Week 1, Day 2: Loving-kindness for the Agitated Part

Every night, as part of our bedtime ritual, my cat Amelia races me up the stairs and jumps onto her blanket in the bottom right corner of the bed. There she waits patiently as I shower, brush teeth, and make my way to bed. At which point she immediately begins her insistent, plaintive crying, even as she sees me reaching over to grab her brush from the night stand. “It’s okay, I tell her. See? I’m holding the brush, I am moving next to you to begin using it.” Her cries don’t abate until I’m well into the third or fourth stroke.

I don’t understand; I brush her nearly every night. Ostensibly she knows it’s going to happen. She watches me intently as I reach over to get the brush, as I bring it toward her. She seems to anticipate the brush as she arches her back up to meet it. Why start our sweet, nightly wind-down with this ritual of agitated crying?

Something similar happens when I sit down to meditate.

I’ve been meditating since 2007. Off and on admittedly—mostly on, other times off. Since this May, I’ve sat daily. Yet still, quite often (though thankfully not nightly) the moment I sit and contact silence, the insistent cries rush in. Not Amelia’s; these are cries from my mind. “It’s okay, I tell myself. See? I’m sitting here silently, learning to be more and more gentle with what arises.” I don’t understand why this time of winding down and connecting has to begin in this way.

But here it is, so I decide to apply this new approach to metta with what is arising. As Jack Kornfield instructed in the first part of his article “How to Do Metta,” I begin by offering the phrases to two people I love. Tonight, I included this agitated part of me that arises when I sit. Deeply feeling the love and kindness behind the phrases:

“May you be safe. May you be peaceful and content. May you be healthy. May you live with joy and ease.”

Then, as I followed his next instruction, turning the phrases toward myself, I felt the love between the part and I. Not at first. At first I was just following the instructions, being a good meditator. I continued, repeating the phrases, welcoming in the feelings of warmth and goodwill. I felt myself soften. My muscles releasing—jaw, shoulders, hips, and calves. I noticed my breath slow and deepen.

I turned my attention to the mind and discovered that the previous attacking quality—the pace and the tone of the thoughts that arose between the metta phrases—had softened as well. I suddenly had the sense that this agitated part of myself, like Amelia, might just be letting me know how important this quiet time is to her. Life Amelia, she wanted to emphasize how much she counts on being with me in this way. That nearly every night is not quite as good as every night, and she cannot tell if I miss one night how long the stretch might be.

I recognized that this part of me, insistent on wailing as I move into practice, values this time as much as I do. She’s reminding me it’s a priority because it’s good for both of us. Sitting itself is an act of love and kindness. Just like brushing Amelia.

What part of you would like a little extra love and kindness today?

Week 1, Day 1: Revisiting Metta

I’ve always wanted to enjoy doing metta practice. Loving-kindness meditation seems like a useful way to learn to be sweet with yourself and by extension with others. Yet, each time I’ve approached it, I wind up disappointed with myself for not being kind enough, loving enough, and even being nasty in thought to myself and others the whole time I’m sitting. I catch myself, of course, remind myself what I teach in meditation groups—each phrase is an invitation, offered up as the sound of a horn from the lighthouse on a foggy night. “May you be safe” it drones, and the direction of safe harbor is made clear, as is everything blocking that path. “May you be peaceful and content.” And on.

But, in practice, I fall so quickly and easily into the eternal trap of focusing on the fog that I start ruing the horn. “I don’t feel safe; I don’t feel protected… I sure as hell don’t feel peaceful or content!”

The longer I sit, the meaner and more hopeless the mind becomes.

On occasion, though, there are days that I feel connected and grounded already. Days that I have the presence of mind to meet the fog where it is, to sit solidly within it and experience it on its own terms, weathering the torrents of all that negative self-talk without identifying with it. Sitting firmly and without needing the fog to pass. Breathing in, breathing out.

That’s on good days.

On the rest of the days, I get swept into the depths and allow the mind to continue its torture until the bell goes off. I then bow in the darkness, lie down, and perseverate myself to sleep.

I really want metta to work for me. So I read lots of articles, try different guided versions from various teachers—collecting new ways to torture myself as I sit unable to contact the qualities of loving or kindness and overwhelmed by everything else that arises. This is not skillful means.

Sometimes I can find a spark of compassion for not having easy access to these qualities in the present for not having learned them in the past. The rest of the time, I’m just really, really tired of still being stuck!

This weekend, I found an article by Jack Kornfield. With Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg, and Tara Brach, he is one of my favorite Western meditation teachers because like them he devises ways to practice that interrupt old habits of self-depreciation. Teaching us to build our muscle in meeting them without getting taken under.

In the article, “How to Do Metta,” Jack offered an approach to metta that I’d never seen before. He acknowledged that some people struggle to offer the phrases to themselves. He suggested, then, to start metta by offering the phrases to one person you truly feel love for, really feeling the love and earnestness behind the offering as you make it. Then, he wrote, offer the phrases to another person you truly love, again deeply opening to the feelings.

Then, Jack said, imagine these two beings feeling this much love this deeply as they offer the phrases to you. Brilliant! The qualities—love, kindness—are already cued, and all that shifts is the direction they’re aimed.

Today was my first day trying this approach. Of course, the self-deprecation came up. Of course the mind continued its torture what seemed like the whole time I sat—old habits are not going to just dissipate. But they were joined by these new feelings, cultivated at first in the direction of well-loved others. So this time, as the judgments and berating set in, love and kindness began seeping between them.

Like Bactine® on a sunburn. The red skin is still too warm and achy, all puffy and bubbled. The burn isn’t instantly sprayed away. At the same time, though, there’s a deep sensation of cooling relief.

We’ll see what happens as I continue the practice.

Please let me know how it works for you.