Back in the 1960′s, a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton wrote,
Douglas Steere remarks very perceptively that there is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.
He went on,
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
from ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ by Thomas Merton*
I have spent most of my 60+ years being ‘carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns.’ If the internet and email and work haven’t been enough, there has also been my natural desire to be valued by my peers and my unshakeable belief that my ‘value’ is rooted in my accomplishments, real and imagined.
Believing that, I get carried away.
Conflicts between people are a natural part of life. We even fight with ourselves, criticizing our past actions and denying our ability to cope with the future. Meditation doesn’t seek to erase conflicts or turn meditators into placid doormats. Instead, it teaches a path in which life’s problems are approached with understanding, patience, and love.
Vietnamese Buddhist priest, teacher, and author, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers these instructions for performing metta (lovingkindness) meditation as a path to cultivating love for oneself and others (“Cultivating Compassion” Tricycle, Spring 2015):
44 years ago I enrolled in an Introduction to Philosophy class offered by my local community college. One essay I read asserted that my life was filled with choices and I would always have to choose. Even refusing to choose was itself a choice.
Today is Day 2 of the new school year and the Hum 110 conflicts of last year have already reasserted themselves. Because absolutely nothing in my academic training qualifies me to opine on the ideal Hum 110 curriculum it is tempting to turn my back on the dispute and gaze upon the sabbatical year stretching out before me.
Last night I sat at the dining room table making a list of things that I needed to do today. As I wrote a few items down, new things, some that had been nagging me for days, even weeks, started to crowd around, demanding to be added to my list. So many things to do.
The ultimate To-Do’s, of course, are my New Year’s resolutions. Like everyone else, I tend to treat my life as a Personal Improvement Project. Just a little thinking about the ways I might improve myself in 2017 has unleashed a flood of ideas: eat better, get more exercise, get more sleep, go to bed earlier, pick up the flute I used to play, pay and file bills more regularly, get my finances in order, clean the house regularly, … and I was just getting started.
So, before your New Year resolve flies out the window, here’s a much shorter list of resolutions inspired by a David Nichtern‘s 2011 New Year’s Resolution published in the Huffington Post:
The Shambhala Mountain Center is convening top researchers and meditation teachers this week (Oct. 19-23) for a free, online summit on The Science of Meditation. Follow the link to learn more and register. Remember, it’s online and free!
Update: I just registered (takes 2 sec) and learned that some (maybe all?) of the materials will be available after the ‘live’ sessions so you don’t have to worry about being in the right time zone, or work-summit conflicts.
The cultivation of metta, sometimes translated as boundless friendliness or loving kindness, has proven to be a beneficial meditation practice over the centuries, but it can present a challenge for modern Westerners. The standard version of metta practice asks one to begin by expressing positive wishes for one’s own benefit, e.g., ‘may I be happy, may I be healthy, etc.’, before extending these wishes to others. The difficulty for many of us appears right at the start. Should I really be wishing myself happiness, good health, and so on? Well-known meditation teacher and author, Jack Kornfield, has a solution. He says, “We open our heart in the most natural way, then direct our loving-kindness little by little to the areas where it’s more difficult.” Sending good wishes to ourselves may not feel completely natural so we don’t have to start there. You can find all of his instructions at How to Do Metta (Lion’s Roar, 11 August 2015).
My picture of a social education activist is someone with high ideals, a person who lives their life according to principles that can serve as an example to us. This rosy picture, however, hides the high costs that can accompany a life of commitment. P. Gorski has this to say, “Activist burnout, which causes activists to disengage from their activism, is a formidable barrier to the sustainability of social justice movements, including those focused on social justice in educational contexts. However, the cultures of these movements often disregard the importance of self-care, seeing it as self-indulgence, putting activists at even higher risks of burnout.” Read the rest of Gorski’s article, “Relieving Burnout and the ‘‘Martyr Syndrome’’ Among Social Justice Education Activists: The Implications and Effects of Mindfulness” in the Urban Rev (2015) 47:696–716 DOI 10.1007/s11256-015-0330-0
Life lessons can be found everywhere and in every moment. You don’t need to sit on a cushion in silence, but you do need to open yourself up to the moment and its possibilities. Meditator, writer, and gym teacher, Alex Tzelnic, describes how an elementary school gym class can function as a “compassion incubator” for the Tricycle blog (22 Feb 2016) in “(Meta)Physical Education: Temper Temper”
The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, or CCARE, is part of Stanford’s School of Medicine. It was established and directed by Dr. James Doty, Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery, with the explicit goal of “promoting, supporting, and conducting rigorous scientific studies of compassion and altruistic behavior.”
The Dalai Lama famously said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (www.dalailamaquotes.org)
Kindness, compassion, patience, and understanding, all seem to arise naturally when we see the suffering of another person. And yet … when confronted with our own suffering, we often respond in other ways, with judgment, criticism, or anger.
Is this dichotomy helpful? Do we really benefit by treating ourselves differently? Isn’t it possible that by setting boundaries on the kindness we show ourselves, we also set subconscious boundaries on the kindness we are able to show to others?
Kindness starts at home.
Here are some simple instructions for a meditation on being kind to yourself courtesy of Kristin Neff (Lion’s Roar, 9 Oct 2015, Be Kind to Yourself).