There has been an interesting development in my meditation practice of late.
This has appeared in my ongoing work with maitri, or unconditional friendliness. When practicing maitri, we open our hearts and welcome a difficult aspect of ourselves. Rather than push away or fight to alter a sense of personal impoverishment, for instance, we allow this uneasy part of ourselves to rest in the loving warmth of the heart and be accepted in a completely non-judgemental way.
Over the last 18 months I have done a lot of this work. It may have, in fact, become my main practice. Having committed so much time and energy here, I am now quite familiar with the process—open the heart, welcome a woundedness, and allow these to intermingle.
This last part is always unpredictable. Sometimes there is a sense of resistance to the intermingling, sometimes a thirst-like yearning to come together. Sometimes the difficult aspect will loosen like a blossom, slowly revealing its depth and richness. Other times, there will be a sudden release. What one moment ago was impoverishment is now a red-hot flame of anger.
Recently something more than heart and woundedness has been appearing during this phase of the practice. Imagine the heart casting light in all directions, much in the way a bonfire does. Near the center of this light is our difficult aspect; it is being warmed and accepted. Moving out from this, the light gradually dims toward darkness. At the very edge of illumination, it begins a gentle fade into brown then grey then black.
One morning, while practicing with loneliness, something appeared in this transitional space. Or rather, someone appeared. Though the figure remained cloaked and indistinct, there was a definite sense of body, of person present. The next day, working in the same way, the figure returned—this time with others.
The following morning there were even more.
Soon I was meditating with loneliness placed before me and a semi-circle of others arranged behind this experience. These others, I realized, were lonely too. I felt this as a heart sadness, something that pervaded their bodies and emanated outward, percolating into my own open heartedness, into my own sense of loneliness and into myself where I sat practicing.
In many ways, this development is not too surprising. Maitri practice—the work of accepting oneself—is often an initial step in compassion practice, where we accept the experience of others. We welcome our own self-criticism, for example, then open our hearts further to include all others who feel this way.
What has been surprising, however, is the fact my experience of the gathering others has not been as one-sided as compassion practice often is for me. Typically, I welcome others into my heart during this work—I open to their presence, their struggle—and they, through all of this, remain relatively passive. They don’t seem to “do” much of anything.
Not so recently. Those who gather in that semi-circle are far from inactive. There is a very real sense of us practicing together, of the work extending in both directions. As I open to their presence and their pain, they welcome my presence and suffering as well.
In this process, relationship arises among us and include feelings of connection and relatedness. These others are not just like me—sharing similar struggles—as I have traditionally thought when doing this practice. They are both like me and with me, which is a significant difference. These others, as a result, feel like my tribe. They feel like my people, my community in the truest sense of the word—those with whom I share in common.
This is a powerful and affecting experience.
In the company of a tribe, I feel accepted and supported, encouraged to go deeper into the challenging work of self-acceptance than ever before. Previously I might stay on the surface of a welcomed experience. Let’s use self-doubt this time. At this level, the practice is able to give birth to only my most immediate reactions: wretchedness and aversion. Surrounded by my people, though, a much fuller palette of experience unfolds: I see how self-doubt has colored so much of my life. I feel how difficult it has been to live with this. Appreciation arises; I have done pretty well, all things considered.
And there is more. As this community helps me open to myself, I become increasingly able to feel the colors and shadows of their lives. I feel not only their heartaches and difficulties as they circle about me, but also their triumphs and joys. Which is, of course, cyclical. I then become even more able to welcome myself in a fuller and deeper way.
There are effects in the outer world as well. The number of people who have, seemingly out of nowhere, shared with me their own difficulties of late has been striking. “I just felt that somehow you would understand,” one woman told me. And I am beginning to understand, at least on some occasions. I am beginning to understand in ways that sometimes shock me.
On the morning of May 9, 2012, the President of the United States spoke in support of same-sex marriage. Appearing on network television, Barrack Obama offered a string of words that had never before emerged from the mouth of a Commander in Chief: “At a certain point,” he said, “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
I was preparing dinner when I first heard of this. CBC Radio’s five o’clock news lead with the item. As the report unfolded, I felt suddenly overwhelmed with the joy of all whose lives will be immediately impacted by Obama’s declaration, the sorrow of those for whom this announcement comes too late, and the gratitude of the men and women in the future whose lives will be different because of what this President said. All these people seemed right there with me as I listened and stirred our pasta toward readiness. In their company—embodying their experiences as if my own—I could not help but weep.
It is a couple weeks after Obama’s announcement as I write this. It is Thursday May 24 to be exact, Bob Dylan’s birthday. This is a fitting “coincidence” because one of Dylan’s songs (curiously, as sung by Bruce Springsteen) often plays in the background as the above unfolds; it has become, if you will, my meditation soundtrack.
Chimes of Freedom dates back to 1964. It’s never been one of my favorites, but I hear it with new ears lately and what I hear stirs my heart. The song is told from a church doorway. It is late at night and a storm has burst loose. The singer has ducked inside for shelter. Looking out, lightning is seen flashing over the landscape. In these flashes, there is illumination and revelation. Instants of freedom that cry out not for him or her, us or them, but for him and her, us and them—for all who struggle anywhere and anytime:
“Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight/Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight/And for each and every underdog soldier in the night/We gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”
Chimes is, among other things, a declaration of human solidarity and through seven verses the list of those we invariably stand beside in our struggles and our challenges lengthens.
“Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed/For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse/And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe/We gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”
And this is the interesting development that has been happening in my meditation practice lately. It has become apparent the pain and suffering, fear, hurt and uncertainty I welcome during maitri practice is never solely my own. Though it does seem this way on occasion, the heart really knows no such bounds as me or you, self or other. In truth, practice of late has been showing me that the chimes of maitri flash only for me and you, self and other; for all of us—each and every one.
Which brings to mind a passage from Jeffrey Maitland’s Spacious Body:
“In [I and Thou, Martin] Buber distinguishes between two kinds of relationship: I-It and I-Thou. In an ‘I-It’ relationship, you distance yourself from the other person and turn him or her into an object for use or manipulation. In an ‘I-Thou’ relationship no such objectification can take place. Since there is no objectification, there can be no self in the ordinary sense to objectify the other. The objectifying self dies to itself in an ‘I’ standing in openness and communion with another who reciprocates that openness and communion. Buber says that the human world is impossible without the I-It, but that those who live only in the I-It are not fully human.”
Much of my meditation practice is done by myself. Drawing from Buber’s/Maitland’s comments above, it is understandable to think I am alone during these long hours of solitude. To realize this is not the case, however—to understand that I am far, far from alone in this work—is an important part of the task of meditation, which is to become more fully human.
This exciting insight reminds me of another quote and this time tears rise into my eyes at the recollection. These are the first words of a practice known as The Sadhana of the Ancient Ones, something my teacher put together. This has been a recurring presence in my practice life through the last several years. In fact, I often consider it a central influence in much of what has happened to me in this span. In my mind, for example, this article would not exist were it not for this sadhana (the pursuit of a goal). It seems fitting, then, that this passage, which is attributed to Chief Seattle, appears now.
“When the last red man shall have become a myth among the white man, when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, upon the highway or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night, when the streets of your cities are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone.”
Neil McKinlay is a Senior Teacher in Dharma Ocean, a community dedicated to continuing the work of Chogyam Trungpa. He is also a personal coach and intuitive consultant. His website and blog can be found at www.neilmckinlay.com.
Editor: Anne Clendening