Saturday, August 23, 2014
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Loving kindness at Thanksgiving

As we move into the Thanksgiving season, the vibrant energy of loving-kindness offers true sustenance. The importance of delicious holiday food pales in comparison to the love of family and friends. The presence of loving-kindness constitutes what matters most around the Thanksgiving table.

Loving kindness at Thanksgiving

One way to strengthen our capacity to love is through the practice of “metta” or loving-kindness meditation.
One way to strengthen our capacity to love is through the practice of “metta” or loving-kindness meditation.

As we move into the Thanksgiving season, the vibrant energy of loving-kindness offers true sustenance. The importance of delicious holiday food pales in comparison to the love of family and friends. The presence of loving-kindness constitutes what matters most around the Thanksgiving table.

However, some of us arrive at Thanksgiving celebrations with trepidation in our hearts. Family discord, addictions, secrets, anger, or sadness often turn the potential beauty of this holiday into an unhappily attended obligatory event. Can the experience of such difficulty be transformed?

Relationships with emotionally unhealthy people are challenging. Their difficulty is compounded by the fact that no matter how much we may wish to transform another, we can only change ourselves. While difficult people may remain unaltered, we can choose to strengthen our capacity of extending positive and loving energy towards them. In doing so, we transform.

For many of us, we naturally feel the emotions of loving-kindness towards those closest to our hearts. American philosopher Nel Noddings refers to this as “natural care.” While we may need to refine our expression of care, the emotion of love for those nearest and dearest is instinctive. But what of those with whom we struggle? What of those we dislike, or even hate? Through conscious effort, we can direct caring energy towards people with whom we experience negative emotions. Noddings calls the intentional extension of natural care “ethical care.” It may not arise instinctively, but we can become more ethical. We can become more caring.

How?

One way to strengthen our capacity to love is through the practice of “metta” or loving-kindness meditation. This is an ancient Buddhist technique of training the mind and heart to respond to both pleasant and challenging relationships with clarity and kindness. In “The Metta Sutra,” Buddhist adherents are given an inspiring illustration of what it means to truly open the heart. “Just as a mother loves and protects her only child at the risk of her own life, cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos.”

While we may not experience “boundless love” so fully in this lifetime, we can certainly cultivate it. As we work to genuinely wish loving-kindness to all beings-- not just those gathered around the Thanksgiving table-- we benefit tremendously.

Cutting-edge research at Stanford University reveals that even a few minutes of metta meditation increases the sense of “social connectedness,” a feeling central to human wellbeing. A 2008 study at the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill highlights how a daily metta meditation practice significantly increases positive emotion and decreases both “depressive” and “illness symptoms.”

At its best, Thanksgiving nurtures, celebrates, and centers on positive social connections and emotion. In preparation for the holiday, consider setting aside 10 minutes a day for metta meditation practice.

Why?

If you sit down at the Thanksgiving table experiencing only natural feelings of loving-kindness, the practice of metta will deepen this experience. If you pull up a chair next to a difficult relative, loving-kindness meditation practice can be a very helpful support. Certainly, we all benefit by celebrating fall’s bountiful harvest with expansive hearts.

In presenting the following instructions for metta practice, I’m indebted to the work of senior Kripalu Yoga teacher Aruni Nan Futuronsky, creator of the CD “Life Works.” I’m also grateful for the insights of American Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of “Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.” Many versions of the loving-kindness blessings-- used in metta meditation-- exist. Feel free to draw upon the blessings offered below or modify them to best inspire your own cultivation of good will.

Sitting Peacefully

To prepare for loving-kindness meditation practice, sit comfortably either in a chair or on the floor. Find a spot in your home where you won’t be disturbed. Turn off your phone. You may want to set a soft bell or chime alarm to signal the end of the time devoted to practice. Set an intention to sit still. Yet, avoid being rigid about this. Let yourself move mindfully if needed.

If it feels comfortable to do so, close your eyes. Take a few minutes to settle into awareness of your breath. Notice your inhale and exhale. Let your belly be soft as you breathe. Let natural, easy, and mindful breathing calm you.

Return to mindfully focusing on your breath as you transition from one stage of metta meditation to the next. In fact, do your best to be aware of your breath throughout the experience.

Metta for oneself

Begin metta meditation by focusing on yourself. See yourself clearly at this point in your life. Perhaps this is a challenging time for you. Perhaps this is a time of great joy. Regardless, embrace all aspects of your being with a non-judgmental attitude-- even if only for 10 minutes.

The heart of metta practice involves the repetition of blessing phrases. At first you may not feel connected to these sayings. That’s fine. Just watch your reactions without judgment. Continue to return to the blessing phrases and imagine what it would be like to genuinely embrace their wisdom. You can repeat these phrases out loud or silently in your mind.

May I be happy.

 

May I be healthy.

 

May I be at peace with whatever I’m given.

Wishing your own self happiness, health, and the inner strength to be at peace throughout life’s vicissitudes is a powerful practice. You’ll be able to extend these blessings to others to the extent you can offer them to yourself.

Metta for a beloved one

Bring to mind the image of a person you love. See this individual clearly. See her smile. Notice how you feel when you imagine being near him. Feel your heart expand with the sense of natural care. Repeat the words of blessing, the words of metta, and direct them to this individual.

May you be happy.

 

May you be healthy.

 

May you be at peace with whatever you’re given.

Notice how it feels to extend these blessings to a beloved person in your life. Notice what emotions arise as you wish this person happiness, health, and peace. Focus your attention on offering these blessings to one you hold dear.

Metta for an acquaintance

Bring to mind a person that you see on a regular basis but don’t know well. You could pick an acquaintance at work, or someone at your local grocery store. Perhaps pick the person who brings your mail, or distant family friend. See this individual clearly in your mind. Repeat the loving-kindness blessings and direct your attention to this person.

May you be happy.

 

May you be healthy.

 

May you be at peace with whatever you’re given.

We cross paths with so many, yet come to deeply know only a few of these people over the course of a lifetime. Metta meditation practice helps us cultivate a spirit of goodwill towards the many acquaintances we encounter. Loving-kindness meditation helps us to remember the common hopes and dreams shared by humanity.

Metta for an adversary

In the beginning of your metta practice, you may not want to pick the most disliked or hated individual in your life experience. When it comes to directing loving-kindness energy to someone who is a negative influence, it’s best to start with one whose legacy isn’t completely full of pain. This way you can develop the skill of offering blessings to those you dislike without being initially overwhelmed.

Bring to mind a person who dislike. Perhaps pick someone who has injured you or caused you harm. See this person clearly. Notice details. Breathe deeply and repeat these blessings as genuinely as possible.

May you be happy.

 

May you be healthy.

 

May you be at peace with whatever you’re given.

It may be helpful to remember that you are not condoning the behavior of unhealthy or negative people. Rather, you are wishing them well knowing that if such people were healthy, happy, and at peace then their behavior would profoundly change. Remember, negative and hurtful behaviors are rooted in disjointed, traumatized, and unhappy lives. Through the practice of metta, you free yourself from habitually responding to negativity with a knee-jerk reaction of condemning the offending person. As you offer the disliked person a profound-- even if unmerited-- blessing of healing, you work to transform the root of negativity itself.

Metta for the world

Finally, before you conclude your metta meditation practice, bring to mind an image of the human race as a whole. You may want to imagine the earth spinning in space. Consider the complexity of billions of interactions linking our human family as one. Direct your loving-kindness blessing to all.

May you be happy.

 

May you be healthy.

 

May you be at peace with whatever you’re given.

At first, offering the metta blessings to countless individuals can seem daunting. How to extending goodwill so far and wide? Trust your own power of creative imagination and heartfelt knowing. Remember you are practicing metta, not needing to perfect it. Even your intention of wishing goodwill towards all transforms your sense of connectedness, positivity, and love.

May an expanding vision-- and deepening experience-- of loving-kindness enrich your Thanksgiving Day. May the practice of metta enrich every day of your life.

Amy Wright Glenn Philly.com
About this blog
Amy Wright Glenn earned her MA in Religion and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She taught in The Religion and Philosophy Department at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey for over a decade. While at Lawrenceville, Amy was the recipient of the Dunbar Abston Jr. Chair for Teaching Excellence. She is a Kripalu Yoga teacher, a DONA certified birth doula, and a hospital chaplain. Her work has appeared in International Doula. She recently published her first book: Birth, Breath, and Death: Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy, and Life as a Doula.

 

Reach Amy at amywrightglenn@gmail.com.

Amy Wright Glenn Philly.com
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