. In my mind’s eye, I see Jamie, I see the little Lisa, and the question arises, Who could abandon such a child?

Just as quickly, the answer comes: only someone who is very, very sick. Soul-sick.

With this understanding, loving-kindness floods my heart, and I feel an outpouring of compassion, the release promised by the awakened one.

Dad, may you be free of danger.
May you have mental happiness.
May you have physical happiness.
Dad, may you have ease of well-being.

The heart sees clearly. To truly wish someone well is to see them with our heart, and so experience a change of heart—a transformation not in them but in our relationship to them and in ourselves.

No matter where our path leads, beyond all our suffering, beneath all our changes, we are, at the deep heart’s core, unfragmented and undivided. Awakened to this wholeness, whole and holy, there is no such thing as a stranger or an enemy. To truly wish someone well is to make of our lives a peaceful and joyous place. All of our homing instincts call us there. And it is not far away—not far at all.

May you be free of danger.
May you have mental happiness.
May you have physical happiness.
May you have ease of well-being.

This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of UU World (pages 14–16) and is excerpted with permission from Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism, ed. by Sam Trumbore and Wayne B. Arnason (Skinner House Books, 2013). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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