Lately I’ve been practicing a meditation called metta, or lovingkindness, which is supposed to cultivate compassion for yourself and others. The classical formulation has four parts (with some variation):
May I/we be safe.
May I/we be happy.
May I/we be free from suffering.
May I/we be at peace.
I adapt these to my needs:
May I feel safe.
May I feel loved.
May I feel softness.
May I feel joy.
May I feel at peace.
Like all meditation and much else that I’m trying to do these days, this practice aims at retraining my mind. In reality, I am safe. I am loved. I need to allow myself to feel it. My inner critic tells me that I can be safe only by making myself perfect and therefore invulnerable to criticism. It tells me that to experience unconditional love, I must make myself perfectly lovable. The meditation reminds me that feeling safe and loved is available to me whenever I choose it.
The next line reminds me that I can choose it by softening: soften my tense muscles, soften my vigilant attitude, soften my harsh judgment of myself and others. Soften my reaction when I feel criticized or defensive or angry, or when I feel sad or frightened. Amid those painful feelings, I am safe, I am loved. I can still feel the love and safety if I also let myself feel the pain, observe it, and choose a response instead of reacting reflexively to swat away the offending emotion.
And I have learned by long, hard experience that when I try to shut down pain and anger and fear, I also shut down joy. My emotions don’t have separate hot and cold taps. The feelings all flow through one pipe, which has been cranked shut for too long.
This morning as I sat in our sunny dining room, wrapped in tallis and tefillin and reciting the metta meditation, a new thought struck me: joy doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Sorrow comes sometimes in a fountain and sometimes in a trickle. Joy can be the same way. Joy can be quiet, gentle, small. It’s wonderful to be overjoyed, when that happens, but it’s not the only way to feel joy.
In a few hours I’ll board a plane to visit my daughter in California. Much later tonight, God willing, we will celebrate the first night of Hanukah together by lighting a candle. That’s a small light in a time of darkness. But it is joy.
Happy Hanukah and a season of joy, light, and peace, in whatever measure they may be found.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.