Sermon first delivered at Northwest UU on March 9, 2014
Twenty years ago, I married a vivacious, wonderful woman. Very soon, our relationship became very chaotic, as she sustained a traumatic brain injury, and the woman that I loved, the person she had been all her life, suddenly got lost in an unimaginable fog of physical, psychological and emotional symptoms. Before we were able to understand and process what was going on, we had damaged our relationship beyond our ability to continue together as a married couple. It is my understanding that she has recovered to the point where she lives a normal life and has healthy relationships. But it was a rough few years.
The failure of that relationship was a turning point in my spiritual growth. My dismal reaction to her struggles was a real wake up call. Near the end of our relationship, she gave me a book, albeit too late to help us then, but it introduced me the ideas that I share with you today. The book is by Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, and the title is Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.
It is based on a teaching of the Buddha from almost 2,600 years ago, so you might quibble about how “revolutionary” this practice is. But it can have revolutionary effects in people’s lives, as it did in mine. It is a practice that speaks volumes of wisdom about happiness.
So what is this teaching? Sharon teaches a simple meditation technique called metta meditation. That’s M-E-T-T-A. Metta is the word from the Pali language that is most often translated as lovingkindness. And the basic premise? Happiness is contagious, we spread it with lovingkindness. Seeking happiness is a fundamental motivator in life. You can see signs of this drive for happiness in many aspects of life… in the sunflower turning to face the sun, the cat curling up in a beam of sunlight, or the amoebae congregating in the most comfortable place in the water. This drive for happiness gets distorted by our artificially competitive consumer culture especially when it is played out as the “pursuit of happiness.” In teaching the first of the four noble truths, the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama said “life is suffering.” We are all looking to find fulfillment in the midst of suffering. As we work on our happiness, we can’t help but share a bit of that happiness with the other people in our lives.
We can also make the connection to our First Principle – the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We try to find the inherent worth and dignity of every person even when their drive to be happy gets twisted into some atrocious behavior. Sometimes it is a real stretch to understand how these distortions happen. In my relationship with my former wife, it was a traumatic brain injury and my poor reaction to the symptoms her injury. Nobody wanted anybody to be unhappy, but we did not know how to alleviate the suffering and move toward happiness. We see that others want to be happy, and we want to be happy.
Now, what would happen if we set aside some time, perhaps just a few minutes, and just wished people around us to be happy? How would it change our relationships if we look deeply into the suffering of others, if we are really conscious about our good intentions toward them? This is the core of metta meditation. It is a practice of wishing well to people. You could also include pets and plants, the whole planet or even the entire universe. It is a meditation on recognizing that others have inherent loveliness. It is giving a gift of love and recognizing just how lovable people are. It is an exercise in loving, and we know how exercise does the heart good!
So how do we do this? We will practice together with a guided metta meditation a bit later on, much as we did in a worship service a few months ago, but first, some explanation. We will start by sending warm wishes to those closest to us. Our family, our loved ones. This may be easiest place to start. These are the people that are most meaningful to our lives. We want them to be happy. We will then move to a slightly larger circle, our friends, our co-workers, the people in this congregation. We will wish them well. By enlarging the circle, we will expand our wishes to strangers, people who we are not currently fond of, people we may not agree with, such as politicians. A few weeks ago, Rev. Terry Davis spoke about people convicted of felonies who deserve a second chance in life – we can help that happen by wishing them well, that they find happiness.
Our good intentions can influence the lives of people in ways we cannot always be aware of. It starts with those close to us and expands to us extending metta to all beings.
As we send out these wishes to each of theses circles, we will do so in a pattern that roughly mirrors the hierarchy of needs as explained by psychologist Abraham Maslow. We start with the most basic needs, the physiological and safety needs, moving to higher psychological happiness toward a fulfilled life.So we will be expressing our metta, our lovingkindness, with phrases such as:
May they be safe.
May they be healthy.
May they be happy.
May they live with ease.
If you adopt this practice, you can choose your own phrases, to voice your good wishes in the words that work best for you. It is not some strict formula you must follow. You must find what is genuine in your heart. Each level needs only a few moments of your attention. There will be times when you concentrate on certain individuals, at other times it will be whole groups of people. So if you have a friend from China whose parents are experiencing trouble back home, you may start with your friend and family members individually, while later on, you may focus on all Chinese people everywhere.
A metta meditation can be combined with other practices, during a yoga downward dog, you can wish that all the dogs are safe, healthy, happy, and living with ease. If we can expand the meditation without losing the focus on lovingkindness, we can add a line of gratitude:
“I am grateful for them.”
Or to take it a step further, we can add elements of forgiveness to our meditation:
“If I have hurt or harmed them, I ask for their forgiveness.”
Later, perhaps, you can offer forgiveness to others, for what they have done, for you to let go.
Through this practice, we work on the impediments that limit our loving relationships with others. It gives us a focus. In many meditation practices, it is a struggle to keep your mind from wandering off. Here, we direct the wandering, to those we love and to all those we want to be more loving towards. Sharing metta has the potential to open our compassionate hearts, and to grow our sympathetic joy. And wishing others well can also increase our generosity and equanimity. It does us good to practice metta.
We can also use this situationally. If you have the stereotypical strained relationship with your in-laws, take a few moments to wish them well before your next visit, or even *during* your next visit. Perhaps one day you could wish them well in their presence, out loud!
Another situation: while driving! When someone cuts you off in traffic, wish them well – especially wish them to be safe, to be healthy, to be happy, and to live with ease. After all, their safety *is* your safety, and if they are not happy, they may end up being your next traffic jam.
In our UU tradition, some people will come forward during Joys and Concerns and ask that we hold a loved one in the light, or send them good energy. I think this is a lovely practice, a practice that we can engage in at any moment. I have no idea if this practice actually sends any good energy, but I am certain that we do carry it with us as we interact all the other people on this planet. We interact differently with others – and lives are changed. Their lives and ours… I am certain that wishing others well does us good.
So a metta practice supports the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and it puts our Seventh Principle into practice in respecting the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. This interdependent web is not just the trees and the whales, it includes all of us. Practicing metta benefits all beings.
As Sharon Salzberg put it:
Metta is knowing deep in our bones that our life is inextricably interwoven with all life, and that because of that we need to take care of one another — not out of sloppy sentimentality or pretentiousness, but out of wisdom.
May we be safe.
May we be healthy.
May we be happy.
May we live with ease.
Amen, Blessed Be, and Namaste.