Never throw anyone out of your heart.
– Neem Karoli Baba
I just completed an online Metta (lovingkindness) retreat, at the kind encouragement of my friend S, who also participated along with 600 + other people. I did the best I could and despite the practical ways this was more accessible – no travel and minimal cost – it was far more difficult to take part along with everything else required of daily life right now. And for that same reason it couldn’t have been more valuable.
I went to the place hosting the retreat (IMS, Insight Meditation Center, in Barre, MA) every year in my 30’s, mostly to 9 day silent retreats, the last time when I was 6 months pregnant with B. For practical reasons I switched to one or two weekend retreats a year with a teacher in upstate New York who rented Falling Waters, a beautiful place on the Hudson run by the Dominican Sisters. They were lovely environmentally conscious nuns, mostly Irish Catholic women from the Bronx who made us hearty vegetarian fare (in contrast to IMS, with their lavish salads and dressings and grain dishes for daily lunch) including a closing meal on Sunday of eggs, potatoes and ketchup. We each had a tiny room with crosses and images of Jesus but the atmosphere was welcome to all. And I took away what I could from those nurturing weekends back to my chaotic life with B and V.
I returned to IMS as a 50th birthday gift for a weeklong women’s retreat. During the morning period after breakfast when those not doing cooking prep like I was had their daily assigned jobs (mostly related to cleaning the building or tending grounds) I used to go for a walk before the morning session with a dharma teacher. This time when I finished the familiar loop through town I was abashed to arrive fifteen minutes late to the morning talk – how had that happened? In 12 years since I’d been there I couldn’t help but get older and also a bit slower, the clearest sign I’d had of how a body changes over time.
Now a decade later how much more have I slowed down? In some ways I’ve never felt stronger or more resilient, yet I also feel more depleted. The fact is as hard as I try to remain positive and grateful, these last few months have been among the most exhausting I’ve ever experienced. My intentions for the decade ahead: a new chapter in which I step into a place of self renewal – like many aspects of life right now, is undertaking a major postponement.
And so it’s a perfect time for Metta, a practice in which we start with ourselves, comparable to the adage of giving oxygen to yourself before you can help others.
In Metta we repeat phrases: May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease. Then we wish these gifts to a benefactor, a friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and then to everyone, known and unknown. I send Metta out to anyone reading this, I cut through the muck of my mind that struggles to settle down and wish you all these things: safety, happiness, peace, health, ease.
Metta is a good way to address the challenges of isolation that’s been heightened by the pandemic, the sense of loneliness that neuroscientists describe as a state of hypervigilance whose origins lie in our hunter-gatherer past, which over thousands of years has became embedded in our nervous system to produce the anxiety we associate with loneliness. Scientists have also been able to identify how the practice of Metta, expanding our heart outward in concentrated effort, can help alleviate that sense of isolation. Sending Metta out into the world, we acknowledge that we all want the same things: to alleviate that anxiety through opening our hearts to others.
As I work to carve out time for this practice, it feels like an ideal opportunity to set the stage for the next decade, to start with tenderness for all the setbacks and loss in the past ten years, and for the gifts as well as the sorrow that comes with acknowledging impermanence.
It’s the first decade I’ve lost a significant number of peers: friends, neighbors and former colleagues about my age, so many people dying early. I’ve also lost family members: most notably my mother, as well as aunts and uncles who were pivotal loved ones in my life. I’ve developed a better appreciation of how others live on in us.
I used to feel that ‘May his/her life be for a blessing”, what we say in Jewish tradition after someone dies, was an inadequate way to deal with grief, but over time I’ve learned to accept its wisdom and the comfort of how people stay with us.
This week B & V made my mother’s sour cream coffee cake, a reminder of all she did for us, the nurturing and caring, her energy and strength. I thought as well of my generous Aunt Ruth who used to send me scones (after a time my aunt and uncle lived in Oxford), the first thing I learned to bake on my own and still one of my specialties. This weekend planting tomatoes I said a prayer for Uncle Harold, who grew the best Jersey tomatoes, with each seed I smile and hope I do him proud. When I catch sight of the rare albino robin who has been living in our yard I thought of my bird and nature-loving Aunt Addie and wished I could share it with her. And then I recalled my remarkable Uncle Dick who just passed away from Covid 19, a loss still fresh. The deaths I read about are no longer numbers but represent real people with families and friends in mourning.
I recognize that they all fall under the category of ‘Benefactor, ‘ those who have helped us, who we think about and can’t help but smile.
I smile because life is precious, whether we live into our 50s or 90s or one season, like the tiny seedlings sprouting up in my garden. You’ve nurtured them, I tell myself. Keep nurturing that which is worth your effort and let go of the rest. Live with ease. There will still be time for tending to bigger dreams, the dormant desire for a more abundant life I’m eager to see unfold. For now I breathe in and out and try to make room in my heart for everyone.