When I woke up this morning, I found my that my breath “anchor” came to mind within just a minute or two, with no conscious impulse to do so. This progress feels like a carryover of last night’s sitting meditation, right before I went to bed, which itself, seemed to be quite a lot of right effort, because my monkey mind was jumping around to all the activities, thoughts, and feelings of my very busy day.
If one were to judge a meditation sitting — something, by the way, fraught with pitfalls and places to get hung up on — I might have thought I hadn’t accomplished much last night. But over the years I have learned not to judge a sitting by some “goal” or by comparison to some previous sitting, especially one where I seemed to effortlessly move to deeper states of concentration, presence, and insight. If your heart is in the right place, there is no such thing as a “bad” sitting. Indeed, maybe the only “bad” sitting is the one you don’t do!
And speaking of the heart being in the right place, I want to mention that I always begin any formal sitting or walking meditation with metta, with loving-kindness meditation. This metta beginning is traditional in most Buddhist schools, and I have found it makes a huge difference to the quality and progress of one’s meditation practice.
This morning, the importance of turning to metta before beginning my meditation was once against demonstrated to me, for when I began to do metta for myself, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a huge sense of grief and loss. In Buddhism, one doesn’t fight what arises, but with gentle compassion honors what arises as what is, and then one skillfully seeks to look deeply into this arising. (Or if one is truly overwhelmed, one returns to the breath and heart, and comforts oneself with tender presence: “There, there, dear heart, it will be OK! I will take of you; I won’t let you be hurt again. I am here for you. We can look into that big hurt later, right now, you just need to feel loved and embraced.”)
In this case, what was skillful, and what I was ready to do — very important this readiness! You don’t want to re-traumatize yourself! — was to look into this grief and sorrow with gentle compassion. And what I saw was that my initial tender metta for myself had brought to light some aspect of my deep sorrow over the consciousness of my own mortality and my eventual loss of all things in this world that I love.
At the rational level, I thought, “Well, dang, I’m sure as heck not going to resolve that bugaboo this morning before I can start meditation!” But I also knew, and better yet, felt, with the very core of my being, that this sorrow needed my most loving and wise attention before I did anything else. To block it off, deny it, or think it was “getting in the way” of meditation would be to utterly misunderstand the nature of meditation, awakening itself and how we unbind the heart from suffering and the causes of suffering.
So, I just got to work with the metta for myself, paying compassionate but grounded-in-the-breath attention to the pain, the sorrow, the images of loss—the deep existential ache that sometimes seems to be at the core of things, but which is really just “stuff” we haven’t been able to look into deeply yet. In dealing with such powerful feelings, even with metta, the breath is a tremendous friend, aid, comfort, and refuge. While giving metta to oneself or specifically to some powerful image or feeling, one can get overwhelmed by feelings — and feeling is good but not being overwhelmed by it so that you lose presence.
So, when you note this happening, simply let go, totally, and return to the breath. Breathe in, breath out, deeply. Relax the muscles of the face, the stomach, the body, and then, smile — yes, smile! — to yourself, and return to the breath. Stay with the breath until things settle down, and if they don’t settle down, that’s OK, and it is probably a sign that you should leave off the deep looking into of things for now, and just take care of yourself by being present with the breath.
But if things do settle down, check your heart, and note: “I am still here. It is good to be here!” And smile to yourself! And then return to the metta, the generation and bringing of loving-kindness to your heart and deepest sense of self. Gradually, shift your anchor from the breath to the metta itself; the loving-kindness itself becomes your object of attention and concentration. If you lose the metta, the good will, as an anchor, go back to the breath, settle in, and then return to the metta as your anchor. [There’s much more to all of this, of course, and but this at least gives a bare bones description of how to work skillfully with the breath and metta, in tandem, like a tag team.]
As I worked this way, the sense of sorrow and loss seemed to diminish, or rather, I could still see and feel it, but I was not so overwhelmed by it — no doubt, because the attention and the loving-kindness helped break my self-identification with the loss and sorrow. When some powerful feeling arises, we can always remember: This feeling is what is arising as self, but it is not self. Yes, I have this feeling, and yes, I see and feel that I am holding it in thought, but I am not that, but that which knows that. I do not deny what arises, but I cannot be reduced to that. Everything that arises in the mind and heart needs my compassionate and insightful attention without my needing to cling to it as self.
This is what the anatta, or the “not self” teaching in Buddhism is really all about; it’s not about self-obliteration or denial of a self! It is a skillful means for unbinding ourselves from a false and deluded sense of ourselves. In one sense, what the “self” is or is not isn’t really our business! Our business is to unbind, to open up consciousness to the limitless and the unconditional, and to let go and not to get stuck to what conditionally and contingently arises as “self.”
Soon, it became evident to me that I’d done as much as I could do, or needed to do with my metta about this sorrow and sense of loss. My heart was brighter even though I could sense that these deep issues of being and life and death were not fully resolved and that I would return to them again and again, no doubt for the rest of my life. But, that’s OK! That’s what it means to be human! And to be fully human means being open to and willing to look deeply into everything, nothing excluded, finally, with unfathomable love and wisdom embracing it all.
With my heart given the attention it needed — in the past, I might have just shoved those deep feelings aside and tried to solider on with a meditation — my sitting meditation had more genuine presence to it. I could feel the love and care I’d established for myself myself buoying up my work with the breath, and I found the letting go of thoughts that arose much easier and more gentle, less of a struggle and less of an act of will and more of a natural act of insight, compassion, and wisdom.
I share these glimpses of my practice and inner work with the hope that they speak to your heart and encourage you to press on with the great work of waking up and being present.
May all beings discover the deep treasures of their hearts and find their way home!