We are not currently meeting 'in-person'

We are not currently meeting 'in-person.'
I have made the difficult decision to stop holding our in-person Sunday night meetings - you can read more about this in my post here. I will be continuing to post weekly content here and in our newsletter. Do remember to sign up for the 'Metta Letter' newsletter below as I will be sending out weekly meditations there.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Metta – Developing Lovingkindness for Ourselves

Metta is a Pali word that is usually translated as ‘Lovingkindness’. Strictly speaking it can also be translated more simply as ‘love’, but in the West we are so hung up about the passionate or sentimental aspects of love that it is not so useful. Thus we use the rather cumbersome ‘lovingkindness’ when introducing the concept of Metta. In reality, part of the value of Metta meditation practice is that you will explore and learn your own meaning for ‘Metta’. We develop feelings of Metta by unconditionally wishing that people are well, happy and free from danger – no matter who they are.

A pearl goes up for auction. No one has enough, so the pearl buys itself – Rumi

Love exists in itself, not relying on owning or being owned. Like the pearl, love can only buy itself, because love is not a matter of currency or exchange. No one has enough to buy it, but everyone has enough to cultivate it. Metta re-unites us with what it means to be alive and unbound – From ‘Lovingkindness, the Revolutionary Art of Happiness’ Sharon Salzberg

The Sublime Abodes:
Metta is part of what is known as the four ‘Brahma-Viharas’, which translates as the ‘Sublime Abodes’. The reason they are called this is based on the belief that our emotions are states of mind that we choose – not things that happen to us. So, instead of saying ‘Fred made me angry’, we should say ‘Fred did this, and I chose to be angry’. This is not how we normally behave, but if we can make this shift in our approach, then we ourselves can be much happier by choosing that our mind dwell in positive mind-states, or the ‘heavenly abodes’. The four abodes are:

• Metta – Lovingkindness
• Karuna – Compassion
• Mudita – Joy in others’ success
• Upekka – Equanimity

Traditionally, the practice we will be learning is called the ‘Metta Bahavana’ – ‘Making Lovingkindness Happen’. Again, this is based on the understanding that our emotions are our own choices.

Metta for Ourselves:
In the full Metta practice we progress through developing feelings for ourselves, our friends, people we don’t know well, our enemies and finally all sentient beings. Metta meditation is truly a life-long practice! We start, though, with the foundation, which is to generate feelings of Metta for ourselves. Many people find this the hardest part. The most important thing to remember is that Metta is unconditional. Regardless of how you feel about yourself, we need to root ourselves in the belief that we deserve to be well, happy, free of danger and free of fear. So, thoughts about our issues and inadequacies have no place in this meditation – you deserve to be well and happy, unconditionally.

Practice: Metta for Myself:
This meditation is designed to allow us to start to feel what Metta really means, by directing feelings of lovingkindness to ourselves.

Start by settling into your meditation position and gaining focus through mindfulness of the breath. Now bring to mind a time, place or situation where you were truly happy, comfortable with your place in the world and what you were doing. Work with that image and notice the feeling you get. Now, maintaining that feeling as best you can, tell yourself that you deserve that feeling of happiness in all of your life, regardless of the mistakes you make or situations you find yourself in. Repeat the mantram ‘May I be well, May I be happy’ and try to let go of any negative feelings, realizing that you deserve to feel well and happy – unconditionally.


Saturday, January 5, 2008


Sometimes it feels like modern life is characterized by a detachment from reality – a feeling that we are sleepwalking through a world of extreme sensory input from television, the news, music, advertising and the hustle and bustle of business life. It may come as a surprise then to know that this feeling is nothing new, and that the stresses we see in societies and individuals today were apparent to the great thinkers two thousand years ago.

The Mindfulness of Breathing meditation we have practiced is a form of Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is often translated as ‘Insight’, ‘Mindfulness’ or ‘Awareness’, but the most telling translation is ‘Seeing things as they really are’. When we sit in Vipassana we are working towards developing an understanding of our minds, our bodies and the world around us that is free from the delusions and constructs that we normally cling to.

Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion. – from Vipassana Society Website.

As such, Vipassana cannot be taught, but can only be gained from the practice of meditation and the experiences we have. In the stories of the Buddha (which means, literally, ‘The Awake One’), there is a tale of a time when He silently held up a flower in front of a group of followers. Immediately one of the followers understood, and was enlightened.

The inventor Buckminster Fuller was fond of holding up his hand and asking people, “What is this?” Invariably, they would respond, “It’s a hand.” He would then point out that the cells that made up that hand were continually dying and regenerating themselves. What seems tangible is continually changing: in fact, a hand is completely re-created within a year or so. So when we see a hand—or an entire body or any living system—as a static “thing,” we are mistaken. “What you see is not a hand,” said Fuller. “It is a ‘patterned integrity,’ the universe’s capability to create hands.” – Recounted by Peter Senge in ‘Presence’.

We can start our Vipassana practice on the cushion, but the hope is to be able to see everything as it really is.

One of the tricks our mind uses to keep us from being aware of the reality around us is to keep the mind busy, chattering and wandering. Our Mindfulness of Breathing practice is a way to keep the mind centered and focused. Paying attention to the minutiae of the breathing process builds an awareness of our body and the way it works, and the relationship we have with it. Once you have a feel for this kind of focus you can apply it to everyday tasks – from eating your cereal in the morning to walking. Slowing down our pace, removing distractions and taking the time to really be present is a great step forward in ‘seeing things as they really are’.

Practice: How Did I Get Here?
This meditation helps us to start to see the complex web of interconnections that we are part of. One of the great insights of meditation is how none of us are independent, but that we are all intricately connected to each other.

Start by practicing the Mindfulness of Breathing. When you get to the point of dwelling in the moment, totally present and aware of your breath, allow your mind to ask the question ‘How did I get here?’ Start with the mundane, ‘By Car’, then gently peel back the circumstances, relationships, meetings, happenings that led to you being here. All the while keep you mind centered on your breath, being very aware of the present.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Sweet Vinegar

The core of Buddhist thought is captured in the four noble truths, the first of which is: "Life is dukkha". Dukkha is a Sanskrit word which is usually translated as 'suffering', although it is generally agreed that this is too narrow an interpretation. Often the rather clumsy translation of 'unsatisfactory' is used. Probably the best translation I have heard is the colloquialism: "Life Sucks".

The origin of the word 'dukkha' alludes to a squeaky potter's wheel. I find this a far more enlightening image - life is out of balance, and that causes it to be unsatisfactory, full of suffering, and generally 'sucky'. Those of us who are Reggio/Glass fans will recognize the concept in the Hopi Indian word Koyaanisqatsi.

I find that some people are turned off by the fact that Buddhism has this concept of dukkha at its core. I have been told that people feel that this focus on suffering is negative and unhelpful.

A few years ago Benjamin Hoff's book, The Tao of Pooh popularized the old picture of the 'Vinegar Tasters'. The picture shows Confucius, The Buddha and Lao Tse (representing Taoism) tasting some vinegar. Confucius tastes the vinegar as sour, The Buddha as bitter, and Lao Tse tastes it as sweet. The usual interpretation of this image is that Confucianism sees the world as sour, and in need of structure, rules and regulations to make it better. Buddhism sees the world as bitter - full of pain and suffering, and Taoism sees the world as sweet, fundamentally good if appreciated properly. This is, of course, a biased and simplistic view, but it is true that Buddhism sees our experience of dukkha as core.

So do I feel that the focus on dukkha is problematic? Not at all. Buddhism never promises to be an easy, happy-clappy self-help path. People often forget the rest of the four noble truths. To paraphrase, they are:

  1. Life is suffering (dukkha)
  2. Suffering is caused by our attachment and aversion
  3. We can be free from suffering
  4. The way to be free from suffering is by following the path known as the Eightfold path

To me, the third noble truth is the key. We can be free from suffering, from this 'unsatisfactoriness' we experience in this life. As Kusala Bhikshu says, "Suffering is Optional".

The radical thing here is that the cause of dukkha is identified as our attachment and aversion. This is not how we normally approach life. We usually think we will suffer less if we have more of what we like, and less of what we don't like. And yet that approach is exactly what causes suffering. We need to move beyond our attachment to 'the good' and aversion to 'the bad'.

I find the message of Buddhism one of great joy. The suffering and unsatisfactoriness of this life is optional. We know the cause of suffering, and we know why our usual attempts to ease our suffering don't work. And we've been given a path to decrease our suffering.

Whether or not you are a Buddhist, you can turn your life around by recognizing that our attachment to things causes our suffering. And the eightfold path? Well, I'll go into that in another post, but it's good to know that meditation is a part of that path.