Spirit running. That is what I want to tell you about today.
We've established that I am a little bit of a dirty hippy. That when my friend says to me, after hearing me pour out a knot in my soul, "I will ask the trees to take care of that for you" I just say thank you and mean it, deeply. That showers are not as high on my priority list as fermenting kimchi or making Little Red Riding Hood finger puppets. So bear with me when I talk about this peculiar form of metta that has transformed my loneliness and occasional self-loathing into tender connection with all the aching in the world.
Metta, in practice and in word, is lovingkindness. Sending out an intention of hope for peace, fearlessness, and ease to all living things, yourself included, holding all living things in equal regard. It's the root of compassionate living, the action essential for coming closer to a place of acceptance and understanding for the tough, wild world we inhabit. I first learned lovingkindness practice when I was seven months pregnant with Benen, laying on my side on an enormous Oriental rug in the Craftsman living room of a Berkeley midwife-cum-Buddhist teaching mindfulness parenting and childbirth classes, in preparation for our home birth. Just in case you were skeptical about the hippy credentials.
Classic metta practice starts with yourself. You focus your intention with some breaths in and out, and then send yourself lovingkindness: may I live with ease, may I be free from fear, may I know peace, may I be happy. You cast the net of kind intention out further and further as you ride the meditation through: to your family, those you love very best, to the people in the room with you, to your community, your city, your state, your country, to the world, to George Bush and Saddam Hussein and every small child in the world, to every criminal and parent and lonely person and dog and insect, repeating the intention for all. I envision that when this works well, your heart is glowing like a red ember, your smile is soft and quiet, and your body is shining with the rightness of your regard for the world.
Well. Forget sending metta to the crooks and tyrants. I could never get past myself. For while it was easy, so so easy, to send a dear and heartfelt wish to my tiny unborn baby, to his Daddy, to all the men and women in my life and in the room and in my community toiling and working, it was nearly impossible for me to send it to myself. As soon as I sent myself these telegrams of benevolence, my ego would rise up and argue - peace is not possible for you, you fear far too much to ever be without, and the whole practice would fall apart, and I would be left with frustration, and more self-doubt, and a very hollow-feeling practice.
I clung to metta, practicing it with half-hearted diligence, for many years. I argued it. The more time elapsed, the less hopeful I felt for myself. Perhaps peace would always elude me. Perhaps this inner critic was telling the truth. The turbulence of being a mother to young children certainly didn't help. A quiet heart is a rarity for me. But I don't like to think I'm that different from others. The path that I am pursuing is a path open to anyone who desires it and works at it. I knew what I lacked was not discipline or faith, but a key, a way of seeing that fit for me.
Earlier this year, I started sitting some evenings with a group at a church near my home. The instructor was everything I never liked in a teacher: impersonal, quiet, maybe a little uptight?, and full of nervous tics and throat-clearing that made me want to rocket out of my seat. When, after a few weeks, I asked him about my problem with metta practice, he surprised me (oh the beauty of people!): "Can you tell that critical voice to shut up? Can you just say, Fuck You, I'm busy right now, you'll have to come back later?".
I could. Still I struggled, but at least I felt I had some purchase on finding some peace. Fuck You, I'm Busy is right up my alley in the lexicon of protective mechanisms. Plus, it made me like him a whole lot more that he was so insightfully crass.
Each session we ended with a brief practice of metta. A few weeks later, he handed me the key I didn't know I needed. Since then metta has blossomed into a visceral, tender exercise for me. I can access it in a way I never could before, and I can conveniently sidestep the critic by use of a proxy in my heart. Here is how it works:
The KeyStart the practice by inviting into your heart someone you love and admire dearly, someone who embodies great kindness to you. (This was easy for me. I have no shortage of people in my life that I adore. Instinctively my mind invited in our midwife, who has birthed our two babies with us and cared for me through the extremes of my pregnancies. She possesses a spiritual force and earthy maternity that is, above all, calm and non-judging. She was just what my heart needed).
Hold this person in your heart and sense the peace and kindness they exude. Sit with them and enjoy sharing your heart with them.
Speaking through them, give metta to yourself. Have them wish you ease, freedom from suffering and fear, a life of peace and happiness.
Enjoy the warmth of accepting this person's kind intentions. Carry this warmth further, extending metta to those in the room, those in your family, community, etc.
At the end, I always thank Beah for residing in my heart. Somehow knowing that I can invite her kindness in at any moment, that I can borrow her experience and energy to help steer me right, has been monumental in changing my practice, and my relationship to compassion.
So what does inviting an Earth Mother into your heart to love you when you cannot love yourself have to do with a Paleo lifestyle?
I'm not so sure, but something makes me want to say: everything. This lifestyle we have embraced, it's an inside job. It's about being strong and energetic and healthy, yes, but none of that is worth anything without a soul that is connected, that is contributing to the world. The vastness of the human spirit and the capacity to love are the biggest marvels of my daily life. I see it in my children, in my husband, in my friends. It happens on the floor of the gym and at the kitchen counter. It's the magic and the impetus for everything I do.
Today we had a Hero Workout scheduled at our gym. Hero Workouts honor American men and women who have died in the line of duty. They are named after a particular hero, and where most of our workouts are short and intense, these workouts are grueling and long. One typically gets one's self through the mental struggle of a Hero Workout by reminding ones' self that the person it is named for is dead, and you are not. It sounds dramatic and it is. Twenty minutes into my workout, I was feeling pretty tapped out. I wanted to go home. I wanted caffeine. I wanted a shower. I wanted to sit down. When I push myself physically, past the point where uncomfortable was ten minutes ago, a vast vulnerability opens to me. More than once I have cried at the gym. This morning, as I headed out on the last mile of the workout, I summoned strength. I didn't want to run alone, I didn't want to listen to the negative haggling in my mind as my tired muscles covered the mile of pavement.
So I invited someone in. Not my midwife, who, just being honest, I don't see as much of a runner. But a good friend, someone I have run many miles with, and who moved away this summer. "Hi Brook", I said to her, as she ran up alongside me and matched my pace. My words were no longer my own. I felt her, the way a heart sings joy when you hold your baby. "I've missed you". My voice cracked and tears welled in my throat. I know I have been missing her, but goodness, here was all the loss welled up in that vulnerable space I was telling you about. I almost had to stop. My breathing became so ragged that I had to slow down for a minute, get my throat relaxed, swallow the tears. But I ran in tandem with her, slowly increasing the tempo of my pace, because I was always chasing her when we ran together. My mind was held by her presence. There was no self-doubt or criticism. Perhaps I lack mental fortitude for summoning others when the shit hits the fan. But then what is interdependence for, if not to carry us through the hardest and darkest parts of our lives? The last 400 meters we gathered speed, I was not running in a parking lot past dumpsters and cars, I was running in the heart of what really matters, in the place where love and belief can carry you further than you dare to imagine, in a place where for those last eight minutes we were both at ease, and free of fear, and full of peace, and happy.
And that is Spirit Running.
So in whatever you do that is hard today, and tomorrow, and the next: may you be at ease, may you be free from fear, may you know peace and happiness. May you call into your heart whomever holds you up, and may you know that you are never alone.
How do you summon kindness?