I’m not close to many of my trailer park neighbors, a shortcoming that is ultimately my own fault, but that I still like to blame on them for being a bunch of stupid jerks. I do stop and chat with one woman somewhat regularly, though. She was kind to my dad when he was alive, and helped me with a few of the legal necessities when he died, for which I’m grateful, and she gives me odds and ends from her food bank allotment that her diet prohibits. We try to look out for each other.
The other day we ended up having a strange coming-out conversation. Not about my being gay, which is best left undiscussed here (see above re: “stupid jerks”), but about a meditation practice we have in common. We were gossiping about a neighbor whose husband just beat charges that he was transporting heroin for sale on a technicality. I like the guy (we used to work together, though not as heroin dealers on a tandem bike, which is the image that immediately brought to mind), and basically like his wife, though she has lied to me about matters various and sundry in casual conversations where it was unnecessary. So when my neighbor-friend said, “I tried to send loving kindness to (dealer’s wife), but it was so hard,” my antennae went up.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, metta or “loving-kindness” meditation is a practice where, after sitting for a while, you focus on a few lines like, “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe, may I reach my full potential,” first directing the sentiment toward yourself, then a friend or loved one, a stranger, someone who you’re in conflict with, and then to all living things from your cat to your ficus plant. It’s a really lovely practice because it forces you (gently) to assume some stewardship over your own care and happiness, but then opens you up and out, into community with the world at large. It’s simultaneously very comforting and incredibly scary.
I told my neighbor that I’d first heard of the practice when I read an article about a group of practitioners in the Bay Area who were using metta to work through the tremendous anger and grief they felt over George W. Bush’s squandering of international good will by marching us off to endless war. They were really struggling, but committed to try and send loving-kindness even to someone who felt like an enemy of their deepest values.
From there I learned the nuts and bolts of how to actually *do* the practice in Susan Piver’s book, ‘How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life’, and gleaned an accelerated version from Sylvia Boorstein’s ‘Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!’ (she literally sits there and simply remembers people, wishing them well, not unlike a Christian prayer list).
After we’d bonded over this I didn’t see my neighbor for a few days. Then she stormed past me one morning with a piece of paper in hand. When she passed by again she unleashed a tirade about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had left a pamphlet on her porch. We do have a lot of pamphleteering here, but she had taken the paper and thrown it on the porch of a woman she doesn’t like who happens to be in the church (instead of giving it to a neighbor she’s friendly with, who is also in the church). I didn’t say anything, but I recognized her behavior as something I go through myself.
Sometimes when we open our hearts in practice, the initial buzz feels so good it’s tempting to want to hold onto it. Then when we drift back to an emotional middle place, it feels bad in comparison. We feel a little ripped off, and embarrassed for having been vulnerable. I wrestle with this vacillation about ten times a day; your results may vary.
If you’ve never tried meditation of any type, this is a great place to start; it’s a little less abstract than just existing on a cushion. Look, you have words to focus on and things to do! But be forewarned: Opening your heart is brave and scary, lonely and connective, simple and paradoxical. It will change you and the world at once.