Friday, August 31, 2012

What's in your cup?

This morning I walked into my local Starbucks for a triple shot of decaf espresso before work. It’s my usual drink when I’ve fallen off the no coffee wagon, and since the wagon’s wheels left me in the dust some time ago, I had my nifty spillproof Contigo travel cup with me.

Conservation is a no-brainer to me. It takes building a new habit, but humans are great at that (when did you last glance at your smartphone?) The way I figure it, I would not want 365 used coffee cups in my bedroom, so I do my best not to live with a mystical belief about where things go when I throw them “Away.”

My Starbucks is full of locals (you can tell, because it’s right in the heart of boy’s town and the bicep quality is well above par) but it also gets some tourists from the hotel just down the block. The mother with her two adolescent daughters before me in line was clearly of the second variety. She was fitting three drinks into a cardboard carry tray as I screwed the lid onto my travel cup, when I heard her say “Now, that’s a great idea!”

Um. “Yeah,” I said, with no detectable sarcasm. “It is. I save a few hundred cups a year, I figure.”

The usual barrage of judgmental thought was staunched along with the sarcasm, with just a tiny bit of effort. As I stood there and saw her regarding my cup with a smile, I realized, in a way that was completely unrelated to her charming Midwestern accent, that on this Friday morning in the year 2012, it occurred to this woman for the very first time in her life that she had an option not to use a disposable cup. She had the option to conserve. She had the option to save trees and plastic and space in the landfill, as well as all the unaccounted pollutants generated behind the scenes for anything that’s mass manufactured and distributed world wide to deliver a hot cup of creature comfort to us in the morning in whatever city we may find ourselves waking up.

That was what really woke me up this morning. I realized how I sleepwalk through my worldview, which presumes that everyone, everywhere knows what they can do to help our planet get a little healthier.

When I set aside my assumptions for a second, I had the opportunity to share a great idea with someone else. This woman didn’t deserve scorn for flaunting what I consider one of the simplest measures of personal environmental responsibility. Quite the contrary: she gave me the gift of being inspired by an action that I take almost without thinking about it. I paraphrase George Bernard Shaw:

If you have caramel frappucino and I have a triple decaf and we exchange cups then you and I will still each have one tasty beverage. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.

And that idea tastes much, much better.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Month of Metta

There is a wave in our culture that values practice over achievement. A cadre of tie dyed hearts who encourage us to play, observe, soften, and experiment instead of hammer down an unbending path towards a clearly defined goal. The space of practice, of disciplined playfulness and gentle committedness to return and return and return to a task that at best may feel meaningless but occasionally is downright painful, paradoxically generates a deep sense of accomplishment. 
Perhaps it's just masochism. Wheee!

But it is very clear to me that love, kindness and soft-relating need practice in my world. In particular softening to my own experience, observing rather than judging my reactions, playing at my life rather than performing it like every day is a doctoral dissertation, is often not easy. 

So in characteristic goal-oriented fashion I declared July the month of metta*. I expressly dedicated my time on the cushion to lovingkindness toward myself. Every day. As they say, charity begins at home.

Below are some reflections from the month - an offering to anyone looking for love.

O, what a tangled head we weave.

I commit to sitting every day and sending myself lovingkindness. I invite friends in my spiritual community to join me and sit daily for one minute or more and wish love to themselves in whatever words ring true. I seek to be comfortable where I sit. I strain to recognize my own inner voice of compassion. I feel for my heart and relax into it when I can.

I conjure a mental image of myself and when I find one that moves my heart I recite to that woman in my mind:

may you be happy
may you be at ease with suffering
may you be safe
may you be healthy
may you be peaceful
may you be free of suffering

I start out sitting 20-30 minutes a day. I average 18 minutes. I sit on my own 27 out of 31 days. I know this because there’s an app for it. God I love technology.

I spend a good amount of time finding my favorite bell on the meditation timer on my iPhone. It's better than the marimba, or the cricket. I'd like something clean and clear. Some of the sounds are tinny and cheap, like some Indian import I bought at Cost Plus. One bowl is too high pitched, a shrew, a nag. The gong warbles like a drunk in danger of falling over. I find my favorite. I hear it for about 5 seconds a day. I smile and sigh.

When I sit in vipassana my mind wanders, most often to plans, calls, connections to make. These relations, explanations and interpretations all seem to shore up an identity. Medieval buttresses. Mind building mind.

Monday: I set the intention to really relax with my thoughts in vipassana, which I will follow with metta. So often I react to the drifting. It feels like a tightening in my chest, a condemnation that wordlessly constricts my throat. How counterproductive judgment and frustration at mind's natural wandering are to metta practice. “Real-time non-judgmental awareness” as Noah Levine calls it. My minutes in metta glow.

I envision a woman kneeling behind me, her hands smoothing my hair, calming the storming mind. It feels like a saint's mantle streaming from my crown.

All the day's frustrations rush back to me: when I was passive/aggressive, when I was impatient, when I rigidly clung to my plan. I feel my being tighten as I sit. Then I think: these are what need compassion. These are what I will hold in my embrace. I hug my own tight spots.

My heart opens in the calm of meditation. I have been looking at shelters for months. I met a tortoiseshell kitten last week. I am so clear that I want to adopt that kitty. 

I cannot feel the warmth of my heart. The other day sitting with my hands crossed over my heart I felt softness, warmth, a compassionate seed growing, pulsing. Now there's only tension, and my mind wanders to the restrictions in my life, to the areas I feel tight. My heart beats tight in its bands.

My body feels too much, too big. I place my hands on my belly just below the navel, the point in Chinese medicine called the dan tien. It is so uncomfortable, too uncomfortable. I raise one hand to my heart. With this connection, I find more ease in my belly.

A four month old kitten named Kriya lands in my life on July 13. The sleeplessness is mostly blissful, and revelatory. How challenging for me to root into self-compassion when something else, someone else, presses in on me. All of a sudden, my mind has a project.

I get caught in a whirlpool of ego and purpose. Worry presses in on me. My self care slips. Sitting for any length of time is a struggle.

I chant metta phrases at the shelter, surrounded by caged animals. Dozens of lives. May you be healthy. May you be safe. I stand there with eyes closed wishing them well.

There are great moments when I am aware of my kitten’s experience. She is Present. Utterly in the moment. Inclusive. Unapologetically rooted in her life. She is always in walking meditation on four paws.

I spend a weekend in movement and stillness at Against the Stream with Kate Shela and Matthew Brensilver. I dance my compassionate experiment. As if in aftershock, I find myself gesturing when I express myself later that week, moving the emotional energy through my hands like I'm in tai chi practice.

Coming to crosslegged after an ecstatic wave of dance, I feel like I’m slotting myself into a cinderblock bunker with no roof. How much rigidity I bring to my sitting practice. How joyless this makes it. Listening to Pema later that night I hear: there is nothing harsh about it. We joyfully return to the breath.

Having watched the sky lightening from 4am, I get up and go to 7am yoga. I am sure the restless tension and toxic exhaustion that plagued my rest will keep me from rooting in to the class. Half of the sludge flows out of me in the first forward fold.

I am struck by the value of community. I need not force myself out of quiet or solitude, even when I crave company. Other hearts beat and warm the space below my palms whenever I sit in metta.

Ananda asked "Is it true what has been said, that good spiritual friends are fully half of the holy life?"
The Buddha replied, "No, Ananda, good spiritual friends are the whole of the holy life. Find refuge in the Sangha community."

Mindfulness is the safe space inside us between suppression and entanglement. I sit at the apex. I breathe love.

I cannot sit when I’m exhausted. Thirty minutes of dream drift. Or can I? The bell sounds, three spacious chimes.

I fear I’m metta-washing my experience. Some nebulous anxiety rumbles, refusing to be suppressed. It cries and worries just below the surface of the metta phrases I repeat.

Caffeine is not helping my sitting practice. But I crave that buzz. My heart beats, but it’s fuzzed over by the static of the drug. Caffeine is not helping any of my life practices.

The shit and the bliss.

I hear the kitten on the kitchen counter and my eyes fly open. I lose my seat to shoo her. I take my seat again nine hours later after work. I hear the kitten on the kitchen counter. Something in me sighs. Maybe she’ll get bored. A moment later I hear her jump down. Or maybe I will.

After nearly a month of practice I discover I recite phrases of compassionate self-love like a military cadence. Boots on blacktop. It hits the empty bowl of my heart like a wood tocsin.

I sit with my back supported. I slip into the comfort of breathing. This simple space of breath is the most compassionate space I can be in. Nothing needs to change.


It will be over in the blink of an eye. Love yourself.


For a few unmarked minutes after the bell sounds, I hold my heart. I change my mantra. May you be compassionate. May you be curious about your own experience. May you be healthy. May you be safe. I am.

*Wikipedia defines metta or maitri as loving-kindness, friendliness, benevolence, amity, friendship, good will, kindness, close mental union (on same mental wavelength), and active interest in others. It is one of the ten paramis of the Theravada school of Buddhism, and the first of the four sublime states (Bramaviharas). This is love without clinging.

Pema Chodron on metta

5 Rhythms, a moving meditation

Insight Timer