In the last week we have been witnessing a huge amount of hateful and vicious language and behavior in the election. Despite promising to run a positive campaign, it has spiraled into a deeply divided and negative war. Thankfully it will all be over very soon, but in the meantime, what can we learn from it?
The story goes that, at the time of the Buddha, a group of monks wanted to do a quiet retreat away from the crowds of followers, so the Buddha sent them to a glade in the forest where he said they would be undisturbed. The monks found their way there and settled down to meditate. But what they didn't know was that the glade was inhabited by a gang of tree spirits who were really upset that the monks had come. And when tree spirits get upset they can be extremely scary, ugly, very smelly and unbelievably noisy, ferociously shrieking all over the place.
They did everything they could to spook the hermits and make them leave. And it worked. The monks couldn't possibly meditate with so much disturbance, so they went back to the Buddha and begged him to let them go somewhere else. But no. Instead, he taught them a meditation practice of loving kindness, or metta in Sanskrit, which develops loving kindness towards everyone, including yourself and your enemies. And then he sent the monks back to the forest. His famous words were, This is the only protection you will need.
Thinking the Buddha must be mad, the monks reluctantly went back to the glade, sat down and began practicing metta. And the tree spirits, who at first were not at all pleased to see them returning, no longer had any affect on them. For all their antics, the monks just kept sitting there and beaming out loving kindness. Eventually the spirits were won over by the waves of love and compassion emanating from these robed ones and, far from than chasing them away, the same nasties that had been so ferocious now became disciples.
The question is, who are the tree spirits? They are everything that goes on in our own minds--all the dark places, doubts, insecurities, fears, anger, negative thoughts-- that constantly undermine our balance and positivity. And the point the Buddha was making is that loving kindness has the capacity to overcome all manner of inner monsters and ghouls and lead us to a true heart opening. Metta is the act of extending our love, kindness and friendship equally towards all beings, proving that love is more powerful than any negative force. Rather than trying to deal with negativity, we cultivate the opposite; seeing and knowing pain, we bring loving kindness.
We know this sounds so easy: just be kind and loving, how great, what a cool idea. But in practice it is not always so easy, such as when someone says or does something that is personally critical, derogatory or hurtful. Can metta still flow when the ego is upset? By focusing on loving kindness as a way of living, it shows us all those places that are bound in ego and selfishness; it brings us up against our limitations and means confronting our boundaries. Where do we meet our edge? Where is our capacity to step over the edge into greater kindness? How genuine is our ability to bring kindness to a difficult situation?
We remember talking with our friend, the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, at the time of the Clinton/Dole election, and he told us how he had a picture of Bob Dole on his meditation altar as "Dole needs the most love and compassion as he is the one being so vilified."
In that act, he was practicing true metta. It was an important reminder not to cast anyone out of our hearts, for in the process we are casting out ourselves. If we feel affected by someone being hostile, dismissive, critical or hurtful it is invariably because there is a hook in us for that negativity to grab hold of, a place where it can land and trigger all our hidden feelings of unworthiness, insecurity, doubt, even self-hate. However, when we extend metta towards someone we are having a hard time with, an extraordinary thing happens: the landing place, or the hook within, begins to dissolve. In opening to loving kindness our positivity is strengthened. When there is no place for the negativity to land, it dissolves.
Metta asks that we stay caring, that we keep the heart open in the face of the person or situation we are struggling with and all the accompanying anger, annoyance and conflict, and to hold that with gentle tenderness. Then amazing change is possible.
May all beings be happy and free from suffering.
Ed and Deb Shapiro are bestselling authors, corporate consultants, meditation teachers, and the creators of Chillout daily text messages on Sprint cell phones.
See their website: www.EdandDebShapiro.com.