I've never stopped to think how many books I've read in my life. But it is has to be several thousand. I had to read hundreds of books just to get through my doctoral program. I've always been a reader, and I've always kept a big stack of books beside my bed. I usually have several books going at once. I'm a book person, and so books are my life.
But this morning I got to thinking. How many books have really mattered in my life? How many books have really changed my life or made a real difference? How many books have really stuck with me?
The books that I've loved, I keep. I have most all of Virginia Woolf's books on one shelf. There are books by Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Julia Alvarez, James Baldwin, John Irving and dozens of other favorite authors. There is my friend Peg's wonderful novel, "Spinning Will." There are the two books that I wrote.
But the book that has had the most dramatic impact on me is a different sort of book altogether. It's called "Lovingkindness,"and it's by Sharon Salzberg, one of the nation's most influential meditation teachers.
That book profoundly influenced my life. And it helped me through an enormously difficult experience last fall.
"Lovingkindness" is not a big book. Not at all. It's actually rather small. The pages are very tiny. And her message is not new. And yet, it is monumentally important: "We spend our lives searching for something we think we don't have, something that will make us happy. But the key to our deepest happiness lies in changing our vision of where to seek it."
The key to happiness lies in the awareness that we are deeply connected to other living beings through "metta," or lovingkindness. What Salzberg does in her book is present a set of specific exercises to help cultivate feelings of lovingkindness toward yourself and others.
You start by bringing good feelings to your self. You focus on a time when you done or said something to another person that was kind and loving. You reflect on the happiness you felt when you helped someone -- when you were generous. Holding these positive loving feelings in your heart, you start repeating four simple phrases over and over again:
"May I be free from danger."
"May I have mental happiness."
"May I have physical happiness."
"May I have ease of well-being."
The exercise moves out from here. After you spend time sending lovingkindness toward yourself, you select another person, a good friend, a family member. You spend time directing feelings of lovingkindness toward this friend or family member. You use the same phrases you used for yourself, only you replace the "I" by filling in that person's name.
The next step: You choose a neutral person, a bus driver. A person in a coffee shop. You don't know this person, but you extend feelings of lovingkindess to that neutral person. You repeat the phrases with the neutral person.
And then comes the hard part: You choose a difficult person. Someone who makes you furiously angry. Someone who has hurt you very deeply. Using the same techniques you used in the other situations, you extend lovingkindness to this enemy. This person who may not want to think about, let alone love and forgiven.
Last fall, I had to confront a woman whose actions had hurt me more deeply than I care to remember. And yet, I had no choice but to meet with this woman. I had no choice but to confront her.
I felt trapped. I felt very anxious. And then I discovered the techniques that Salzberg uses.
I began the lovingkindness practices slowly. I didn't force them. I practiced them at my own pace. I practiced "metta" during morning meditation, week after week.
And one day, sometime in November, something quite miraculous happened. I thought about this woman saying those phrases:
"May she be free from danger."
"May she have mental happiness."
"May she have physical happiness."
"May she have ease of well-being."
Suddenly, I smiled. I felt a warm glow fill my chest. I thought about the fact that this woman has a little boy, a child she loves deeply.
A powerful change occurred. I realized I could confront this woman in love, not hatred or resentment. I realized what Salzberg said was true: "All beings are deserving of care, of well-being, of the gift of lovingkindness." I was able, as she said, to "put aside the unpleasant traits of such a being and try instead to get in touch with the part of them that deserves to be loved."
I wish I could give you more details without revealing the situation that was involved. Because you would be amazed that I was able to forgive this woman, considering what she did.
But in the end, the details don't matter. What matters is that I was able to meet with this woman, look at pictures of her baby, and smile, and feel some human compassion.
I keep Sharon Salzberg's book beside my bed. And I suspect that I am never going to take this one book off the bedside stack. Unless of course someone I love asks to borrow it.
Image: Claudia Ricci