“This universe is much too big to hold on to, but is the perfect size for letting go.” — Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness, The Revolutionary Art of Happiness
I always want the window seat. I’ve written before about the stories clouds tell and the miracle of flying through the air in a little metal tube, as Louise Hay so charmingly puts it. The brown-blue-green-gray patchwork below and the heavens above reassure all is well as the plane climbs to 38,000 feet at 500 miles per hour. In between sky-and-earth watching I alternate between reading and taking notes every few seconds on my new favorite text, Lovingkindness, borrowed from my mother, given to her by my sister. I am only now coming to know Sharon Salzberg, although I have heard of her from some of my yoga teachers.
This book is dense with stories that illustrate how and why there is always freedom to love. And how unconditional loving sets us free. Lovingkindness is a metta meditation, one of the four Brahmaviharas, which also includes compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. And the practice of all them begins with you, for you. “May I be free from danger. May I have mental happiness. May I have physical happiness. May I have ease of well-being.” As we learn to extend lovingkindness to ourselves, we expand, offering it to our benefactors, our friends, neutral beings, and eventually all living beings in the 10 directions of the world.
Even people and beings we’re not fond of, or worse. Not judging is hard. Letting go of grudges is hard. Forgiveness? So hard. I confess to killing a weird black stinging bug that landed on my leg while I was writing this. How do I know he bites? I tried lovingkindness on one of his kind last night. This is a process. I’m not there yet!
Sticky Monkeys and Being Happy for Others
It’s easier for me to work with compassionate joy. The sticky monkey story, a Buddhist parable Salzberg shares in the chapter on being honestly delighted with the success of others, stays with me. A monkey trap in the forest is set with tar. The monkey tries to extricate his foot from by putting his other foot, then his paws, into the escape attempt. He drops his head in defeat. “That is a very stuck monkey!” Salzberg writes, noting that a nearby tree branch could have provided a path to liberation.
How often do we cling, laboring so effortfully inside our own heads, like the sticky monkey? Comparing, or denigrating, or envying, or yes, feeling the twinge when someone we don’t like or has been unkind to us scores a big victory. Don’t be the sticky monkey. Grab a branch and keep it moving.
Salzberg tells us that letting go has the same powerful vibration as generosity. Just about the only thing that trumps generosity is LOVE.
Reap Eleven Buddha Benefits
In the book and in subsequent teachings, Salzberg shares the Buddha’s list of the rewards of metta meditation:
“Fortunately, the Buddha was characteristically precise about what those benefits include. He said that the intimacy and caring that fill our hearts as the force of lovingkindness develops will bring 11 particular advantages:
1) You will sleep easily.
2) You will wake easily.
3) You will have pleasant dreams.
4) People will love you.
5) Devas [celestial beings] and animals will love you.
6) Devas will protect you.
7) External dangers [poisons, weapons, and fire] will not harm you.
8) Your face will be radiant.
9) Your mind will be serene.
10) You will die unconfused.
11) You will be reborn in happy realms.”
I took so many notes that I had to slow down and remind myself that I can have my own copy of the book. But the best part, aside from the translations and explanations of karma, samsara – the ever-shifting conditions, what compassion really means, the difference between remorse and guilt and mudita ‑ the deliverance of gladness – is the nuts-and-bolts truth about any meditation.
Meditation Isn’t Fun
It can be irritating, boring, uncomfortable and annoying. At the very least, rambling thoughts are part of the process. Especially when you’re beginning. But even years into it, grocery lists, what I’m going to eat later, writing assignments, random to-dos and rants line up like a bunch of offspring tugging at your shirt yelling Mom, Mom, Mommy, Mom!
My mom said the greatest thing a couple of months ago: “I’ll start doing meditation when I’m more calm.” We laughed, but not at her. Because isn’t it so true that we all say we’re going to take better care of ourselves and save the world when we have time?
Dr. Melissa West’s Namaste Yoga most recent class on meditation perfectly addresses the imperfect reality of what meditation is. It’s not a monk sitting in perfect stillness in a cave in Tibet. It’s you, lovingly, kindly drawing yourself back to a quiet mind.
What will you do today to treat yourself with love and kindness, to leave space for your pain and honor your struggles, to be glad for your triumphs and to sit with parts of you and your life that you don’t like?
Bonus content: More Monkey Tales that illustrate why it’s useful to control the mind, the senses, and be attuned to one of my favorite detachment adages: Not my circus, not my monkeys. And here’s a way to do some lovingkindness lightwork at the airport – try it in the security line if you’re up for a fun challenge. The good vibes might surprise you!