Like millions of others in the United States, and around the world, I’ve been keeping a close watch on the tragic situation with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
I don’t live in the Gulf area, but I’ve tried to help by various forms of advocacy and by getting good, solid scientific and technical information out to folks through Facebook and my Extreme Science blog:
As of this writing, well over a hundred million gallons of crude oil have been released into the Gulf ecosystem. Even if the oil can finally be plugged by the two relief wells now boring down to intercept the disabled well, we know from other big oil spills, like Exxon Valdez, that the poisonous effects of an oil spill this size will last for decades.
For thousands and thousands of larger animals, and countless smaller ones, this much oil in the Gulf environment is a death sentence. The viability of some species, like Kemp’s Ridely turtle, may even be threatened.
The long-term ecological consequences, as we have seen from other huge oil spills, like the Exxon Valdez, take decades to unfold.
Taking Care of Our Hearts in the Face of Immense Suffering
One can’t say enough in gratitude for thousands who are doing all they can to deal with this disaster, and yes, that includes those honest, good-hearted people working for BP who are doing everything in their power to stop the oil flood and clean up the spill. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for folks who live in the area or right on the Gulf who are seeing the effects of the spill first-hand.
If you have a tender heart, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by images of suffering. And when faced with such long-term suffering, it’s easy for people to get “compassion fatigue.” Those in the Gulf who are having to see the effects first-hand are especially vulnerable. People get overwhelmed and just give up and check out into hopelessness and resignation. While this is understandable, and we need to learn how to take care of our hearts so that we can do the most good under difficult circumstances.
If you are interested in learning how to protect and heal your heart, the metta (maitre), or loving-kindness meditation explained at this blog can help you heal wounds caused by the suffering of others and help keep your heart open and safe. If you’ve never heard of metta (maitre) practice or want to learn more about it, Metta Resources is a good place to start.
Metta—it’s for Animals Too!
Many of us have pets and love the amazing, beautiful creatures of natural world. In Buddhism, animals, as sentient beings, are included in the unconditional “big love” that Buddhists are to express to all beings. The Buddha likened this unconditional love to that of a mother for her child, saying:
“As a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings. So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world.” Sutta Nipata I, 8
This metta teaching is beloved by Buddhists of every tradition, and metta meditation is considered an integral aspect of all Buddhist practice. In the Zen and many other traditions, Buddhists may also vow to become “bodhisattvas”—individuals who pledge to work for “the welfare of all sentient beings,” whoever they might be or whatever their status, throughout all time, until all are beings are liberated.
This unconditional, mother-like love is reflected in both compassionate empathy and practical action. And it’s extended to all beings. As the great Zen teacher, Dogen, said:
“Commiserate with a turtle in trouble. Take care of the sparrow suffering from injury. When you see the distressed turtle or watch the sick sparrow you do not expect any repayment for your favor, but you are move entirely by the desire to help others….therefore, serve enemies and friends equally, and assist self and others without discrimination. If you grasp this truth, you will see that this is the reason that even the grass and trees, the wind and water, are all naturally engaged in the activity of profiting others, and you understanding will certainly serve the other’s benefit.” John Daido Loori, Invoking Reality: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen
Metta in Action—Helping a Bird in Trouble
In a prior post, “The Compassion of the Swans,” I explained how I brought my metta practice to an injured pelican. The post also explains that animals can also show empathy and act in ways one could only call sympathetic and compassionate, using the remarkable example of some swans helping a goose stuck in a frozen lake.
To give a feel for how one might bring metta to an animal in trouble, here’s an excerpt from that earlier post, which I hope is helpful:
I’m a big animal lover and have been as long as I can remember, but I always seem to have had a special connection with birds. Even when I was a youngster, I was always finding wounded birds that I would bring home and nurse back to health. I’ve rescued sparrows, starlings, pigeons, and wild ducks, just to name a few species.
One of my most memorable rescues was a huge pelican that I came upon while vacationing in Panama City, Florida.
The poor creature had half a dozen fish hooks in him, and had become so tangled up in fishing lines, it couldn’t fly and could barely tread water. It was in pretty bad shape, and obviously weak from hunger, because it couldn’t fish. Since it was just off a jetty, I dove in and took it in my arms. The pelican didn’t resist; it was either too weak, or perhaps it sensed my good intent.
It was a big bird, and completely filled my arms. One of the things I most remember was how warm its great body felt next to mine.When I got the bird ashore, I began working to untangle it. Some curious people came over, and I was able to borrow a knife to cut the nylon strands. A fisherman had some wire snips, and I was able to cut off and remove all the embedded hooks, too. Through all of this, the bird was quiet, as if it knew it was being helped.
Metta—Loving-kindness Meditation for a Pelican
As the curious left, I just held the great bird in my arms and did metta for it. It’s been years now since this incident, so I don’t remember the exact words I used in my meditation. But as in prayer, it’s the thoughts and feelings that are important, not so much the form they take. My loving mental embrace of the bird went something like this:
Dear bird! May you not be afraid. May you feel safe, may you feel peace. May you feel loved and supported in your being and your life. Beloved being, beautiful bird, may your dear body be healed and strengthened. May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. May you be happy and well. May this help I’m giving you be an open door to freedom. May your wounds heal quickly. May you gain your strength quickly. May you have a good and long life, beloved pelican, my friend, my winged brother.
For about 10 minutes, we just sat their together and I embraced the bird with all my heart, with as limitless and unconditional love and compassion as was within me. As I meditated in advocacy for the bird’s well-being, I could feel the bird relax. Finally, it turned its head and looked at me with a look I’ll never forget—a long steady gaze that somehow seemed to speak to some deep connection, beyond all concepts of man and bird. I sensed the bird’s gratitude. And then, I knew, somehow, it would be OK, and I took it back to the water’s edge.
The big bird took to the water with what seemed to me to be great joy. It swam around strongly, but didn’t move away from where I stood. The pelican paddled back close to me and gave one last long look. Then it paddled off to join some mates. My heart soared when, after some more rest, it took to the air and flew down the coast. My metta went with it: “Dear Great Bird! May your wounds heal. May your needs be meet. May you be safe from hooks and harm. May you have a good life. May we someday meet again.”
Metta for the Plants and Creatures and All the People of the Gulf
Metta practice is something we do for ourselves, in our hearts and minds, but it reaches out and embraces others, both near and far. Besides giving all the practical, moral, political, and economic help we can to help deal with this disaster, we can also send great love and well-wishes to all the beings affected by the Gulf oil spill. Cultivating this kind of love always changes the one doing the loving-kindness work. And my personal experience is that it actually affects others, and life itself, in healing ways.
Of course, many folks are already expressing their love and compassion in their own way, through their actions, and through prayers and other spiritual practices. Loving-kindness practice, as taught in Buddhism, is yet another very skillful and powerful way to cultivate unconditional love and to expand the embrace of our consciousness and our sense of the interconnectedness of our world.
The hardest part of metta practice is expanding it to the point where we also include in the embrace of our love those who have harmed us or whose actions have harmed others. At first, it may feel impossible to embrace those who have hurt us or those we love with anything like loving-kindness. And if this is the case, we shouldn’t try to force what isn’t there. (The teachings I mentioned in Metta Resources talk about how to deal with the issues that arise when we attempt to do metta for “enemies” and those who have harmed us.)
But in Buddhism, loving-kindness practice isn’t about what we think people deserve, or what we feel they are worthy of, based on their actions. Metta is primarily about opening up our own hearts so that we can be break free of the hatred and feelings of revenge, and that actually harm us much more than the people we aim these feeling at.
Loving-kindness to All, With No Exceptions
Speaking for myself, I have found it very, very easy to send loving-kindness to the obvious victims of this disaster, and very, very, VERY hard to develop any such feeling towards those individuals whose negligence and selfishness helped bring about this disaster. Still, I know that the greatest love, the most liberating love, is one that, even as the Bible says, can love one’s “enemies,” that can do good even to those who do wrong or who misuse us.
Buddhist teaching is clear on this too:
“Look how he abused me and beat me, How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Live with such thoughts and you live in hate… Abandon such thoughts and live in love.
In this world Hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate.
This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.”(Dhammapada 3-5)
The important thing to remember in all of this is that we don’t have to be “saints” or “Buddhas” to practice loving-kindness. So many beings are suffering and dying in the Gulf right now, and whatever loving, intelligent actions and thoughts we can bring to the situation are greatly needed. We may not live where we can take direct action, but we all live with ourselves and within ourselves.
What about our interior ecology? What mental pollutants float in our consciousness and poison us and others? Do we pollute our environment and harm other beings with selfish, angry, hateful acts? Do we see how we can cleanup our hearts?
Loving-kindness meditation helps us purify our hearts. It helps us to love our ourselves, unconditionally. And the more we can love ourselves this way, no exceptions, the more we purify our hearts of whatever is unwholesome. And the more our hearts are filled with liberating love, the more we can help others and our world.
Metta, the love of a mother to all beings everywhere, helps us see our deep connection to all living things, to our world and everything in it. May loving-kindness practice open up our hearts and show us the joyous path of love without limits.