I have to admit that I don’t take this whole unemployment thing well. I’m not actually in any financial trouble, in fact this ought to be like a vacation — full pay and benefits until mid-September, followed by significant severance if I haven’t rejoined Sun somehow — but I still don’t do it well. What’s worse, because I am perfectly capable of worry about the relatively distant future even if it isn’t realistic, I start noticing everything that makes me feel financially limited; currently I’m waiting for some payments for various freelance writing things, and for various reasons they haven’t come through.
When that happens, I start feeling something else: I feel that there is something wrong with me. I’m certainly not alone in this. In fact, I’ve been reading Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach, and also listening to her podcasts. She is a therapist who also has a long-time Buddhist practice, and before that a long time as a yogini in an ashram.
She tells an interesting story. The Dalai Lama was visiting a seminar for Buddhist-oriented therapists, and one of the therapists asks how to deal in a Buddhist fashion with the feeling of self-hate, the feeling that one is not valuable, not good enough, not acceptable?
HHDL said, “The what? Is that some kind of emotional disease?” When they assured him it was one of the most common emotional issues in the West, he was basically dumbfounded.
Now, it’s easy to see how he might find this a little odd: he had, after all, been told since he was about five years old that he was the fourteenth incarnation of a great Lama, and the incarnation of Avalokitesvara Boddhisattva besides. I’d be very curious to find out if that’s common among regular civilian Tibetans, much less Chinese, Mongolians, and so on, but that’s just an aside. In the mean time, though, I want to talk about that sense in itself. Tara’s whole book talks about dealing with that sense of yourself through consciously taking tender regard for yourself.
“Tender regard” here has a name in Pali and Sanskrit. In Pali it’s metta; in Sanskrit maitri(मैत्रि). The word is often translated “lovingkindness,” which I think sounds a little goofy, but there it is, that’s the translation you’d usually find.
In any case, though, the emotion, the feeling, is pretty familiar. It’s the feeling of kind regard you have, for example, when you see a kitten or a puppy.Metta is very closely related to karuna (करुन) the compassionate recognition of another’s suffering. (See my post on “Karuna and Jesse Helms.”)
In the Mettasutta, Buddha teaches a particular way of training ourselves to evoke this feeling. This is called metta practice.
It begins with yourself. Compose yourself for meditation, get comfortably seated, and then say to yourself:
May I be well.
May I be happy.
May I be free.
May I be at peace.
While you say those phrases, try to remember how you felt about the kitten picture (or if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like kittens
the hell with you you can imagine a puppy, or a newborn baby, or whatever.) The point is, though, to feel that particular feeling about yourself.
You then, to continue the practice, extend that to someone you love.
May she be well.
May she be happy.
May she be free.
May she be at peace.
Extend it to someone to whom you’re pretty indifferent.
May the guy at the desk in the health club be well.
May the guy at the desk in the health club be happy.
May the guy at the desk in the health club be free.
May the guy at the desk in the health club be at peace.
Extend it to someone you dislike.
May Jerry Seinfeld be well.
May Jerry Seinfeld be happy.
May Jerry Seinfeld be free.
May Jerry Seinfeld be at peace.
You continue this to larger and larger groups, until (if you’re feeling mystical) you extend it to “all sentient beings through this and all the innumerable Dharma realms.” In each case, though, you’re trying to retain that feeling of metta and of karuna: you are striving to feel tender regard and compassion for them.
What’s interesting is that, based on Tara’s book, I’m starting to understand something about that first stage: when I’m feeling, as I am now, that I’m not good enough, inadequate, some kind of freak, I need to remember to have metta and karuna for myself.
This is a little tricky.
One definition of karuna I’ve seen is “understanding without judging.” Of course, when I feel like I’m not good enough, that’s the very opposite of “understanding without judging.” Instead, I get caught up telling myself a story that I should have done something different, that I should be someone different. What I get caught in that story, I feel like hell. When I’m telling an editor (as I was this week) that I didn’t get the check because they sent the check to my old mailing address, even though I made a special effort to warn them that they needed to use my new mailing address, the story I’m telling myself is about how I’m bad for causing them trouble.
This is the very definition of duhkha. In fact (stealing a line from Tara, who was quoting someone else) the heart of duhkha is telling ourselves that things should be somehow different. Of course, the next step of that is to remember that the editor was in a position I could easily have been in myself; extend metta and karuna to the editor as well. But, truthfully, at least for me the issue is usually not about someone else, it’s about myself: what did I do, why did it happen, what did I do to deserve this? Remembering to practice metta helps me break that habit.Footnotes: