In mid-July, I spent a week at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on a metta, or lovingkindness, meditation retreat, where you consciously generate friendly wishes while sitting in meditation, and while doing everything else—walking meditation, eating, showering, moving from place to place, falling asleep.
Spirit Rock: a bucolic place in western Marin County where they take out all your stuffing and refill you from head to toe with vegetables. I confess it’s occurred to me more than once that one’s feeling of extreme well-being at the end of a period of intensive practice is entirely due to eating so many vegetables, foregoing (involuntarily) one’s customary sugar intake, and being removed from the hurly-burly of traffic. It is beautiful and peaceful there.
It’s OK if generating friendly wishes doesn’t actually result in feelings of friendliness, though it may, and it’s lovely when it does. Each wish is simply a seed and an intention. While I most certainly don’t always wish others well—not every person on every occasion—it’s absolutely true that I always wish I wished others well. If nothing else, when one is busy thinking friendly thoughts, one is at any rate not occupied with critical or unfriendly thoughts. The mind is gently being aimed in the right direction, even if there is no obvious manifestation right away. (There is an entire book on this subject: Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.)
Since this type of practice uses the same object over and over, it can also result in the development of concentration (sort of like using a mantra to quiet the mind). One of the teachers leading the retreat said this does tend to happen on metta retreats, and that some people will feel more friendly feelings while others tend to experience more concentration. (I of course fell in the latter category.)
One of my shoulders has been killing me (plus the elbow and wrist on the same side, three separate injuries), so just before the retreat, I went to see Jeff, my acupuncturist, and told him, “I don’t even care if you make it feel better—at this point, I just want it punished.” I had been worried there would be a lot of pain while sitting in meditation, but there wasn’t, maybe due to Jeff having stuck needles in the offending spots.
Also, a difficult thing that I think has happened on every retreat I’ve ever been on didn’t happen this time. It usually gets underway two or three days before the end of the retreat and has two phases, beginning with Doubt, Part I: Buddhism Is Balderdash, and So Are Its Purveyors.
Close on the heels of this is Doubt, Part II: Buddhism Is Awesome, But I Can’t Do It.
Then there is a period of emotional upset, and then I go see one of the teachers for an unscheduled interview, get some steadying advice, and then there is usually a period that is particularly peaceful and/or pleasant. Last year, after I told Richard Shankman I thought I had done everything all wrong, he told me firmly, “Gandhi, the Buddha, and Mother Teresa combined couldn’t have done any better.”
I suppose even the retreat where I spent three entire weeks having romantic fantasies about the guy sitting in front of me in the meditation hall—he had long straight grey hair—wasn’t wasted in that I learned to make every effort to avoid that happening on subsequent retreats.
On this latest retreat, Doubt, Part I, got underway right on schedule, but this time, I recognized it for what it was. And when I saw Doubt, Part II, coming along, with unkind thoughts about myself gathering like thunderclouds, instead of taking that ride yet again, I sent friendly thoughts to myself, and the emotional upset never happened, so I didn’t have to go see a teacher, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
This retreat was a huge gift in that I finally understand that metta practice isn’t about trying to will myself to feel a certain thing (and beating myself when I don’t). I’d heard that many times, but didn’t believe it. I thought teachers who said that were just trying to make us grumpy souls feel better, while secretly thinking we were losers.
Now I know it is fine to approach it as a concentration practice: I will sit here and when I notice I’m no longer generating friendly wishes, I will start again, and if friendly feelings arise, that is fantastic! And if something else arises, also fantastic! Merely not focusing on annoyances bring huge benefits, plus, if you consciously think enough kind thoughts, sooner or later, you will have an actual friendly feeling, at least a little one.