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December 3, 2020

How this Loving-Kindness Meditation can start to Heal Divisions.

I have struggled this year—with grief and loss and fear.

Grief from recent deaths of both my parents, grief for lives lost at the hands of racial injustice and from COVID-19, and grief from the loss of “normal” life as we knew before the pandemic hit.

Added to the grief was fear—fear that this election would be so divisive that no matter who won, the divisions between “us” and “them” would widen so far that we might no longer be able to recognize and connect with the humanity in each other.

My life and career have been spent in the nonpartisan public policy space. I have made it a point to try to understand the hows and whys of people’s viewpoints and their lived realities. I have family, friends, and colleagues in my sphere on both sides of the aisle—all good people, all people I love and respect, some of whom have vastly different political and worldviews than I do.

Several years ago, I was at a dinner with a wide variety of folks—democrats, republicans, independents—and the question was asked, “What keeps you up at night?”

For me the answer was the loss of civic and civil dialogue. I can remember a time when people—elected officials and policymakers—would have heated passionate political and policy discussions and later the same night sit together at dinner laughing and exchanging family photos. They took the time to get to know each other as individuals. They may have disagreed intensely, but they respected each other. I don’t see that so much right now.

This year brought a different feel to conversations around politics and policy. They were more charged, with a sense that someone was either on the “right” side or the “wrong” side—more of a “for” or “against” mentality where there was little or no space for a middle. I heard less constructive debate, and I was left wondering—when did we go from passionate debate with respect for the other person, to outright vilifying someone with a different point of view? The divisiveness this year seemed unprecedented.

The weight of my personal grief and the fear and worry I woke up with each day knocked me totally off kilter. I had always been a glass-half-full kind of person, but I began looking at the world more glass-half-empty and started to question everything about myself and the world around me.

My therapist recommended that I start a daily meditation, or metta practice, on loving kindness. The practice is designed to bring kindness to yourself and to others, even toward “difficult” others. I definitely needed to bring some loving-kindness to myself. 

She recommended Tara Brach’s Loving-Kindness meditation. This particular meditation begins with the image of a big open sky curved into a smile. This practice is an experience of the body, not just the mind. You bring that smile into your body—starting in your eyes, your lips, then into the heart and chest, spreading throughout your entire body—opening up space to receive. It is harder to feel the weight of the world bearing down when you are smiling inside.

The meditation has you bring into awareness a series of beings, widening and expanding the circle with each one. It starts with a being that is easy to feel love with, perhaps a beloved pet or a child, and then you move to your own being. You are invited to offer yourself care and a sincere wish or blessing—such as:

“May I be happy.”

“May I feel safe.”

“May I be filled with loving presence, held in loving presence.”

“May I be at peace.”

You move to bringing into awareness someone you care for deeply, then friends, people you don’t know as well, non-human animals, the living earth, a being who represents a group who is suffering, and finally, someone who is difficult to love or include in your heart. With all of them, feel the depth of “we are friends” and the awareness of our connectedness.

The meditation ends with a poem by Mark Nepo, some of which I’ll share below:

“My soul tells me, we were
all broken from the same nameless heart,
and every living thing
wakes with a piece of that original
heart aching its way into blossom.
This is why we know each other
below our strangeness…

(Read the full poem here.)

What does this heart meditation have to do with the election and our current divisiveness?

As more and more of us surround ourselves with people who only think or look like us, and consume media that already agrees with our own views, we become disconnected and distanced. We begin to look at people as “others” and not like “us.” A loving-kindness meditation can remind us that we are all connected in this web of humanity and living earth, that when we disconnect from others, we become disconnected from ourselves as well.

And, if we don’t already know others who think, act, or are different from us, this meditation can be a small step toward understanding and healing. If we can bring into our awareness one “difficult” person—someone who may have voted differently, someone we don’t understand or agree with, someone we might not even personally know, but for whom we can offer a sincere wish and a recognition of our connectedness, we can begin to listen with open hearts.

Hopefully, we can translate that into listening with open ears. We can begin to seek out others who think, look, act differently than we do, and get to know them and listen to their story with an open heart.

Loving-kindness meditation may not fix everything. It may not “fix” anything. But as I reflect on the 2020 election, the state of our world, and the healing needed in our own hearts and in our country, a metta practice is a good place to start.

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