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Opening the Heart: Three Stories

Practice

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Metta, or loving-kindness meditation, helps us to uncover and nurture the qualities of compassion and to bring balance into our lives.

This article appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Spirituality & Health.


The Buddha taught that the twin fruits of meditation are wisdom and compassion. They are like the wings of a bird: lacking one, the bird cannot fly. Mindfulness meditation focuses on arousing wisdom; Metta, or loving-kindness meditation, helps us to uncover and nurture the qualities of compassion and to bring balance into our lives.

1. My Awakening Through Ben

During my second year of chaplaincy training, I sometimes listened to a guided Metta meditation tape during the long commute to the hospital and I began to notice that the quality of my day improved. Patients were more forthcoming with their problems, and I was able to open to their suffering without bursting into tears or distancing myself by erecting a glass wall between us. The bone-numbing exhaustion I normally felt after a twelve-hour day lessened. But I did not attempt to use Metta with patients until I met Ben.

Ben had a brain tumor and was in the end stages of AIDS. A couple of days before my visit he suffered a seizure and temporarily lost his ability to speak. He was terrified that another seizure might take it again. Then as we talked, Ben’s head began to jerk, his body contracted in a spasm, his eyes rolled, and he opened his mouth in an almost silent scream. He was having another seizure, and I just froze.

I called the nurse. The code team arrived, and it took only minutes to stabilize him. Then we were alone again. But now Ben’s nightmare, not being able to speak, had become a reality. The terror in the room was palpable. My stomach was like a clenched fist. His eyes were begging for something. My mouth was dry. I had no words for him.

In that moment of not-knowing, I begin stroking his head and repeating the phrases of a meditation called “Metta,” or “loving-kindness.”

May you be safe from harm.

May you be happy and peaceful.

May you be strong and healthy.

May you be free from suffering.

I repeated the phrase over and over, as much for myself as for Ben, and gradually the atmosphere in the room seemed to soften and brighten. Ben relaxed into sleep, and I was filled with a peace and acceptance and joy that I had never before experienced. In offering loving-kindness to another, I had been healing myself.

When Ben awoke, he raised his arms to me asking for a hug, and as I cradled his wasted body, we were connected in a very intimate way. There was no separation; his heartbeat was my heartbeat; his pain, my pain; his life and death, mine. Metta had created a space where fear had been transformed into unconditional love.

2. My Toughest Group

There are five people sitting around an oilcloth-covered table in the sunroom of a county hospital. One man is clutching a coffee cup as if it’s his life preserver; another leers at me, trying to assert his power by flirting. Two prostitutes are dissing each other. I recognize an older man who has been here before. Welcome to the weekly meditation meeting in detox.

Because of lack of funding, people who are brought in by police or who sign themselves in are treated for five days, then sent on to a rehab or back to the streets. Some are glad to be in detox because the streets are so cold in winter and the shelters are dangerous, but no one is interested in meditation. They’re here because they have to be. Each week I meet a new group and start from scratch.

I introduce myself as a Buddhist priest and mention that I am in recovery myself. I describe the Metta meditation, then ask them to close their eyes or gaze at the table with unfocused eyes. I do a body scan (see facing page) and then ask them to visualize themselves as the object of Metta. “Use a picture of yourself as you are now or at another time in your life, perhaps when you were a baby or a child. Either that or you can say your name occasionally during the meditation.” The important thing, I tell them, is to connect with yourself as the object of Metta.

I then begin repeating four phrases that have been translated and adapted from the Pali language of Theravada Buddhism, phrases that I have found to work well for those who are ill or emotionally distressed:

May I be safe from inner and outer harm.

May I be happy and peaceful.

May I be strong and healthy.

May I take care of myself with joy.

I say the phrases over and over, noticing that a couple of people are napping, their heads lolling on the table. After ten minutes I end the meditation by sounding the bells and one person literally wakes up. Another demands, “You tryin’ to hypnotize me?”

I ask them what the meditation has been like for them. Silence. One woman says, “It was nice.” I begin a discussion on the meaning of the phrases. This stirs some life.

The older man, who has been in and out of detox several times, looks up and wistfully says that once he and his young son took the subway to Rockaway Beach and fished off the jetty. They had a good time even though they hadn’t caught any fish. He was happy then.

A younger man says he’s always searching for the big score and for excitement, but he’d really like to settle down in a small house and do regular stuff like having a barbecue in the backyard. One of the women begins to cry; she wants to get her kid out of foster care: that’s why she’s here to straighten herself out.

Each person has a dream, an image of what happiness would be, and it’s not about finding a lover or getting a better job or winning the lottery. During the second ten-minute meditation, all of us are sitting up relatively straight, eyes closed, repeating the phrases, “May I be happy and peaceful.”

3. My Friend Jackie

My friend Jackie intended to meditate for a long time, but like most of us bad put off learning how to do it. When she saw the Metta phrases for the first time, she knew that they were something that she could do. As she began to work with the phrases, tears came to her eyes. A deep sadness and fear arose, sadness she had masked with anger.

Jackie had been abused by her former husband, and by withholding financial support from her children, he still maintained control over her. Working with the phrase “May I be safe from harm” empowered her. She was able to disentangle herself from the story of why she felt sad and fearful. She began to know that she deserved to be safe and came to believe that she and her children would be safe from harm. Often, when she practiced Metta, she visualized herself sitting with her children enfolded in her arms.

The Practice of Loving-Kindness

In working with Metta, we begin with ourselves, then radiate the loving-kindness to a benefactor or mentor, a dear friend, a neutral person, and then a difficult person. Eventually we can include all the people, animals, and nature around us, as well as the entire universe. But we must start with ourselves. If we cannot love and accept ourselves exactly as we are, how can we expect to love others?

Sit or lie in a position that you can hold comfortably. Close your eyes if you like and take a couple of really deep breaths, feeling your breath going in and out and noticing your chest rising and falling. Now bring your attention to the top of your head and wish your head well.

Say to yourself, "May my mind be clear and spacious like the sky, may all negative thoughts and feelings and memories drift away like clouds."

"May my mind be filled with ease, well-being, and serenity.''

Imagine the feeling of well-being moving down your face — around your eyes, your nose, your cheeks, and mouth, so that all the muscles of your face begin to soften and relax.

Imagine the well-being moving in to your jaw, down your neck, across your shoulders, down your arms, and into your hands and fingers, so that the top part of your body feels light and easy.

Let the relaxation flow down your back, vertebra by vertebra, washing away any tightness or tension.

Feel the relaxation radiate through your chest, around your heart, in your stomach so that all knots are untied and everything is soft and easy.

Let the well-being move through your hips, down your legs, into your feet and toes.

Take a moment to enjoy all the muscles of your body working together in harmony, with no tightness and no tension.

Take a couple of really deep breaths, being aware of your breath going in and out, feeling your chest rising and falling.

I ask you to visualize yourself as you are now or at some other time in your life. Take the image of yourself, place it in your heart, and surround it with care and tenderness.

May I be safe from inner and outer harm.

May I be happy and peaceful.

May I be strong and healthy.

May I take care of myself with joy.

The words aren't important; it's the meaning behind the words — the feeling of being safe, happy, peaceful, strong, healthy, and cared for.

Just keep repeating the phrases, always connecting to yourself as the object of Metta.

May I be safe from harm.

May I be happy and peaceful.

May I be strong and healthy.

May I take care of myself with joy.

If your mind wanders or if you're distracted by sounds, just come back to the sensation of your breath going in and out and the phrases or just the key words:

safe

happy

peaceful

strong

healthy

cared-for

Connect with a deep wellspring of love and acceptance for yourself, exactly as you are.

May I be safe from harm.

May I be happy and peaceful.

May I be strong and healthy.

May I take care of myself with joy.

Now practice the Metta on your own for a time, remembering to return to the phrases when your attention drifts.

If you’d like, extend the loving-kindness to everyone in the room (house, building, neighborhood).

May we be safe from harm.

May we be happy and peaceful.

May we be strong and healthy.

May we take care of ourselves with joy.

When you're ready, open your eyes and come back to the room.

Note: For many, it is easier to send Metta to others and harder to feel it for themselves. However, some of us are so needy of attention that we experience resistance when we're asked to send Metta to others. Just notice what is true for you, without judging. We are all connected, so when you experience loving-kindness for yourself, all beings are included. When you experience it for others, you are included.


Madeline Ko-i Bastis has used Metta (Loving-Kindness) practices with cancer and AIDS patients, emotionally and mentally retarded adults, and battered women, in a psychiatric ward and a detox unit, for professional caregivers facing burnout, people with multiple personality and dissociative disorder, and teen-aged substance abuser at a rehab, and with her own sister when she was dying.

Why? Because people respond.

“We may not experience an epiphany while sitting on the cushion, But Metta slowly but surely transforms the way we relate to the world and ourselves.”

In working with Metta, we begin with ourselves, then radiate the loving-kindness to a benefactor or mentor, a dear friend, a neutral person, and then a difficult person. Eventually we can include all the people, animals, and nature around us, as well as the entire universe. But we must start with ourselves.


The Rev. Madeline Ko-i Bastis, founder and director of Peaceful Dwelling Project (www.peacefuldwelling.org), is a Zen priest and the first Buddhist to be board-certified as a hospital chaplain. She has worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, NYU Medical Center, and in the AIDS Unit at Nassau County Medical Center.


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