International Urban Retreat

The Urban Retreat: Every ending is a beginning

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

This is not the end, but the beginning.

Here is a summary of where we’ve been, and a list of suggestions for continuing your exploration of meditation.

Where we’re been

We hope you appreciated and benefited from the material we sent you. Remember that even if you didn’t manage to read everything or watch all the videos, they’re always there for you. In fact here’s a handy list of all the posts we sent during the retreat:

And there were three guided meditations that we led as part of the event. You can access those anytime, here:

What’s next?

If you want to maintain and deepen your meditation practice and, perhaps, your practice of Buddhism more generally, here are a few options:

1. Wildmind’s Year of Going Deeper
Our Year of Going Deeper is a year-long series of meditation events, where we’ll explore various aspects of meditation. It’ll be like the Urban Retreat, but with more of a sense of community. There are eight events planned, spanning the whole of 2014. Some are introductory, while others are more in-depth. All the events are free, although donations are encouraged.

2. The World in Balance, March 20, 2014
The World In Balance is a special event we’re running on the March equinox: March 20, 2014, at 16:57 UTC (click on the link to add the event to your calendar in your local time). It’s a worldwide meditation event, taking place at the exact moment that the earth’s equator passes the center of the sun, the earth is perfectly upright, and the transit from the seasonal extremes is at a balance point worldwide — but at the moment the details of the event are a secret! All we can tell you now if that it’s going to be big.

3. Join Wildmind’s Community
Our community is the most civilized, sane, compassionate place you’ll find for discussing your practice, and for getting support and encouragement. Join here.

4. Subscribe to Wildmind’s regular, bi-monthly newsletter
Our regular newsletter goes out roughly every two weeks, and contains links to selected news and articles from our blog. As of the next newsletter, there will also be a special article in each edition that hasn’t been published on our blog. Sign up here.

5. Join us for a weekend retreat
Bodhipaksa will be leading a retreat in Florida (just south of Tampa) from Feb 21–23, 2014. You can find out more or register here. There will also be a weekend retreat in southern New Hampshire, May 2–4, 2014. To find out more, subscribe to our newsletter!

6. Make use of other Triratna resources
Free Buddhist Audio is a treasure-trove of audio and written resources on the theme of Buddhist practice. The Buddhist Center is Triratna’s central site, which you can use to find a Triratna Center near you, or to find other resources.

7. Help us to spread the benefits of meditation
Lastly, we’re put a lot of work into this Urban Retreat. How about giving something back, by making a donation of $5, or $10, or even $20?

May you fare well in the future, and may our paths cross again.

Yours,
Bodhipaksa

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The Urban Retreat, Day 8: Developing compassion

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

I’m going to write less today, because sometimes I go on a bit, and I know we’re all bombarded with information. So here are just a few words about the practice of compassion, and especially of self-compassion.

What is compassion? Like lovingkindness, it’s a volition (something we desire or will or intend). While lovingkindness is the desire that beings find happiness, compassion is the desire to relieve suffering. Compassion flows directly from lovingkindness; we want beings to be happy, yet they suffer, and so we want their suffering to be relieved so that they can find happiness.

The Urban Retreat series:

Compassion is not a sentiment. It’s not just a feeling. Volitions are what lead to actions, and so the volition of compassion will lead to us relieving suffering where we’re able to. You can be compassionate without feeling much!

It’s hard to have compassion for others when we don’t have it for ourselves. Just as the lovingkindness practice starts with kindness toward ourselves, so compassion starts with — well, if we’re not currently suffering then it starts with kindness toward ourselves, but if we are suffering then we often need to address our suffering before we are able to have compassion for others, so we start with self-compassion. This isn’t selfish — it’s like how in airplanes you’re asked to put on your own oxygen mask before you help your children. If you don’t take care of your own needs first then you won’t be able to help your kids.

Suffering isn’t always what you think it is. A lot of people think they don’t suffer. They thing suffering is what poor people and sick people and people in third world countries do. Suffering is having cancer or starving to death. Actually, those things are suffering, but so is worrying about whether people like you, or feeling grumpy, or wishing you weren’t at work, or feeling low and despondent. Now it’s suffering on a different scale, but it’s still suffering, and it still matters. If we care about someone’s wellbeing we want them to be free of all suffering.

We often don’t notice we’re suffering when we’re suffering. We’re too caught up in worrying that people might not like us, for example, to notice that in that moment we’re in pain. So we have to learn to recognize our own suffering.

And when you find yourself in emotional pain in the ways I describe, it’s very valuable — crucial, even — to treat your pain with lovingkindness. You haven’t failed by suffering. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of being alive and human. So accept your suffering. Accept that it’s OK to suffer. Say to yourself “It’s OK to feel this.”

And then wish your suffering well. By doing this you’re wishing the part of you that is suffering well. Here’s one way to do that:

  • Notice where in the body your pain is most strongly located. (Even emotional pain is located in the body.)
  • Accept the pain. “It’s OK to feel this.”
  • With gentle curiosity, notice the pain’s size and shape and texture.
  • Place a hand on the part of part of your body where the pain manifests.
  • Say, like an adult to a child, “I know you’re in pain; I love you, and I wish you well.”

If the pain has arisen in response to the actions of other people — for example someone may have said something you found hurtful — then call them to mind now. Recognizing that they, too, suffer, you can wish them well: “May you be free from pain; may you be free from fear; may you find peace.”

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The Urban Retreat, Day 7: The practice of gratitude

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

One quality that’s closely related to metta is appreciation. We often take things for granted when they’re going right, and then focus on what’s not going the way we want it to. And that makes us unhappy and makes our relationships with others less warm and appreciative.

At our worst we’ll say things like “Nothing ever goes right in my life.” And in the moment we’re saying those words we’ll ignore that we have air to breathe, we’re alive, we’re probably healthy, we’re living in a fairly civilized society (it’s far from being Mogadishu), we’re sheltered from the elements, we have water, electricity, the internet, friends, family, etc. The specifics of what we have change from person to person and day to day, but we always have a lot more going for us than we choose to appreciate.

The Urban Retreat series:

So one thing I do in my practice sometimes (and this is something I explore in the video below) is to consciously appreciate what’s going right, and to say “thank you.”

I’ll take a trip around the body, basically doing a body scan meditation, and say “thank you” to each part of the body in turn. I’ll thank my feet, legs, hips, abdomen and lower back, chest and upper back, throat, head. I’ll thank my heart and lungs and other organs. I’ll thank my senses. If some part of the body isn’t functioning well, then rather than give it less thanks, I feel especially grateful; the body shows up for you every day. It tries its best to serve you even if it’s not well or damaged. It’s always trying to heal and repair itself. That’s the best kind of friend you can have — one who turns up to help you even when they’re sick.

And I appreciate and thank everything around me, from the furniture I’m sitting on (think of all the people involved in making it possible for you to do something as simple as sit on a chair!), to the building I’m in and all the utilities in it, to the society around me with its roads and sidewalks and sewers.

You can thank the air for being breathable. You can thank the sun for shining. Really, there’s no limit to the things we can express gratitude towards.

And as you do this practice (I assume you will) notice how you feel. There may be some initial resistance (it may seem silly to say thank you or you may not want to acknowledge your dependance upon others) but when you get into the practice of saying thank you you may start to notice a sense of warmth, or softness around the heart, or even joy.

If the video isn’t displaying (which can sometimes happen on mobile devices) then you can go straight to Youtube.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 6: The tender heart of lovingkindness

 

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

In previous posts I’ve suggested an approach to cultivating lovingkindness that begins with contacting our innate lovingkindness. Now the expression “contacting our innate lovingkindness” is a problem for many people, because they look inside themselves, don’t see anything at that moment that they could call “metta” or “lovingkindness,” and then conclude they don’t have these qualities. Which can start a downward spiral of rumination and pain: I don’t feel any love; Therefore I don’t love myself; Therefore I must be unlovable; Therefore no one will ever love me; Therefore my life is horrible.

I think almost everyone has experienced that kind of emotional nose-dive at one time or another.

The Urban Retreat series:

But I think that when this happens we may be looking within in the wrong way, and for the wrong thing.

I think the potential for lovingkindness is always there. It’s an innate part of us. But we have to awaken it. It’s sleeping, dormant. It’s wrapped in blankets of denial and self-protection.

And my current approach to awakening our innate ability to be kind is one I’ve mentioned before: a pair of simple reflections, followed by an invitation.

So the first reflection is this: We drop into the mind the truth, “I want to be happy.” I’m presenting this as a truth, because I believe that deep down we all do want happiness. Even when we choose a destructive path that leads to pain, we’re doing this because we believe it will bring happiness, or at least a relief from suffering, in the long term. It won’t, of course, but that’s because we’ve chosen the wrong strategy to find happiness, not because we don’t want to be happy.

So we drop this statement — “I want to be happy” — into the mind, and let its truth resonate within us. Feel its truth in your life, not in an abstract way, but concretely: “Yes, it’s true. I do want happiness. Even in this moment I want happiness.” This may be experienced as a kind of tender ache, and that’s OK. We’ll get back in a moment to why that’s OK.

And the second reflection is this: “Happiness isn’t always easy to find.” So we drop that thought — that truth — into the mind in the same way, giving ourselves time and space to have a response to it, to sense the truth of it in our lives. Because this too is true. We want happiness, but happiness is often elusive. We keep expecting to be happy and it doesn’t happen. Happiness doesn’t arrive, or it passes too quickly, or unhappiness shows up instead. So this too many evoke an achey sense around the heart. That’s good. Again, we’ll come to the why in a moment.

The invitation that follows these two reflections is just this: there is some part of you that, realizing that you want to be happy and that happiness is elusive, is prepared to wish you well. There is a part of you — a very deep part of you — that is prepared to be kind and supportive as you go about this difficult thing we do — being human.

Because I think it is generally harder than we admit, this being human. Having this innate drive for happiness in a world in which happiness is hard to find is a tough thing to do. And happiness doesn’t necessarily mean going about with a smile plastered on your face. Yes it can mean joy, but it can also be meaning, purpose, satisfaction, connection, or peace.

And the ache I talked about, which comes, often, when we rediscover that we want to be happy and when we admit that it’s hard to do this, is very valuable. Because this feeling of vulnerability is the recognition of the truth of our existential situation, and it’s not until we recognize our desire for happiness and the difficulty of attaining that desire that we can be truly supportive of ourselves.

Often we don’t admit this truth, and we believe we have our lives “sorted.” We’re fine. Maybe we don’t admit that we’re not too happy right now. That would be an admission of weakness and failure! Or maybe we do grudgingly admit that things aren’t perfect right now, but once we lose that 10 pounds, or get that promotion, or get past this busy spell at work — well, then we’ll be happy. We can become a bit cold and hard, and judgmental. When we see others being unhappy, rather than feel sympathy for them we may feel contempt. Or if we’re magnanimous we may give them some advice: “You just need to…” Have you noticed how prone we are to give advice on how to be happy even when we’re not happy ourselves? How sure we are that we have it all figured out, even when clearly we haven’t? And when people are at their most alienated from their vulnerability, they can be cruel. It becomes enjoyable to watch someone else fail; it confirms that that person is weak — unlike us.

When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable (“Yes, I do want to be happy; yes, it is hard”) all this protectiveness is dropped, and we discover that we do want to support ourselves. We do want to be kind to ourselves as we do this difficult thing of being human. We do have innate lovingkindness and we have just contacted it. And it’s a bit achey, but that’s just what happens when we rediscover our deeper needs, and when we admit the difficulty of meeting them.

And then when we turn our attention to others and recognize that they are in the same situation as us — that they are struggling beings, desiring happiness but finding it elusive — we find that the vulnerability opens the way to a tender sense of kindess toward them: a heart-felt desire to wish them well as they do this difficult thing of being human.

So try this as a practice for the next few days, at least. When you meet other people, or see them on TV, or think about them, remember that this is another being who wants to be happy, and who finds happiness elusive, who wants not to suffer and finds the suffering comes visiting all too often. Try this and see how it affects your sense of yourself, and your attitude to others. Try this also when you become aware of yourself — particularly when you find life hard or frustrating or unsatisfying. Recollect that you want to be happy, and that happiness isn’t always easy to find. Accept the tender sense of vulnerability that comes with that awareness — and wish yourself well.

This is what “contacting our innate lovingkindness” means. It’s not looking inside and finding some pre-made emotion of love. It’s finding a way to our own achey, tender vulnerability, and letting the heart respond with kindness.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 5: Looking with loving eyes

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

I’d like to share a way of relating that I call “loving gaze.” This is borrowed from Jan Chozen Bays, who writes in How to Train a Wild Elephant of the practice of “Loving Eyes.”

In her book she says:

We know how to use loving eyes when we are falling in love, when we see a new baby or a cute animal. Why do we not use loving eyes more often?

So what we can do is to recall, or even just imagine, the experience of looking with loving eyes. You can recall (or imagine) looking at a beloved child, or a lover, or even a pet. I find that the sense of care, and appreciation, and non-judgement is very transferrable, so once you’ve evoked a loving gaze you can turn that sense of looking lovingly upon yourself. As you notice the body, your breathing, your thoughts, etc., you can look at them with loving eyes.

The Urban Retreat series:

And once you’ve evoked that for yourself, you can now turn your loving gaze upon others: friends, people you don’t know, people you have difficulty with, animals, all beings…

This, I find, is a very quick way to help lovingkindness to emerge.

And when we do this, everything we experience seems to become gentler and softer. The world appears to be a lovelier, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful, place. Even the ugly bits of life seem beautiful in their ugliness. And we start to realize that the world is our experience of the world, which is not separable from ourselves. And so when we change, the world we perceive changes too. The world of our experience becomes more loving, more tender.

There’s something Chozen says about this that always blows me away:

Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out? [Emphasis added]

Give it a try, both in your sitting practice and as you go about your daily life. You can start right now, as your eyes scan the words in front of you. Look with love. And then carry that loving gaze into your next activity.

Additionally, here’s a recording of the first guided meditation hangout that we did as part of our Urban Retreat:

If that doesn’t work for you (which is sometimes the case on mobile devices) then here’s a direct link to Youtube.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 4: “Protecting oneself, one protects others. Protecting others, one protects oneself.” The Buddha

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

The Buddha said, “Protecting oneself, one protects others. Protecting others, one protects oneself.”

Lovingkindness helps us protect others, and it helps us protect ourselves.

At one time I used to have the New York Times delivered to my house every morning. It was one of my great pleasures to have a leisurely breakfast with a cup of tea, toast, and some intelligent analysis from the Op-Ed pages. But first I had to get the newspaper, which was tossed onto (or near) the front porch every morning by the delivery driver.

The Urban Retreat series:

It was always an awkward moment for me walking out onto the porch in my bathrobe and slippers, with my hairy legs and knobbly ankles exposed to the world. I somehow felt judged by the passing drivers. And even though I’m sure they never noticed me, I’d get a bit grouchy as I retrieved my rolled-up copy of the Times.

This was fear, really. It was the fear of what people thought of me, whether they judged me, whether they disliked me or laughed at me. You can tell yourself that all this is silly: that the drivers are too busy driving to notice you, that they’ll probably never see you again, that they’re probably not petty enough to care about how you look. You can tell yourself that it doesn’t matter; even if people have unkind thoughts about you, that’s their stuff, not yours. But still, there’s fear.

Sometimes I’m rather slow on the uptake, and it can take me a while to realize that I’m suffering. So it probably took a few weeks of grumpily retrieving the Times before I noticed what was going on. And my first response, once I did notice that I was suffering, was to wish the passers-by well. As drivers swished by, or as neighbors walked their dogs past the house, I’d slip into saying “May you be well; may you be happy; may you find peace.”

And the fear vanished. Instantly. As long as I kept repeating those phrases, there was no more worrying what people thought about me. There was no grumpiness. There was just me, picking up my paper, feeling joy as I wished others well.

The thing is that there’s no room in the mind for both well-wishing and worrying. If you fill the mind with well-wishing, there’s no mental bandwidth left for worrying what people think about you. And if the fear and the well-wishing coexist, them the fear is lessened.

I highly recommend cultivating lovingkindness at all times — or at least as much of the time as you can. Whenever your mind has room to wander, replace your normal “monkey-mind” thoughts with thoughts of lovingkindness. It provides a kind of mental buffer against anxiety and also against anger and other unhelpful mental states. And in this way we protect ourselves.

And if we do this, then in our interactions with others we’re more likely to take their wellbeing, their needs, and their feelings into account, and we’ll be less likely to cause them suffering and more likely to benefit them. So we protect others, too.

I hope you’re enjoying and benefiting from these Urban Retreat posts. If you’d like to participate in Wildmind’s online courses, and to be part of an international community of meditators, please check out our Meditation Initiative.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 3: When the rubber hits the road

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

When the rubber hits the road is a great time to practice lovingkindness, and I mean literal rubber and a literal road.

There’s a lot of irritation involved in driving, even far short of the extreme of road rage. It can be irritating to be in slow traffic, or busy traffic, or to be cut off, or to be held up by roadworks, or stuck at traffic lights.

We’re emotionally cut off from other drivers because we’re all in our own semi-private metal boxes, and so we don’t have access (usually) to their body language and facial expressions. So we often take things personally that aren’t necessarily personal. As comedian George Carlin said, “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

The Urban Retreat series:

And the mind wanders when we’re driving. We drive “on autopilot” and the mind gets distracted. And you might think that the mind, having meandered away from the unpleasant grind of the daily commute, would find something enjoyable to think about. But research shows that most of the time we think about things that make us even unhappier! So our internal experience is unpleasant, and we don’t much like what’s going on around us.

Next time you get a chance, look at drivers’ facial expressions. They’re often frowning, or at best neutral. You’ll rarely see anyone smiling while they’re driving. It’s a serious business. It’s an unhappy business, for the most part.

Driving lovingkindness practice can liberate us from all this. When I do driving lovingkindness, I keep myself mindful by remaining aware of my surroundings, and I say the phrases, “May you be well, may you be happy,” as I drive along. Sometimes it’s “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy.”

I might just have a sense that I’m imbuing my field of awareness with lovingkindness in this way, and every perception of a person (or a vehicle that a person contains) is simply touched by my kindly awareness. Or I may focus my attention on various vehicles as they pass in either direction, and wish the drivers and passengers well.

This can become very joyful. One of my meditation students wrote:

For my entire 30 minute ride to work I sent lovingkindness to each passing driver on the road. I can’t tell you the effect the that it had on me … I felt like a protective mother sending all of her children off on their day.

That’s rather lovely.

It’s so much more satisfying to wish drivers well than to have thoughts of ill will about them. When I’m driving with lovingkindness I find I want to let drivers merge, and it feels great. I can see why the Buddha described lovingkindness as a “divine state” — I feel like a gracious deity bestowing blessings as I slow down to create a space for a driver to enter the road. Even if it looks like the other driver is trying to cut the line, I have a sense of magnanimity and forgiveness as I let them in. It feels so much more enjoyable than trying to “punish” the driver by refusing to let them cut in.

And the act of well-wishing also helps prevent the mind from wandering into areas of thought that cloud my sense of well-being. The constant stream of thoughts like “May you be well, may you be happy” make it much harder for my mind to drift. So, despite some people’s fears to the contrary, I find I’m able to pay more attention to my driving, because I’m not getting lost in thought.

And smile! Smiling helps activate our kindness, and it makes us happier. And if some driver or pedestrian happens to see us smiling, they may be reminded that life doesn’t have to be cold, grim, and distracted, but can be warm, kind, and mindful.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 2: Authentic lovingkindness

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

In yesterday’s post I talked about the fact that many people have misconceptions about what metta (lovingkindness) is, and how those misconceptions can lead to disappointment, despair, and to giving up on the practice. The main misconception I addressed is that lovingkindness is an emotion. Actually, lovingkindness is a volition. It’s classically defined as the intention that beings be happy. So it’s something we want, not something we feel. Although the volition may lead to certain feelings, like warmth, an open heart, a sense of cherishing, joy, etc., the feelings are secondary.

Another thing that often happens is that we try too hard to make something happen. This may have happened to you if you’ve been under the impression that metta is an emotion. You think you’re “meant” to feel an emotion, and so you try really, really hard to make something happen. Perhaps you even succeed at times.

The Urban Retreat series:

And sometimes people think that metta in daily life involves “being nice” in a false way. But that’s not the case.

Actually, genuine lovingkindness involves, well, genuineness. It involves being honest about what we feel. It involves being authentic.

So the way I teach the practice, I stress the importance of accepting where you’re starting from. At the start of your practice, as you check in with yourself in order to ground the mind in the body, and to see what you’re working with, whatever you happen to find — that’s fine. If you’re feeling happy and loving and expansive, then of course that’s fine. If you’re feeling down, that’s fine. If you don’t know how you’re feeling — that is you’re feeling neutral — then that’s fine. Every feeling is fine. As I like to say, the only place you can start is the place you are, which makes where you are the perfect starting place.

So this is the start of authentic lovingkindness. We accept whatever we find at the beginning of the practice.

Then as we work on cultivating metta, we do this in an authentic way as well. We don’t try to make anything happen. If you use the approach that I suggested yesterday, which involves connecting with the fact that you want to be happy, and that happiness is elusive, then this is authentic as well. We just drop those thoughts into the mind, and see what happens.

Often what happens is that our defenses dissolve away. We forget we want to be happy, even though he yearning is there all the time. It’s a kind of defense mechanism; happiness is elusive, so just ignore it. Or we tell ourselves that we are actually happy (even when we’re not) because it feels like not being happy is a sort of failure. So that’s another defense mechanism. So all we do is we drop these thoughts in — “I want to be happy; happiness is hard to find” and let their truth become evident. We don’t try to convince ourselves of these truths — we already know them. What we need to do is to reconnect with them.

And as we reconnect with these truths, there may be, as I mentioned yesterday, a sense of tenderness and heartache. And in the spirit of authenticity we accept that as well. It’s OK to feel discomfort. It’s not a sign that there’s anything wrong, or that we’ve failed.

And then as we’re cultivating lovingkindness for others, we similarly don’t try to make anything happen. We just drop in the thoughts, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you find peace” and see what happens. Maybe we’ll feel something that we call “love” — but maybe not. It really doesn’t matter. It’s the intention — the wanting others to be happy — that’s the main thing. And even if that intention doesn’t seem to be strong, it’s actually the cultivating of the intention that’s the main thing. As long as you keep doing the practice, things will shift.

As we cultivate the intention of lovingkindness in this way we may find that there are various feelings that arise. We may find ourselves bored. That’s OK. Just accept it. Allow the boredom to be there, but don’t let it determine how you act; continue to cultivate lovingkindness for the other person. This particularly applies to the neutral person, although it can happen in any stage of the practice.

You may feel hurt or unsettled as you call to mind the difficult person. That’s fine. Just be with the discomfort, mindfully and with self-compassion, and keep wishing the other person well. You don’t have to like someone to wish them well.

So all through the practice there’s this attitude of authenticity. We can’t control how we feel, so we don’t try. But we can control (to an extent) what we do, and what we do is to cultivate this attitude of wishing beings (ourselves included) well. The more honestly and authentically we can do this, the more effective the practice will be.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 1: Demystifying lovingkindness

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

This post is part of our Urban Retreat, running from Nov 9 to 16, 2013. To subscribe to our Urban Retreat posts, which will be delivered to your inbox each day of the retreat, go here.

The Urban Retreat is set up to help you bring more depth of practice into your life. In particular we’re focusing for the week on lovingkindness (metta) practice, so that we can move towards having a heart that “blazes like the sun.”

I was surprised recently on a retreat, when I asked how many people practiced lovingkindness meditation regularly, to find that fewer than half the participants did. I’d expected almost every hand to go up, since in the Triratna Buddhist Community of which I’m a part, lovingkindness meditation (metta bhavana) is regarded as a key foundational practice, along with mindfulness of breathing; alternating the two practices is the standard recommendation.

The Urban Retreat series:

It turned out that a lot of people had difficulty with the metta bhavana practice. They felt a sense of failure and despondency around it, and so they tended to avoid it. And as I talked to those people it turned out that this sense of failure came out of a misunderstanding of what metta was. They believed metta to be an emotion. They believed it to be an emotion they hadn’t yet experienced; it was something grand and awe-inspiring and deeply moving; it was something powerful and even over-powering. And because they’d sat there, trying to make this grand emotion happen, and seeing “nothing” happen (actually we never have “nothing” happen, but let’s set that to one side for now) week after week, month after month, year after year, they came to think that experiencing metta was something they just weren’t capable of.

But metta isn’t an emotion. It’s a volition.

OK, so what’s a volition? A volition is a wish or desire (it’s from a Latin verb volere, which means “to want”). Specifically, it’s the wish that beings be well, happy, and at peace. Now that wish may be accompanied by certain feelings, like a warmth in the heart, or it may not. Whenever you act in a way that values someone’s well-being and happiness, you’re acting out of metta. So to take a very ordinary example, you’ll hold open the door for the person behind you. You wouldn’t want to let the door slam on them because that would kind of suck for them. And most of the time you don’t want to cause them to suffer. But there’s not usually any great upwelling of emotion when you hold open a door for someone. Maybe you get a little glow of happiness, but maybe not.

And this is all very ordinary. This quality of wishing that beings be well, happy, and at peace is woven into the fabric of our lives. Metta is not some strange new thing that you’ve never experienced. Of course, if you discount all the metta that’s woven into your life, then you’ll think it’s something otherworldly. That’s unhelpful, because cultivating metta is not about creating something from scratch. It’s about growing and developing something that’s already there.

“Cultivating” is an agricultural metaphor. When you cultivate plants you don’t start with nothing. You start with seeds. And the seeds of metta already exist within us, in the form of the ordinary kindness we experience from day to day.

Our task, in cultivating metta, is to connect, or perhaps reconnect, with our ordinary kindness, and to encourage it to grow.

Here’s how I do that, and how I encourage other people to do it. I start with two reflections:

  • I want to be happy.
  • Happiness is hard to attain.

I take these one at a time, and drop them into the mind. I allow them to resonate, and I feel their truth. I recognize that each of these statements is true for me. I connect with the yearning I have to be happy, to be at peace. I notice that this yearning is often frustrated in small ways — that happiness is elusive.

And this can cause a slight heart-ache, but that’s OK. That sense of vulnerability is us connecting with the fragility and difficulty of human life; it’s not easy to do this thing we call being human.

So having dropped these thoughts into the mind, and felt the truth of them, the part of me that wants me to be well, happy, and at peace starts to wish me well. And so I then start to drop metta phrases into the mind — phrases that help the seeds of metta to grow.

These days the three phrases I most often use are:

  • May I be well.
  • May I be happy.
  • May I find peace.

The exact words don’t matter, though, and you can choose whatever works for you.

After I’ve wished myself well, I move onto a friend, and I consider that my friend too wants to be happy; that my friend too finds happiness elusive.

And then I do the same with a person who I don’t have any strong feelings for, then someone I have difficulty with.

Then I have a sense that whoever I was to meet, either in the external world or in my thoughts, I’d meet them with kindness, and there’s sense of taking my awareness out into the world.

And then finally I bring my metta into the world, as I get up and return to my normal activities, allowing the practice to inform my thoughts, words, and actions.

And I may find that feelings arise (and often they do) but they’re a bonus.

So that’s how I do the practice, with a recognition that metta is something inherent to us; something that we all experience.

Below you’ll find a video of guided lovingkindness meditation that I led a few months ago:

If for some reason this doesn’t show up, you can go straight to Youtube.

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Join Wildmind in the 2013 Urban Retreat

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You are invited to join an urban retreat we will be hosting from Saturday 9th to Saturday 16th November. The “urban retreat” is a week of online talks, teachings, guided meditations, and other resources, delivered to your inbox every day by email. And it’s all free!

The theme will be: “Blazing Like the Sun” and we’ll explore how our hearts can be more overflowing with kindness, compassion, confidence, and love of life. We’ll explore how to find the “freedom of heart” that is loving-kindness.

Each day we will email you material to help you engage with the practice of lovingkindness, and to incorporate it into your daily life. If you can’t practice daily, just join in when you can.

To participate, sign up using the form below to receive the free daily email from Bodhipaksa. The emails will contain readings, links to guided meditations and other information. We have also scheduled three Google Plus video Hangouts where you can join us for a live guided meditation. These are on Saturday, November 9th at 11 am US Eastern time (click on the links to add the events to your calendar in your local time), Tuesday, November 12th at 2 pm, and Saturday, November 16th at 10 am. Or check out timeanddate.com, converting from “USA – New Hampshire – Concord” to your location.

Join Wildmind in the 2013 Urban Retreat

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