Metta-When Elephants and People Kill Each Other

One of the challenges of doing this blog in a skillful way is how to address personal and world issues in a way that doesn’t overload or overwhelm the practitioner.  For anyone beginning metta practice, it can be challenge enough to bring loving-kindness to oneself, let alone challenging family members or friends.  When we turn our loving thoughts and hearts to the world, it can be overwhelming. There’s just so much in the news that’s disturbing and that cries out for compassion and healing.

Even so, there will be times when I will want to address some troubling issue or situation, and explain how I tried to bring the love, light, and insight of metta to it.  I promise that I won’t overwhelm the blog with bad and disturbing news, but I also am not going to  pretend there’s nothing to do metta about in our broader world.

“Mystery of the Fallen Giants”

Today, for example, I got my “National Geographic This Week” newsletter, an e-mail subscription I really enjoy.  There almost always is something amazing and wonderful about animals in each issue.  But this week, there’s a very sad and troubling video feature on their website called “Mystery of the Fallen Giants.”  It’s about elephant killings in India, and there’s no “mystery” at all about the cause. It’s the old, old story about the clash between people in developing countries and the indigenous wildlife population.  The killing of elephants in India is especially poignant and ironic, since the elephant is much-beloved in Hindu culture.  Indeed, the beloved Hindu god Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and god of new beginnings, has the form of an elephant.

If you love animals, and if you especially love elephants, as I do, the National Geo video is difficult to watch. But this is not simply a case of the local people being the “bad guys.”  In fact, elephants in a number of areas kill 30 to 40 people a year, knock down houses, and destroy crops.  In many cases, elephants are killed after they have killed.  Imagine your feelings if an elephant killed your wife, or children while they were tending the fields, or if a rampaging elephant destroyed your home like a bulldozer.

It would be a remarkable person who did not want to retaliate or take revenge!  From the elephant’s side, their habitat is steadily shrinking and being taken over by the exploding human population in India. If they do not roam and forage as they always have, they will starve.  The situation seems to be impossible, the animals doomed.  But, these “impossible” situations are exactly the very ones that need our metta, our loving attention and hearts, especially when there little or nothing we can do personally about some far-away trouble.

How Can Metta Help?

And so, from the standpoint of metta practice, what to do?  Each person must find his or her own way into the heart of compassion but here’s some “fingers pointing at the moon.”  The most important thing, I think, is establishing some sort of compassion and empathy for both the humans and the elephants.  So, sit down, be still and be quiet.  If you know how to meditate, perhaps begin by getting quiet and present with the breath.  With a calm mind, or at least some stillness, then bring to mind the troubling situation.  In this case, let’s use the example of the human/elephant conflict and killings in India. What do you feel when you bring the disturbing news or image to mind?  Do you feel grief, sorrow, anger? Or maybe indifference?  Or no feeling one way or the other?  Whatever feelings or thoughts arise when you bring the incident to mind, that’s the immediate object of your compassionate, loving attention.

So, let’s say that grief is the strongest feeling that arises when you think of the killed humans and elephants.  The first person to heal is you.  You can’t help the situation if you are lost in grief (or anger, or feelings of injustice, or whatever.)  So, hold that grief gently in your heart, as my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh so often says, like you were holding a crying baby.  Don’t reject it.  Don’t try to stifle the cries of the “baby.” Don’t run away by losing yourself in distracting thoughts and things you need to do later.  If you do “drop the baby,” whether through aversion to the feeling of grief, or because of the inability to maintain focus, then don’t judge or condemn yourself. Just come back to the grief (or anger, or whatever) and comfort yourself.

Holding Our Crying Baby in Compassion

The fact is, you are the grief; you are the baby.  The pain of the grief is symptomatic of one’s disassociation from one’s deepest feelings, from unbearable thoughts and feelings we have forgotten or suppressed.  You can’t, and shouldn’t, try to force yourself to look at or feel what you are not ready to look at or feel. The big idea is just to be present, as much as you can, and try to hold the hurtful feeling in yourself with as much tenderness and compassion as you can.  Maybe you can only do this for an instant or two, but that’s OK.  Rejoice in this, and then, if you can, come back to the embrace.  If that seems impossible, then stop the embrace, and simply return to your breath, to mediation, and be open to your own presence.  If you are totally overwhelmed, just give yourself a mental hug, commend yourself for even wanting to try to love more, and go on to something else.

If, however, you find you can hold the the troubling situation and images in your heart without harm, and with some genuine compassion, then you can take another step in your metta.  Thinking of the villagers, for example, send them the feeling or thought of safety, perhaps with words like this, “May the people of these villages be safe from harm.” Stay with this good intention, and repeat this thought, if you like.  Let it sink in. Ponder it! Mean it!  But don’t let the thought or words become rote or mere repetition.  Be present with the words and feel what they say.  If you just mindlessly repeat some good intention or metta phrase, the mind soon dulls, and it can actually become self-hypnotic.

Doing metta (or a prayer, or a mantra) is not self-hypnosis!  You are not trying to convince yourself that “everything is OK.”  Everything is not OK, which is exactly why one is doing the metta!  Our heart-wish is that things change, that they be healed — that intelligence, wisdom, and compassion be brought to any untoward or harmful situation.  And look, my friend, even if you don’t see how your metta and well-wishes can possibly affect anything (supposedly) “out there,” remember that metta, at the very least, always changes you!  It helps you soften and heal any hardness in your heart.  Loving-kindness is a powerful means of transforming yourself into someone whose loving heart and actions make the world a better place.

Animals Need Metta Too

Animals are our fellow beings on this planet, and they need and deserve our loving-kindness too.  Personally, I’ve always had a special empathy for animals, since earliest childhood, so dong metta for animals is almost second nature to me.  Our love and care as humans has never been more needed. Every year, dozens of species of animal disappears forever, and all over the world, animals are under tremendous stress and assault, largely from humans and the effects of human on Earth’s ecosystems. So metta certainly extends to the remaining wild elephants of India.

If you already have a warm spot towards elephants or love some quality you see in them, then that’s feeling of love or appreciation is the perfect place to base your metta from.  Holding the dear animals in your heart, you might stay with the thought/feeling, “May the elephants also be safe from harm.”   My own metta for these elephants has strongly affirmed the thought, “May the elephants have the wisdom to avoid harm and doing harm.”

If you are from a tradition where you are used to praying, think of this metta as a kind of prayer, coming directly from your heart, for the people and the animals.  And remember: what we think metta can or cannot do in the world is not really your or my business. Just do the metta; send it with an honest, open heart, and then let it go.  Trust the power of love.  Worry and self-doubt and cynicism just drain away the good energies of our awakening hearts.

Our business is simply to open up or own hearts and bring the good intentions and loving thoughts of metta to every aspect of our lives and the world.  That, in itself, is quiet a miracle in this world!  Remember that Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  We must also be the loving-kindness we wish to see in the world.

About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza


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