Thursday, October 16, 2008

Compassion practices for political divisiveness

Lately I find myself returning to the Four Immeasurables practice. I take refuge there, for these times cry out for compassion, and this is the best way I know to generate and stabilize a stream of compassion to send out into the world. The practice is simple enough. Focusing first on myself, then a beloved, then a neutral person, then a person with whom I have trouble (known as the “enemy”), then out into the world, I pray that we may all be free from suffering. The more deeply and frequently I practice, the more peace I feel and bring to my interactions.

I have been teaching this practice in my classes, planting the seed of possibility. We all want to behave compassionately in difficult times. It is our natural impulse. We forget we need to train to be able to do this. The Four Immeasurables is our training.

As the practice develops, we work with increasingly challenging people (though of course just wishing ourselves well can be surprisingly hard). In today’s political climate, there is no shortage of “enemies” with whom to work. As I look around me, I see incredible suffering being self-inflicted as the elections in this country draw closer. When we allow ourselves to divide into “us” and “them” and decide that some people are more worthy of our care and others of our derision, we solidify the very ground of all conflict, throughout history. This inevitably causes us pain, and does very little to rectify the wrongs we object to.

I hear my loved ones express stark fear at the idea of someone else’s candidate being elected. I want to soothe them, to remind them that it isn’t the end of the world. Many people are feeling this way, regardless of which candidates they identify with. Ultimately, however, each of us - no politician - is responsible for our own wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those around us.

I hear people say meditation won’t solve anything; the bad guys will take over while we’re sitting around wishing them well. I understand the fear. I also understand that when I let my practices slide, my vision clouds and I cannot perceive right action. I flail about and make things worse, the way a panicked person in the water will drown themselves and the person trying to save them. The traditional metaphor is a person sitting by a pond, stirring it with a stick while trying to see the bottom. The only way to see clearly is to allow the water to settle. The Four Immeasurables, or any contemplative practice you may use, allow the waters of our minds to settle, so we can see clearly what is required of us now.

I take comfort in His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He has every reason to feel agitated, angry, and bitter about how his people have been tortured and imprisoned and killed. Yet he is renowned for his gentleness, his grace, his humor. He bears no ill will. He is calm. He spends hours a day in meditation and practice, and he is one of the most respected and active agents for change in the world today.

My hope in writing this is to offer alternatives to stressing out about elections, financial institutions and intense weather events. This practice is a tool you can use to alleviate some of the suffering arising these days, and clarify your own path.

The Four Immeasurables
(Love, Compassion, Equanimity and Joy)
Repeat 3 times, or as many as possible:

May I be filled with lovingkindness
May I be well
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy

May you be filled with lovingkindness
May you be well
May you be peaceful and at ease
May you be happy

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness
May all beings be well
May all beings be peaceful and at ease
May all beings be happy

Begin with yourself, recalling how you felt when someone showed you compassion. Then repeat for a beloved (even a pet), then a neutral person (like a store clerk), an enemy, and the whole world. It can take months or years to fully work this practice. Have patience. See Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness for further information.

Blessings, and may you be free from suffering.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ratna, autumn and equanimity

The autumn equinox is about balance. In the Buddha families, autumn is the time of Ratna, the yellow in prayer flags. Ratna’s wisdom aspect is equanimity. Each Buddha family has both a wisdom and a neurosis, two sides of one coin. In its neurotic aspect, Ratna is represented by the Hungry Ghost, whose body is as huge as a mountain and whose mouth is the diameter of a hair. No matter what the Hungry Ghost tries to take in, it can never be enough. When we indulge our cravings, whether for food, possessions, power, anger or control, we are in the Hungry Ghost realm, being run by our belief that something can fill the emptiness inside. We think something is wrong, we dislike our current experience of hunger or craving, and we race after whatever we think will fix it. (Do I need to point out here that it doesn’t actually work? We aren’t broken, so we can’t get fixed.)

The antidote to craving is to cultivate equanimity of mind. Equanimity has no preferences, is easy with not knowing, and refrains from leaping to judgment about situations and the people in them. This takes practice. Equanimity is illustrated in this story:
An old man’s only horse ran away. The villagers said, “Oh, how awful!” The old man said, “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.” Then the horse came back, followed by several wild horses. Now the old man was wealthy! The villagers said, “Oh, how wonderful!” The old man said, “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.” (This old man sounds a lot like my mother!) Then the old man’s only son was thrown off one of the wild horses he was trying to train, and broke his leg. Now the old man had no help on his farm.
“Oh, how terrible!” the villagers cried. “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.” Soon after, the local lord declared war on a neighboring land, and sent soldiers to all the farms to round up young men to go fight in battle. The old man’s son was left behind, unfit because of his broken leg. “Oh, that is so good!” said the villagers (having still not figured out how the old man saw things). What do you think the old man said?

We could use the old man’s words as our mantra in times of lost balance. When hunger and craving arise as resistance to what is, and we try to pigeonhole our experience, like the villagers, rather than just having it, we could use a little equanimity. For we never truly know the outcome, and jumping to conclusions does not even count as exercise. It can be a relief to release the need to know, and to let go of the illusion of control.

I have been working with this approach myself for about twenty years, and am recently noting some real progress. So, have patience! Car cut you off in traffic? Is the other driver an idiot? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.