ArchivesMettā

Mettā podcards for hope, empathy, and compassion. Podcards are brief, beautiful, and pocketable reminders to bring back more love and kindness into your life.

[0039]Accepting the end

May you allow the space for death

Being able to reflect on ageing, sickness, and death (दोषानुदर्शनम्) is a central tenet of the Vedic tradition. Freud says that you cannot imagine your own death because when you imagine it, you merely observe (in a superficial way) what it might be like from the outside, disassociated from the visceral reality. Death is the end of experience as we know it, so the only recourse we have is to deny its fearful existence. Others may die around us, but we can never really comprehend what that means for us, and the ego assures us that we cannot die. But no matter how much society tries to brush aside the facts of ageing, illness, and death, the reality is that they are the only certainties in life; ageing brings with it pain, suffering, separation, and loss; death is most assured. Life is a gift, all will say, but the spectre of death is always present, no matter how rich and powerful you are. ‘“So careful of the type?” but no’ says Tennyson, ‘[she] cries, “A thousand types are gone: I care for nothing, all shall go.”‘ And though we are apt to dismiss the notion, the human spirit knows that all lives are interconnected and even though death takes many, others are spared.

If you keep running away from the facts of ageing and death, you will end up suffering more from the pain of encountering them and the bewilderment that arises out of sudden knowledge of their implications. The ordinary vicissitudes of life—a life-changing ailment or the sudden loss of a loved one—have devastating effects, even though you know, deep down, that such things are a part of life. To face these existential fears is to examine how you unconsciously act or react to their presence. Do you allow yourself to grieve in sympathy with others at their loss or do you let it foster your own fears? Do you despair at the thought of never indulging in physical pleasures? To accept life and death, pain and pleasure, is to accept that they are not opposite forces but the two phases of the same continuum. To deny one in favour of the other is to gradually offset the delicate balance that sustains all life everywhere. On the other hand, to accept your own vulnerability is to accept how naked and utterly exposed you are to the ravages of time and tide. Instead of an egocentric preoccupation with overcoming this vulnerability or a morbid fixation with mortality, you embrace this vulnerability, this tenderness in an open way. You can accept your own insignificance and perhaps even extend your compassion to those outside your group who are different from you. You can begin to live and cherish each day as a chance to give and give back, with no guarantee of a tomorrow. And in the process you’ll discover what is really meaningful to you.

[0038]Indulging livingness

May you always find joy in livingness

Muditā (मुदिता) means sympathetic or vicarious joy. It is one of the four brahmavihārās (ब्रह्मविहारा), the sublime attitudes, and also the hardest to cultivate, perhaps harder in our day and age as we see abject inequality around us. Your happiness is tainted by the suffering of others to the point where you unconsciously resent the simple moments of joy in your life and in the lives of those around you. Indeed, when someone has fortune and felicity undeservedly heaped upon him, it doesn’t seem fair to all those who suffer. Apart from resentment being no damn good to anyone, such feelings more likely arise out of the ordinary human appetite for competitiveness which in turn is driven by fear blended with the volatile energies of sex. Remind yourself that those successful people often got there by throwing themselves into the turbulent gulf stream of life for the sheer pleasure of experiencing it in its fullness. You can allow yourself to revel in the joy of others: in the ebullience of happy children; in the intrepid passion of the adventurer, entrepreneur, or artist; in the triumph of the sportsman.

There is happiness in doing and it is most natural to derive pleasure from your actions. We, like all animals, get our stability and form by the perpetual motion of our various disparate parts. In fact, our actuating faculties carry in themselves the impulse to their own exercise, and in that exercise there is pleasure—the delight of sheer aliveness. “Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it,” says William James, “there the life becomes genuinely significant.” That fleeting feeling of aliveness is often serendipitous and the moments of unbridled delight it evokes seem incommunicable, perhaps that is why our language has no fixed term or turn of phrase for such experiences. The French expression joie de vivre comes closest to describing the sheer ebullience of experiencing life; that simply being alive is an extraordinary experience. And even though you may be suffering all sorts of hardship or illness, in this moment you allow the ecstatic rapture of life to envelope you and spirit you away to a place devoid of time and space—for to miss the joy is to miss all.

[0037]Facing fears

May you not run away from your emotions

The fourth and fifth skandhas (स्कन्ध) of egotism—intellectualism and consciousness—give rise to discursive thought and the freewheeling swells of strong emotion that it brings in its wake. But even discursive thought serves a purpose: it simulates the various outcomes of past and future actions as the mind attempts to consolidate experiences into well known concepts; which it then uses to anticipate every snippet of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that you will experience, and every action that you will take in response. This is the natural modus of the survival mechanism. For to be simply reactive would place our relatively vulnerable bodies at a fatal disadvantage in a hostile world. Forbidden emotions like fear and anger dominate discursive thought because they must invariably lie at the bottom of your disconcertment. Their instances, past and future, have a high impact on your body budget. A flash of fear floods your mind and then recedes, but it leaves in its wake a slew of agitated neurons and chemical effluents from the priming of your defence system. These effects linger around long after the feeling has passed and give the illusion of prolonged malaise. So it is prudent for the self system to inhibit or subdue such feelings of irrational anger, guilt, fear, and loneliness by literally blocking thoughts and associations that have even a whiff of the forbidden. Fearing your fear, being angry about your anger, agonizing over your loneliness only makes things worse. And when you have contracted so many ways of “losing face”, the need to inhibit and censor thoughts quickly becomes untenable.

A more viable alternative is to embrace unwanted and unbidden emotions fully; to sit them out and understand where they’re coming from. Feelings of anger towards someone are really part of a wider and deeper anger towards similar people and situations from your past. Fear, anger, self-satisfaction, and self-pity share a common provenance—they are all emotions of the ego. They arise in reaction to how people and situations affect your personal identity and how you relate to them. By letting yourself feel your fear without trying to justify it or otherwise explain it away, or worse yet, condemn or suppress it, you gain a better understanding of what makes you tick. By facing your emotions without reacting to them, you develop greater confidence in your own ability to cope with whatever life throws at you. 

In the Eastern tradition you are encouraged to sit with your anger, to let it well up and fully occupy the space it requires. Allowing the raw energy of your emotions to expand and grow this way lets you focus on the feeling instead of the objects that produced it. That is, you don’t focus on the thoughts and perceptions that produced the anger, but the feeling with its complexities and interwovenness as it sits heavily inside you. Anger is transformed from a destructive force into a catalyst for empathy and compassion. Fear no longer triggers the instinct to run away and hide but to pay closer attention to what is going on outside and inside. Loneliness reveals itself as the basic human need for connection and vulnerability. In this way, your emotions are transmuted from mere objects to react against into instruments of self-discovery and self-realisation.

[0036]Being positive

May you stay positive

Your brain does not care if your internal representations bear no more than a fleeting resemblance to reality. It distorts, omits, and even deletes parts of your perceptual experience, depending on your tendencies and your temperament. It is this neurological ambiguity that transforms mere spectres of the imagination into all manner of tangible things, ranging from utilitarian to useless. Thoughts themselves are the cornerstones of this imaginative capacity. Merely recalling a memory rearranges its previous associations by changing its connection to other neuronal circuits. Your thoughts actually affect the neurological functioning of your body, from the actions you take thenceforth, to the subtle physiological functioning of the body that constitutes its general health and wellbeing. So, optimism is essential for maintaining a healthy brain and body while also propelling you forwards with eagerness and alacrity. 

While positive thoughts neurologically suppress negative thoughts, a fearful and pessimistic attitude to life can quickly spiral into the void of depression. Focussing on things that make you frightened and angry trigger the same priming of the bodily system as biological imperatives and genuine threats do. If you are someone who focuses excessively on the negative aspects of yourself or your life, your brain’s limited pool of energy is rapidly depleted by the hollow pinging back and forth of areas of your system in response to imagined threats. Simply focussing on an image of benevolence or compassion, or one that give you hope for at least twelve minutes a day in a quiet space, will build and strengthen new positive neural circuits which will, in turn, interrupt and suppress the negative neurological tendencies that only find outlet in anger and fear. When you change how you focus your attention, you change the way you think and as you begin to think more positively, you begin to change your outward circumstances for the better.

[0035]Being observant

May you notice what you have failed to notice

Because the mind is a tangle of sensations, vivid recollections of sensations, images of events as well as images of states of mind, new experiences are not entirely detached from those images and recollections. In fact, we are constantly reliving our past experiences at a certain rate in time or perceiving meaning in a flash of insight that is only experienced as an inner duration. Through all of this, our innumerable subtle faiths, fears, anticipations, instincts, superstitions, and blind tendencies forever tinge the fabric of our reality. The universal tendencies that lead to suffering are the five kleśas (क्लेश): hatred, greed, envy, pride, and ignorance. When you are so self-involved, you tend to only notice things when your tendencies are crossed or satisfied. And because you fail to notice what you have failed to notice, there is little you can do to change—until you notice how failing to notice shapes your thoughts and deeds.

We have a need to go beyond ourselves, to step outside our familiar, safe boundaries and taste life on a larger scale. So the natural tendency is to always explain or explain away experience so that you can maintain some measure of control of your world and the persona you have cultivated for yourself. At the heart of this egotism is really the noble tendency to realise yourself as an individual and live a full and rich personal life. The very word tendency (from Latin tendens) means a “stretching to”, to aim at something. You can only begin to understand what makes you tick by observing how you act and react in different situations. What satisfies or antagonises your tendencies is usually felt instinctively as pleasure or pain. But tendencies like intuitions are more limiting beliefs than any prescient indicators of unfavourable things. So pay attention to the things that you like to do that give you bad results and the things you don’t like to do that give you good results whenever you encounter such thoughts and feelings. In time you’ll learn to be more skillfully discerning in how you shape your awareness.

[0034]Being delighted

May your heart be always open to miracle and mystery

You do not have to account for the course your life has taken by the paucity of your chromosomes, ancestral traits, familial neglect, childhood traumas, the actions of your early years and the short long years now already long behind you. Your life is not written in stone and so you really don’t need to limit your world to what it should be or has to be. Sure, the hand you are dealt is random and who knows what destines one life for all the riches of success and another for the hardships of destitution. Our inequalities are what make us unique and, paradoxically equal, for there is no other being who is exactly the same as you, therefore it is only you who are blessed with one or more unique skills and abilities, whose confluence with your experiences yields the essence that is your singular character. The Ancient Greeks believed that it is your daimon that encompasses your lot in life—everything that is uniquely allotted for you. The daimon is your guardian, guiding you through the vicissitudes of life. Since the daimon is neither bound by time nor space, its dominion is infinitely extensible and the characterisations it imparts always flexible, evolving and growing over a lifetime and capable of being updated as you encounter new situations while staying vigilant to the sly winks of fate. To live in harmony with your daimon is to live in harmony with your true self instead of simply living in conformity with progress or expectations.

According to the ancient teachings, your true self is not your cultivated and fragmentary persona, but a wholeness of being that has faded into the shadows along the plains of time. But it still subsists within you; it is where your wisdom and creativity spring from in those brief moments when you give up the struggle for life. To bring it out of the shadows and cast it into the light of each present moment requires you to scrutinize events as they unfold from moment to moment and see what portion of that is part of your daimonic inheritance and what portion you have affected by dint of skill and is unaccountable. The former is out of your control, but that does not mean that you blindly fall into step with your inclinations. You invoke your abilities responsibly and allow yourself to even refrain from exercising them occasionally. And who knows? You may by pleasantly surprised as you encounter new situations and experiment with new ways of being.

[0033]Fostering creativity

May you revel in imagination

Imagination is distortion, fabrication, and mithyā (मिथ्या), but it still has an important place in shaping your life. Before you can begin to see all things simply, you have to get skillful at navigating the complexity of imagination. Using your imagination you begin to see solutions to problems in your world. 

Usually you construct your goals to counter and overcome problems in your world, so visualising a solution activates the cognitive circuits involved in those knowledge-centres of the brain and calls forth latent memories conducive to a solution. When you imagine favourable outcomes or solutions to problems, the wealth of subconscious knowledge is called forth by the mind, which always demonstrates remarkable sagacity in the choice of means it then employs to move you swiftly towards your destination. Imagination, then, ceases to be mere distortion and becomes a potent tool of self-actualisation. Creative people are able to generate a vivid image of the object of their imagination and then hold it at the front of their mind, where they may scrutinise every aspect of its design and every detail of its construction, rearranging their characteristics and directing the mise en scène to represent the particular spiritual or emotional state they seek. 

Imagination doesn’t take the conventional route of ordinary causality in realising itself, but seems to translate into its own language and cast in its own mould the perceptions incident from the outside. It is a spontaneity that follows the universal sequence and ordering of all things and may only be directed through reflection. When you reflect, you recall past images, sensations, perceptions, and conceptions so that you may shape them up into a coherent whole, an object, or an end. Along the way, you use your judgement to recognise novel representations from the conceptions that you already have available to you. So properly exercising your imagination keeps your mind in order and reduces its capacity for distortion. How skilled you become at this art is contingent upon your positivity, energy, and discipline.

[0032]Slowing down

May you allow yourself to slow down

In ordinary men, every faculty carries in itself the impulse to its own exercise, and in that exercise there is pleasure; though it may be arduous or painful, the craving of the whole man for some end is sufficient to outweigh the discomfort of exercising particular faculties. In fact, it is in this struggle that he is most alive, for it is in his striving and seeking for something that he feels like he is actually living—reaching out towards harmony and tranquility as it were, through the mists of hardship. Without this constant struggling, his life slows up for him, and not knowing what further to strive for, he falls into a kind of despair and ceases to value what he had previously yearned for. Then none of the prizes of life are sufficient to rouse him from his inertia. He sees through them and knows beforehand how hollow and unsatisfying they are. When riches no longer satisfy him, he looks to power and prestige for his redemption. 

Power and riches fuelled by the insatiable desire for material needs must be kept in order with the most anxious attention. They demand the sacrifice of a lifetime, given up to their care and cultivation. These irrepressible “needs” of man are cleverly exploited by savvy entrepreneurs, politicians, and corporations to keep the huge operose wheels of industry turning. Now you are forced to think fast “on your feet”, thinking that is linear and logical and delivers immediate solutions to well-defined problems—like a computer program. But it is nay impossible to slow down with the constant barrage of media and information that you are subjected to. Your thought processes are accelerating exponentially as they try to keep up with the world and everyone else around you. This constant influx of data is not a good thing; a delay in your perception of experience is vital for the proper functioning of your brain. Indeed, the brain itself relies on delay neurons to regulate signal transmission from the senses, forestalling their flow for mere milliseconds, which allows for sequence and order in your apprehension of reality. 

When you slow down the rate at which the world is perceived, you also give your slower anaesthetic system a chance to inhibit an experience of fear or anger before it enters consciousness. By deliberately slowing down your actions like speaking and reading, you become more psychologically relaxed. Slow thinking is intuitive and creative but is only possible when you’re not under pressure. It’s the kind of thinking that yields insights and epiphanies. Slow breathing triggers the body’s relaxation response. In meditation, you learn how to slow down both your thinking and your breathing. You’re not frantically grasping for a solution or trying to figure out experiences and perceptions so that you can move on to the next thing on your list. In meditation, the posture itself is a mudra—a symbolic gesture—expressing your connection with the earth and a willingness to slow down and face your experiences directly. In Rinzai Zen, you place a koan or question in the abdomen and wait for an answer to come from there. There is no “getting to” somewhere, be it to health, or to God, or to some some other form of self-improvement, but a patient unknowingness without expectation. So today, give yourself the chance to slow down and enjoy just being without doing.

[0031]Accepting unworthy thoughts

May you accept desire and anger without self-condemnation

Lust, fear, and anger are inextricably linked with atavistic survival mechanisms in the oldest parts of your brain and so they will always be part of your neural and spiritual personality. However, evolution has made us social animals and so we abide by certain universal ethical standards. Your Self is threatened by the appearance in consciousness of prohibited experiences  like  irrational anger and malicious desires. Because it is conscious awareness of these states that is dangerous, the threat can be allayed by inhibiting the sensations that trigger these events. And since there are always gaps in your self-consciousness, your Self System continually fails to shield you from this pain of awareness. Instead of suppressing such thoughts when they arise or chastising yourself for thinking such things, accept that your thoughts aren’t necessarily part of who you are. Meditation allows you to leisurely explore the provenance of the thoughts that led to the feelings of anger or desire, to gently tease apart the interwoven strands in a languid and unhurried way and without the pressing need to resolve them. So instead of self-condemnation, you acknowledge that certain acts occurred, whether mental or physical, that were not appropriate and that these acts were driven by desire, fear, or anger. Endeavouring to approach your fears, insecurities, and desires with warmth and compassion is approaching them in maitrī (मैत्री), so that you get to know those parts of you that you find so abhorrent and repulsive. When you do not try to avoid, subdue, or rationalise negative thoughts, feelings, or experiences, they lose their power to alarm and confuse you when they unexpectedly arise and you can approach them calmly and rationally or simply let them go.

[0030]Living with equanimity

May you remain imperturbable

Upekṣā (उपेक्षा) is equanimity in Buddhism. The Vedics call this frame of mind nityam samacittatvam (नित्यम् समचित्तत्व)—being changeless or imperishable. It’s easy to lose your footing and stumble when life robs you of what you hold dear and destroys your hopes. Likewise, it is easy to get carried away in elation when things are going your way. Things simply happen, it is your mind that infuses events and experiences with meaning. Your brain is primed to predict the probability of certain events taking place. It does this by weighing all the factors, within and without your control, that contribute to successfully produce the event or thwart it. That is, it brings to the fore of the mind, simultaneously, the pseudo images of success along images of failure. The latter act as antagonistic reducers, the net result being a positive or negative determination for any action or event. Now the only difference between pessimists and optimists is in the degree of their aversion to fear of failure and the intensity of their desire or appetite for success at any cost. Both extremes of human nature are driven by perception and as such must rely on this experiential distortion to keep these states going. You don’t want a mind that is constantly sore buffeted between depression and elation. Real strength is the ability to accept situations as they arise and face facts objectively. There is no cloaking facts in perception, with its likes or dislikes, faiths or fears, hopes and doubts. You stay fully present in the event and swiftly do what is required without being swayed by any polarizing factors.