Loving Kindness

Classic Loving Kindness

A MEDITATION ON GROWING COMPASSION AND FRIENDLINESS

When I was first introduced to the concept of ‘loving kindness’ or ‘metta’ meditation early in my practice, I thought to myself Ummm, no thanks, I didn’t come to this practice to learn some sappy way of treating others; I’m doing this so I can stop being so stressed and anxious and unhappy all the time.

Turns out loving kindness practice can be just the antidote to feeling stressed and anxious and unhappy – and here’s why.

Firstly, when we cultivate kindness (using a series of meaningful phrases), usually the first person we direct those intentions towards is ourselves! When was the last time you were offered well wishes for your happiness, safety, peace or health? With loving kindness practice, you can direct these affirmations to yourself all day every day if you want to (and no one would ever know) – and it’s surprising just how powerful the practice can be.

But what I’ve found to be even more uplifting is when I take those same intentions and direct them outwardly. Get out of my head and my own preoccupations with me, myself and I, and deliberately focus on others. Those I love and those I don’t; those I know a little and those I’ll never ever meet.

For me, THIS is the soul warming sunshine that makes those hard, sticky emotions malleable and therefore manageable.

And so it turns out a bit of selfish compassion makes the perfect companion.

Why don’t you give it a try.

Welcome everybody.  Today we’ll be practicing classic loving kindness but before we do, let’s first check in with where we’re at both mentally and physically.

Adjusting our bodies, wriggling the toes, shrugging the shoulders and stretching the neck.

Closing our eyes and taking some big deep breaths, filling up the lungs and pushing out the air two or three times. And just letting the breath return to its innate rhythm.

And if there’s tension in the body, noticing where it’s at; making a mental note but allowing it to be there. It won’t always be there, it’s just visiting for now.

And as we begin the practice of metta or loving kindness, it might be useful to first place your hand on your heart, or your chest, which may help you to feel more genuine in offering warmhearted friendliness.

So let’s begin with ourselves. Directing kind, compassionate thoughts inward.

May I be well and happy.

May I be find peace.

May I feel grateful.

May I experience joy.

Repeating the phrases to ourselves, feeling the breath, and noticing what feelings arise through the process.

May I be well and happy.

May I be find peace.

May I feel grateful.

May I experience joy.

Let’s now bring to mind someone we hold dear, like a best friend or a sibling; or someone we look up to. Place your hand on your heart and this time repeat the phrases outwardly.

May you be well and happy.

May you find peace.

May you feel grateful.

May you experience joy.

Noticing the difference we feel in sending these well wishes to a loved one, breathing in and out as we sit with the phrases.

May you be well and happy.

May you find peace.

May you feel grateful.

May you experience joy.

We can now recall a person who we don’t know very well, who we know by face but perhaps not by name. Someone for whom we have no real feelings at all. But try picturing the finer details of their face.

May you be well and happy.

May you find peace.

May you feel grateful.

May you experience joy.

Sending kind thoughts unconditionally, knowing we won’t likely receive anything in return. And that’s OK.

May you be well and happy.

May you find peace.

May you feel grateful.

May you experience joy.

If you’ve dropped your hand, it might be wise to place it back on your chest. For we’ll now bring to mind someone who we find challenging. If you’re new to this practice, start with someone who is mildly irritating or unpleasant. And if you’ve been practicing a while, you might feel ready to choose someone who you have a really hard time with.

And with as little or as much sincerity as you can bring, send them your well wishes.

May you be well and happy.

May you find peace.

May you feel grateful.

May you experience joy.

Sitting with the feelings that come up for you; either pleasant or unpleasant. Just observing and accepting whatever is there.

May you be well and happy.

May you find peace.

May you feel grateful.

May you experience joy.

And to all other beings on Earth; human and non-human, and even on planets we’ve not yet discovered.

May we all be well and happy.

May we all find peace.

May we all feel grateful.

May we all experience joy.

Well done everyone. The rest of the session is now yours to savour in silence however you wish. Take the energy of kindheartedness that we’ve created and enjoy that and the breath for as long as you need.

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How I shut up for 3 days and blew my mind… right open

ARUNA GIRI MEDITATION RETREAT, June 2019
maitripa centre, HEALESVILLE, VICTORIA

This may be the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept.

Back in January I decided that this year would be the year I’d finally do my first residential meditation retreat.

So come May (when resolution was fast looking like another statistic), when my husband asked, “What do you want for your birthday?”, I said, “Ooh, maybe you can get me that retreat I said I wanted to do.”

A quick Google search revealed not only was there a retreat coming up that was pretty close to home and not exorbitantly priced, it was on the same weekend as my birthday. Whoa. Done. I signed up, paid the money and wondered for the next couple of weeks how I’d go spending three full days not uttering a word.

Here’s what I experienced at the Aruna Giri silent meditation retreat at Maitripa Centre in Healesville, Victoria in June 2019.

FRIDAY JUNE 7

My 42nd birthday

Happy birthday to me! Melbourne had put on a gorgeous winter day. I loaded up my car with my suitcase crammed full of warm comfy clothes, some cushions and blankets, and an emergency sleeping bag – I do not want to be cold this weekend.

The drive out of Melbourne into Healesville was stunning. Winter sun-kissed vineyards and winding country roads were the first taste of a deliciously simple weekend ahead.

Arriving at the gates of Maitripa Centre, a quirky retreat facility started by Tibetan Buddhist Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche IX in 1997, I gave myself a quick pep talk (remember your beginner’s mind), and made my way up the long gravel driveway.

There at the top stood an impressive white stupa, some basic, rustic accommodation and a lush green valley.

The three sheets

I headed to the check-in desk where a deadpan young man named Daniel gave me my room key and explained monotone what ‘the three sheets’ were for. (One for the mattress, one for under the doona and one for above.) Interesting.

The tiny room was neat, clean and more than adequate for just me, myself and I.

Now, what did he say about the sheets again?

I unpacked, successfully made the bed, checked Facebook one last time (and dozens of lovely birthday messages) and took a selfie with the stupa. No texting, phone calls or social media now for the next 90 or so hours.

Now what?

Let’s see who’s here.

After checking out the loos and orientating myself around the property I headed down to the kitchen, met Katie who would be cooking our meals for the next three days, and discovered a lounge room where some like-minded strangers had started to gather. With the talking ban not yet imposed, I took the opportunity to introduce myself.

There were all sorts of people here. Serial retreat-goers and first timers, semi-regular meditators and those who’d never practiced a day in their life. There were city folk and country folk, male and female, although majority women – 70/30 if I had to guess.

But I wasn’t there to count.

Aruna Giri

At 6:30pm our meditation leader, Aruna Giri, rounded us up in the yoga hall. Thirty of us stood in a circle as Aruna officially introduced himself and chef Katie; we received more instructions from deadpan Daniel (who let slip a hidden sense of humour) and I found myself aware of a pretty loud analytical brain.

Mmm this Aruna Giri. Straight-faced, quietly spoken, serious kind of guy. Unusual. Bit mysterious. I actually don’t know anything about him. Why didn’t I read any reviews about this guy? He could be a serial killer for all I know. Interesting…

That’s enough judging! You’re here to let go of all that.

Where’s the meat?

In the eclectic kitchen dinner was served, or rather; we queued to serve ourselves. A giant pot of soup awaited us to be ladled, chunky minestrone I think, with a buffet of crusty breads.

Retreat food has a reputation for being delicious and I was definitely not disappointed.

I made my way to the dining hall and sat down next to an enthusiastic young country grandmother with facial piercings. She’d driven more than four hours to be here. I glanced over at her plate and there piled high were all the crusts from her crusty bread – she’d left them behind like my 12-year-old still does! (And I was secretly eyeing them off like I do my daughter’s every morning.) She gave me a look and a smile and I asked “How are you enjoying your soup?” to which she exclaimed, “Where’s the meat?!”

Ohhh, sorry, I thought everyone knew. It’s a no-harm kind of vibe this weekend.

Silence

After the meal we washed and dried our own plates and headed to the meditation hall to kick start what we were really there for: silence. But it wasn’t just silence. It was focus, and the freedom to practice discipline, and for me, most specially, the camaraderie of being alone, together.

Perched on our red cushions, the circle took up the full perimeter of the hall and we commenced with a short five minutes of silence and some words by the still-enigmatic Aruna. Then, one by one, all 30-or-so of us introduced ourselves and why we were there.

Many of us were there purely for the silence. There were meditation teachers who wanted to do some actual meditating instead of teaching for a change; there was a computer guy who looks at screens all day long, and his elderly mother who doesn’t speak any English. There was a husband and wife duo; she’d done some yoga I think, he’s a super busy guy who’d never meditated a day in his life. And everything in between.

Our first silent meditation session wrapped up by 9pm and I was tucked up in bed between the ‘three sheets’ by 9:30pm ready for the 6am gong to follow.

SATURDAY JUNE 8

Wake Up!

I’ve always felt 6am was closer to the middle of the night than a reasonable time to get out of bed, so when the wake up gong chimed outside my door, it was a rude shock.

And within minutes I had a throbbing headache.

I reached for the Nurofen but was mindful enough to stop myself. Let’s just wait and see what happens for a change.

Into the meditation room we all filed, docile and dreamy; except for me whose headache was feeling more like a nightmare. But we’re waiting to see what happens.

The hall was dark just as it was outside, all but the cosy flame of one tiny tea-light glowing in the centre of the circle. We took our positions for 60 minutes of silent, unguided meditation.

Pill popping

This meditation started off like many of mine do – sit, fidget, yawn. Wipe eyes, reposition, stretch neck. Legs out in front, yawn, legs tucked behind, wipe eyes. Cross legs, sit up straight, slouch back down, tilt head left, tilt head right. Yawn again.

And then suddenly, without warning, stillness and concentration and the ahhh moment. Except for the headache. That was still there.

By the end of the hour, I was feeling awake and pretty cosy, headache mostly subsided and ready for the next session: 90 minutes of yoga.

But as we got into gentle stretching, breathing and some downward dogs, my headache returned with a vengeance for one last hurrah, pounding from the inside of my forehead and temples, trying desperately to get out. So when yoga was finished, it was straight back to my room for some compassionate pill popping with my friend Nurofen. He’ll put both of us out of our misery.

Hey, at least I tried.

Free time

After some soul warming quinoa porridge, spiced stewed fruit, coconut yoghurt and a sprinkling of seeds, we were free to do as we pleased for a bit.

Free! I could do exactly what I wanted – no kids, no bosses, friends, husband or mum needing anything from me. No pressure to make small talk with my fellow retreatees, not even to make eye contact. So what to do? Well let’s see. How about curl up by the heater on the well worn armchair, close my eyes and feel my breath going in and out? BECAUSE I CAN! And 30 minutes of that was exactly what I needed to help the Nurofen kick in and work through the tiredness of a 6am wakeup call – and a lifetime of busyness.

By now the chilly air had thawed a little and the sun had come out, so I made my way up to one of the picnic tables at the top of the property. I sat up on the tabletop, legs dangling down heavy and free, and angled my face up towards the sun. I let the warmth of the sun wash over me like I’d never felt her warmth before.

THIS is what a retreat is all about. Indulging in these simple pleasures, engaging with nature – because you CAN, you have TIME. And when you’re stripped away of taking and all your to-dos, you get to tap into the magic that is simplicity.

And hey, it helps that it’s a clear blue-sky day and the winter sun is blazing.

Hit by a truck

After the 11am meditation session, which I settled into far more easily than the first; lunch, and some more free time, it was time for our 3:30pm sit.

And this time fatigue hit me like a truck.

Just like a drowsy driver on a long and straight, boring country road, I was zoning out. Although, thankfully it was just my falling body jolting me back to attention and not the impact of a hundred-year-old tree.

But the instruction is to accept this state as it is. Just be with it, don’t resist it. So I did. I said to myself, It’s not a crime to be tired. It’s actually no wonder you’re tired. You rarely get a chance to stop like this.

It was a sleepy 40 minutes and that was OK.

Parrot

The exuberance I felt for free time earlier in the day was hijacked by a new feeling in the afternoon: boredom. And a little bit of homesickness.

I hadn’t spoken to anyone in 20 hours by now and my mind had had enough. So it started talking to me. Like a little parrot perched in between my ears, it started doing what parrots do: repeating itself.

“Aruna Giri. Aruna Giri. Aruna Giri. Aroooona Giri.”

Over and over again, the parrot was whispering our meditation leader’s unusual name into my mind’s ear.

“Aruna Giri. Aruna Giri.” But why? Are you even pronouncing it right? “Aruna Giri. Aruna Giri.” 

On and on it went. Until the dinner gong sounded and mind felt satisfied to put parrot to bed.

That was weird.

SUNDAY JUNE 9

After a solid eight hours’ sleep, the 6am wake up call was less a smack in the face and more like a fun friend knocking on the door for a day of adventure.

Our first meditation began with music; sounds of an Indian sitar and chanting. It’s not what I’m used to in meditation but the beginner’s mind I’d packed for the weekend could enjoy and appreciate it all the same. I could already feel how much easier it was to get still and centred after a full day of mindful silence.

The sun was out and it was another brilliant winter day. Each meditation session was deepening, as was the acceptance of everything. Time was gradually becoming a vague idea rather than the thing that usually propels my every thought and move.

The 11am session was especially serene; dopamine flooding my body, so I decided to stay in the hall for an extra 30 minutes… I was on a good thing here! One other person had the same idea, and whether or not he was experiencing pleasure or pain, I hope he felt as comforted as I did sharing my experience with one other.

Journalling

Following another delicious lunch and an afternoon shower, I took my yoga mat out onto the sun drenched lawn with my journal and started writing.  Bit by bit over this weekend ideas I’d been toying on the outside world were gaining clarity. Disappointments I’d experienced were being dissolved. The process of slowing everything down simultaneously gave rise to acceptance of cold hard truths but also, acceptance of myself.

Before dinner I headed down the lounge area but decided to stand outside in the crisp air — so much sitting had happened already! Feelings of loneliness and boredom returned and while I sipped on my ginger tea I reminded myself: Be here in the body. Here where you are. There’s nowhere else you need to be, nowhere else you can be right now. So be here.

That vegan brownie

The dinner gong broke my reverie with the promise of something new: another yum home-cooked meal by the incredible Katie!

So far this weekend we’d eaten such good, clean, vegetarian food – three meals a day and fruit for snacking if we wanted to. So when I walked into the kitchen to find something different – a chocolatey snack alongside a hearty soup – my stomach did a little flip!

If I’d learned anything at all this weekend, it was to SAVOUR moments while they are here. Be with them. Fully. And boy did I savour that brownie.

It was decadent chocolate and warm; gooey on the inside and crunchy on the outside. I ate it slowly, letting the crunchiness dissolve into the gooeyness and swathing my tastebuds with the sweet, chocolatey flavour. I stayed with every mouthful until it hit my stomach. Within minutes my body realised this was something unusual, and if it could sing, the dining hall would have heard the most joyful aria. “LAAAAAAA!”

Must remember to eat all sweet treats like that.

Afterwards it was my turn on kitchen duty and if only I could talk. I wanted SO BADLY to tell Katie how amazing that brownie was.

MONDAY JUNE 10

Silence broken

Our final day! Silence would be broken after lunch but I was in no hurry to get there. I decided to get my camera out and take some photos around the property, gathering evidence of the beauty of all the life around me and marvelling at just how lavish nature is – a luxurious kind of ordinary.

On that final morning of silence I felt content, at ease and happy.

At 12:30pm we gathered in the meditation hall for a final sit; a loving kindness meditation led by Aruna. Bliss had been gradually accumulating day-by-day and this was a perfect way to finish things off. When the gong sounded, silence was officially broken and to me, there was a light, buzzing energy in the group.

Ecstacy

Aruna started chatting, getting us back into talking mode. And after 90 hours on mute, what were the first words out of my mouth? A joke about how AWFUL that vegan brownie tasted.

Laughter ensued and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced my own smile quite like I did. A ridiculous rubbery grin like one of those sideshow clowns; lips stretched, elasticy and upturned, teeth, gums and all.

After three days of ever deepening stillness, introspection and quiet, this laughter was THE most magnificent feeling. A feeling of pure joy, of connectedness with people I barely knew, of ecstasy in fact. A real kind of ecstasy that explodes out your chest from the deepest parts within. The kind of ecstasy one can only dream of experiencing in the wee hours of a darkened nightclub.

Closing Circle

Just as it took time to get used to not talking, it definitely took some time to get used to talking again. I just wasn’t interested in chitchat. I ate my lunch pretty quietly, packed up my room and checked my key back in with deadpan Daniel. We all then returned to the meditation hall for closing circle.

It was interesting to hear of everyone’s experiences. Those who decided to share used words like grateful, pleasantly surprised, harder than I thought, not as hard as I thought. And even those who admitted to having thoughts of “this is dumb”, “this is not for me,” were still glad they’d come.

Thank you, Aruna.

Coming home

We said our farewells, I hopped in my car and headed home. Back to reality. When I walked in, hubby was watching the footy with beer in hand and my girls were doing their own thing.

This familiar scene somehow felt alien now.

We sat around the dinner table and in turn I asked my family how their weekends were. I noticed how easily I could sit and listen to everything they were saying without the need to do something else at the same time, or hurry them through their story so we could get onto the next thing.

But the polarity of my post-retreat awareness versus a lack of theirs hit me in the face when they all got up and left the table and not one of them had asked how my weekend was!

I’m not proud of what happened next.

Cue the rant!

“Umm, hello, is anyone going to ask me how my weekend was? I’ve only been gone for 3 days.” Sarcasm dripping.

My husband stopped, said, “Oops, sorry!”, continued to clear the plates and tell our youngest she hadn’t eaten enough dinner, and proclaimed that he can listen to me and do all these things at the same time.

“I don’t care! Everyone come and sit back down and be present for a change while I tell you about my weekend.”  

I told them as much as I thought they could handle before they burst with distraction.

Like I said, not a proud moment.

TUESDAY JUNE 11

Mind. Blown.

Whilst I’d expected to have some interesting experiences on retreat; perhaps some blissful moments and  some uncomfortable ones too, I was not prepared for what I experienced on my drive to work.

My mind completely and utterly blown. Right. Open.

It’s hard to articulate the feeling. As I looked out over my steering wheel at the road and cars and sky before me, the top of my head felt like it had been opened up like a gift box. But the treasure inside? NOTHING. Absolutely nothing.

And by nothing I mean a sense of complete clear headedness, of deep acceptance, of razor sharp clarity… A clear blue sky without a cloud, or a bird or wind. A curious feeling like nothing really matters.

Back to reality

Aruna had advised us to take things easy on our reintegration with the real world and I soon knew what he meant. Scrutinising spreadsheets after three days of allowing thoughts to simmer down is, well, rough!

Must remember that for next time.

And there’s definitely going to be a next time.

Body Scan

Tension and Relief

A MEDITATION ON EVENING OUT LIFE’S TURBULENT FLIGHT PATH
(AND ON WATCHING GAME OF THRONES LIKE A BUDDHIST)

Spoiler alert! This post contains references to Game of Thrones. (But I trust that anyone who cares has already seen the ending.)

As I sat down to watch the final chapter of one of the most downloaded shows ever, I set myself a little task — watch this last episode through the eyes of a Buddha. (I’m not an actual Buddhist but I was definitely up to the challenge.)

I’d written this meditation a few episodes earlier, having already noticed (like a Buddha would) how much tension was in my body at the end of a gruelling one-hour episode of battles, blood and betrayal. And of course the flood of relief wherever a glimpse of hope and heroism.

And what I realised was my life was not unlike Game of Thrones! (OK, well, there’s no dragons or white walkers – although we can certainly go about our days with zombie-mind.) But that we can experience tension and relief all day long as we butt up against challenges (however trivial) and finally solve them (or they solve themselves.)

So with my challenge set I pressed play, and through Buddha-eyes, here’s what I did:

  1. Released all expectations of what this final episode was going to be. The fact that it was the last episode ever was the first idea to let go. There is so much expectation, attachment and wanting built into that. I was just going to sit and let each scene unfold and try not to project what was going to (or should) happen.
  2. Accepted that I would likely experience tension. Likely experience relief. Likely experience a whole host of other emotions (anger, disappointment, joy, excitement, sadness.) And just let them come up and subside naturally on their own. Have awareness of all these feelings and where they present themselves in my body at the same time as watching the show.
  3. Put myself in the writers’ shoes. Had some empathy for the mammoth task of the creatives to write an ending that would please the fans, honour the characters and tie things off well. Empathy and understanding for how many millions of fans would be watching and judging and afterwards discussing. No easy feat! And not everyone would be pleased.
  4. Took a few minutes at the closing credits. Sat with the swirl of thoughts and feelings about what had just transpired. Sadness that there would be no more. Happy that the fate of each character had been told. And focused on all the positive awesome stories and scenes that were delivered into an hour and a half of viewing.
    (Spoiler! Eg. That AMAZING scene watching Drogon the dragon burn down the Iron Throne, scoop up Dany’s dead body and fly off into the ashen horizon. That Cersei Lannister finally met her death, but in the arms of her true love – but also by being crushed and suffocated by an avalanche of Red Keep rubble. That Jon Snow did what Jon Snow does – the right thing – which wiped the world of another imminent Targaryn tyrant. And that through his sentence to Castle Black that he finally found freedom in being an outsider.)

I could go on. But having said all of this, even if you’re not a Game of Thrones fan, here’s a meditation to practice sitting with tension, relief and other sensations in the body and recognising that they do in fact have a lifespan and that they are just nomadic visitors passing on through.

At times, all life feels like is a ping pong match between two emotional states: tension and relief.

We get into an argument with someone; there’s tension. Then we make up and feel relief.

We’re waiting for an important phone call. Tension. When we finally receive it – relief.

Of course, this tension-relief paradigm isn’t just about things that we haven’t chosen. When we sit down to watch our favourite TV program there may have been so many tense and relieving rallies written into an hour (Game of Thrones, anyone?), that by the closing credits we need a few moments to collect ourselves.

There are countless other examples we could encounter on a daily basis so it’s no wonder that life can feel overwhelming and exhausting.

But the more we can live mindfully – when we’re more consistently attuned to what our bodies telling us — we can somewhat transcend this yo-yo state and more quickly return to enjoying the game — whatever the score.

MEDITATION

Let’s see if we can explore this further through meditation.

Get yourself into a loose, but alert position. Stretch out your spine. Cup your hands together like a pair of shells, or place them however you find restful. Connect with your breath at the tip of your nose and take a deep inhalation to fill up the lungs. Hold it for a moment and gently let go with a long breath out.

And dropping into your body now.

Placing your awareness on the body part that feels most tense in this very moment. Neck. Back. Or temples. The part that is clenched, or tight, or in pain. Keeping your focus here, breathing in to this area.

Just gently being with this tension, investigating the sensations. Becoming familiar with how tension presents itself in your body.

Now choose a body part where you feel no tension at all. Places like fingers. Toes. And ears. Rest in this area. Are there any sensations? How do you describe them?

Breathing in to this body part; connecting breath to body. Connecting this moment to body.

And if there’s a body part that’s experiencing pleasant sensations, notice that as well. What are the characteristics of these pleasurable feelings? Where are they located?

Continue breathing in to whichever body part feels most dominant right now.

Let’s now take an expanded perspective of your entire body. Stepping back to sense the completeness of all body parts together as one.

This is your body.

Made up of parts that experience tension. Parts that experience relief and pleasant sensations. Parts that experience neutrality.

And at any given moment the mix of sensations is changing. Just like in life. We experience stresses and calm. Anger and laughter. Fear and confidence. And of course, emptiness. Or nothing at all.

This is normal; an indiscriminate part of being human. And only when we are aware and ultimately accept this reality can we enjoy the game of life more as a spectator and less as the ball.

So, keep going with this meditation if it feels good for you, and return to the breath and the body whenever thoughts have taken over.

Enjoy.