Living and accepting the moment; relinquish any ideas of control and live in the moment
This past week I have embarked on a long journey to learn more about Metta, otherwise known as lovingkindness meditation. I recently finished reading “Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness,” by Sharon Salzberg with a forward by John Kabat-Zinn. Having noticed that many meditations begin with “may all beings…” I wondered where the actual framework for these meditations came from.
Metta, lovingkindness, centers on wishing intentions of happiness for yourself, for a beloved, for a friend, for a neutral being, and lastly for an enemy. There is a lot of weight placed on the ability to wish good intentions for even your enemy. Along with metta, practicing compassion, mudita (sympathetic joy for others), equanimity, and generosity towards yourself and others are at the center of cultivating happiness for yourself and others. All of these practices and qualities have the same thing in common; exercising these qualities relies on one coming outside of their perceived boundaries and setting up no limitations in terms of the capacity to love, be happy, empathize with others, and to be generous.
In the past couple of weeks, I have paid attention to the rescue of the soccer team in Thailand and to the tremendous international efforts that have taken place. The news is focused on the twelve children and their coach. Images from the cave give me the goosebumps as I think about the scary and dangerous conditions. What has struck me as I’ve read about metta, mudita, compassion, equanimity, and generosity is just how this rescue exemplifies all of these qualities in those involved and identifies just how intertwined our happiness is with others’ happiness. As they rescued the first four boys, I couldn’t get over the relief and happiness that I felt in Williamstown, MA for those boys and their families. I have become so emotionally involved in this rescue even though I don’t know these people and they’re thousands of miles away. This shows how we can practice lovingkindness and compassion not just to ourselves, loved ones, and friends, but even to neutral beings or enemies. Waking up this morning and seeing that all of the children and coach have been rescued brings a genuine smile to my face. My mood would have been deeply saddened (as it was the when I heard how a diver died in his efforts to save the boys) if the outcome had not been as positive. This innate capacity to feel love, kindness, empathy for others or beings who we may not even know is a central capacity of humankind and all beings.
In the case of the Thailand rescue, it’s amazing how quickly we can forget about the basic needs and impulses of the human being. Everything is divided into bare minimums in terms of how much oxygen, food, water, and even in terms of monitoring the children’s ability to be out in sunlight for the first time in two weeks. These are a human’s basic needs. When I listen to my son say that he does not want the chocolate covered pretzel, he wants straight chocolate and the meltdown that ensues from this, I think to myself how if my son had nothing to eat for ten days how everything (even the chocolate covered pretzel!) would taste good. For those who swim and have ever tried holding their breath underwater, that initial gasp for air is lifegiving. For those who have forgotten water on a really hot day while exercising, that first gulp of water or any liquid at some point is lifegiving.
It’s amazing how material things and comforts quickly make us forget just how basic human needs are and result in a longing, craving, or clinging to “wants” as if we needed them. Just how quickly we adjust to creature comforts and material things, humans survive by inversely adapting when their creature comforts or “lifeline” is taken away, just as we see in the Thailand rescue. Shortly after the boys went missing, I’m sure each boy into his 1st or 2nd day would have taken anything to drink, eat, or taken solace in seeing any daylight. The human in survival mode is stripped to the bare necessities. It is at this point, absolved of materials and comforts, that individuals fully realize what they really “need” and how clinging to “wants” and posessions for dear life is misguided, misleading, and will always lead to wanting more and more. Think about the millionaire who is perpetually miserable or the child who wants real chocolate and not a pretzel underneath. In both cases, the millionaire and the child fail to enjoy the moment of eating the chocolate or dining in a wonderful restaurant, having an infinite wardrobe or multiple homes, or the material comforts and benefits of being immensely wealthy. The act of wanting materials and things blurs our vision and intent on being happy. It also ruins our ability to relate to others.
Many of us believe that there is only a finite amount of happiness in this world and, therefore, if someone is happy it may be at our expense. Salzberg speaks about how easy it is for some people to be generous, kind, and sympathetic towards people who are not doing well for one reason or another, but that when their fortune turns, the individual cannot seem to embrace the others’ happiness and fortune. Humans are forever engaged in competition, comparisons, jealousy, and the ratrace of being “the best.” What we neglect to realize is that nothing will ever be enough. We will never measure up to perfection in our own eyes or in everyone else’s eyes. Similarly we will never always be happy; by nature we will suffer, be happy, suffer again, come back to being happy. There are ebbs and flows in everyone’s life. Experiences are ephemeral and though we may try to “possess” them as we do with materials or in trying to be “alpha” in a relationship, we cannot hold onto the good in all experiences forever or hold onto that moment of happiness forever. We need to live in the moment, stop comparing one experience to another, stop trying to preserve the good and separate the bad, and try to create and make new experiences.
In our country, we are afraid to see suffering. Think about the sick and the elderly. In many cultures, the elderly are esteemed and taken care of by the entire community. In Western culture, often as soon as an individual is unable to care for him/herself, they are relegated to assisted living or a nursing home, separate from the community. When we visit nursing homes we comment on how depressing the place is; we promise children that if they are good when they see grandma or grandpa in the nursing home we will do something fun and exciting. Salzberg points out that we are denying our children and community from seeing the natural course of life, from birth, childhood, young adulthood, middle age, and to a wise elderly individual before death. Seeing older individuals who have lived their life to their fullest capacity and now may require assistance should not be viewed as boring, sad, or depressing, but as a celebration of life. By effectively trying to ostracize death from our community (if we can help it), we are not embracing the natural and beautiful course of life and death. We are creating a fear of death, when in reality, death is inevitable and should not be feared if the individual has lived a full life.
This is similar to how we treat the sick independently of how serious the illness is. We keep those that are sick away from everyone, even if they are not contagious. Part of this is because, just like we have with death, we have created a fear with witnessing the suffering that may come with an illness. As a result, we further remove ourselves from individuals that we cannot bring ourselves to look at and see their sadness or depressed state. Even if the individual is embracing his/her own suffering and has come to terms with illness, we still look over at the sick individual and have a tough time witnessing sickness. It is too painful for us to see suffering. One has to wonder, do we feel like their suffering is going to be contagious and spread to us and we will never be happy again? Or is it so ingrained in our minds to be afraid of suffering and to turn away with helplessness that we cannot recognize that suffering is part of living?
By teaching our children in our community the overwhelming sadness of someone suffering, we instill fear in our children to stay clear of suffering instead of teaching them resiliency and perseverance. Just as we try to capture the happiness that we experience, hold it, preserve it, and always experience such pleasure, we believe that suffering can also be a permanent condition. Believing in the permanence of states of being results in the paralysis of living. If nothing changes how do we move forward? We can’t. The attempt to try to capture all the good and ward off the suffering and bad gives us an artificial sense of control over our lives. The reality is we do not have control over many aspects of our lives and teaching a false sense of control results in perpetual self-blame if things are not going well and a consistent striving for excellence and happiness that is not necessarily tangible. We need to stop fighting nature and time and start being present in the moment.
There are no boundaries or walls that we can build to keep out suffering and discontent, there are no clear lines. We must learn to live and embrace all states of being learning that every experience in the words of Salzberg is like “a rainbow or a bolt of lightening;” we experience the brief moment vividly through our senses, but cannot capture the beauty or magic of the fleeting moment nor should we try.