I suppose you can blame Credo for this diary. Some months ago, the Phone Company Formerly Known as Working Assets, which offers its customers a selection of books at a discount, placed on its list a book-and-CD set called Quiet Mind: A Beginner's Guide to Meditation. Having been possessed of an unquiet mind for about as long as I can remember, I thought this book might offer me some respite from the increased stress, anxiety and general unhappiness that's afflicted me for the past few years.
Not all the forms of meditation appealed to me. The Zen meditation and the healing meditation, in particular, ran against my temperament enough that I never went back to either. But two of the forms resonated with me enough that I've made them central to my (full disclosure: highly inconsistent) meditation practice -- vipassana, mindfulness meditation; and metta, the practice of compassion.
The section on metta was written by Sharon Salzberg, who's written several other books, including Loving Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, which I'm reading now. I came across a passage in this book today which reacted with my current preoccupation with health care reform, a preoccupation that many of us share.
The current political climate has many of us on tenterhooks, as health care reform is literally a matter of life and death, and we find ourselves frustrated daily by the intransigence and outright callousness of our opponents, particularly those within the Democratic Party. Every day, we telephone the elected officials who hold our lives in their hands, hoping that the despair, the intensity and the outrage of our personal stories will move them to endow us with the security we need. Most of us don't know what effect, if any, our words are having, and some of us fear the worst.
Let's step back from all that for a moment.
Metta is the cultivation of a general attitude of kindness and goodwill -- toward ourselves, toward friends and family, toward strangers and toward all beings, including, yes, those we see as our enemies. A simple form of the practice, as introduced in Quiet Mind, involves reciting a four-line formula:
May X be safe from danger.
May X be happy.
May X be healthy.
May X live with ease.
The meditation begins by expressing this wish toward oneself, then toward a benefactor, then a neutral stranger, then an antagonist, and finally toward all beings. I think a major reason why I'm so drawn to this form of meditation is my overall outlook on life. I've never been one who saw life as a precious gift. To me, life has always seemed more like a predicament. And given that we're all in this same predicament, it's been self-evident to me that if we have any purpose in this world beyond mere survival, it's to make this predicament more bearable for one another. If only we could create a world in which everyone was safe from harm, happy, healthy and at peace, then life might really be the gift so many people make it out to be. Thus, anything that increases the overall amount of happiness in the world must be a good thing.
Of course, if this practice came naturally, the world would be a utopia. It doesn't. It's difficult. It requires a recalibration of one's senses, perceptions, thoughts, feelings and impulses. Desires, attachments, anger and aversion all distract us from this metta state of mind. It's easy to feel loving kindness toward someone who's just given you a slice of cake. It's hard to feel the same way toward the person who just cut you off in traffic while yakking on a mobile phone, the airline employee who seems not particularly concerned about your missing luggage, or the chairman of the Senate committee who takes large donations from health insurance corporations and is holding up reform. And this is where the passage I read today comes in.
In chapter 7, "Developing the Compassionate Heart," Salzberg writes about cultivating metta toward those who inflict suffering on others. A few relevant excerpts:
Sometimes we think that to develop an open heart, to be truly loving and compassionate, means that we need to be passive, to allow others to abuse us, to smile and let anyone do what they want with us. Yet this is not what is meant by compassion. Quite the contrary. Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal.
This kind of understanding does not mean that we dismiss or condone a person's negative behavior. But we can look at all of the elements that go into making up a person's life, and can acknowledge their conditioned nature. To see the independent arising of these impersonal forces that make up our "selves" can provide the opening for forgiveness and compassion.
Compassion means taking the time to look at the conditions, or the building blocks, of any situation. We must be able to look at things as they are actually arising in each moment. We must have the openness and spaciousness to see both the conditions and the context.
Rather than responding to social problems through taxation or punishment, the Buddha's advice [to an ungenerous prince] was to see the conditions that have come together to create a context in which people behave a certain way, and then to change those conditions. . . . It is much easier to be moral if one's life is secure in some way . . . . Thus our commitment should be to create conditions so that people can more easily be moral.
This chapter ends with an exercise called "Compassion for Those Who Cause Pain":
A further compassion meditation begins with using the phrase "May you be free of your pain and sorrow," directed toward someone who is causing harm in the world. This is based on the understanding that causing harm to others inevitably means creating harm for oneself, both now and in the future. . . . When I've taught this meditation on retreats, people often choose their least favorite political leader as the object. It is not necessarily an easy practice, but it can revolutionize our understanding.
I think the thoughts were already forming in my head as I read the chapter, but this was the part that caused them finally to take shape.
Let X be Max Baucus. We may feel a great deal of anger toward him because he's stalling health reform, apparently at the bidding of health insurance corporations. But what wound must he have suffered to make him place the interests of these corporations over the health of Americans, even the health of residents of his own state? Has he lost his sense of empathy? Is he anxious about re-election? Does he feel the need to please someone powerful? Most likely, none of us knows for sure; he himself may not know. But just as surely, none of us knows that he's corrupt or greedy or selfish or stupid. Perhaps if he were happier and more secure, he wouldn't fear the consequences of serving the country and its citizens at the expense of his corporate donors. Perhaps if he had more self-confidence, he could tell insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists, "You've done a lot for me, but you've also caused a certain amount of suffering in others, and I have to do what I can to set that right." Perhaps if he were more aware of others' pain and sorrow, he would feel moved to do whatever he could to reduce that pain and sorrow. Perhaps he'd recognize that he and we are in the same predicament -- life -- and choose to do his part to ease our burden.
Let's do this together. Choose your X (or X's). Grab slinkerwink's contact list. Make your phone calls. Telephone the representatives and senators on the key committees. Only, instead of slinkerwink's talking points, try these on the staffer who answers instead:
"Hi, I'm ________, and I'm calling to wish that you and those you love be free of all the pain and sorrow in your lives, and also that Rep./Sen. ________ be free of all the pain and sorrow in his/her life. And I'm also calling to ask that Rep./Sen. ________ recognize all the pain and sorrow that have been needlessly caused in Americans' lives by our current system of health insurance, which doesn't provide the relief or the security that it's supposed to. And I ask that he/she do whatever he/she can to reduce our pain and sorrow by helping to pass a universal, high-quality public option that provides coverage and care to all who need it, when they need it. I wish that all of us may be safe from danger, be happy, be healthy and be at ease. Thank you."
If you have a health care story to tell, slip it in there, so that the staffer knows just what kind of pain and sorrow you're talking about. But don't forget to reiterate that all you want -- for yourself, for the staffer, for the lawmaker and for all Americans -- is to be safe, happy, healthy and at ease.
I sent out my first wave of metta yesterday with a tweet to Chuck Grassley, speaking in a language he could (hopefully) understand:
@chuckgrassley May you be free of pain and sorrow. May you also help end needless pain and sorrow caused by pvt health ins. WE NEED PUB OPT.
The gentle flow of love -- maybe it can accomplish what the scorching fires of righteousness haven't yet. What can it hurt to try?
Any graphic appearing below is an advertisement paid for by another party. It is not a part of this diary and is not endorsed or approved by this diarist. The advertiser does not speak for the diarist. The diarist may not agree with this content and should not be assumed to agree with it. All issues concerning the ad content should be taken up with the site administrators.