Essay by Carol Holly
Rather than be discouraged by these moments of forgetfulness––the times of anger, fear, despair, and reactivity––we come to recognize that this is the classroom in which the immeasurable capacities of our hearts are nurtured and cultivated. –– Christina Feldman, Boundless Heart ––
I am one of those people whose impatience is easily triggered by slow and seemingly inconsiderate shoppers at the supermarket. But through the cultivation of mindfulness, I have trained myself to be aware of the usual symptoms of impatience: tension in my body, constriction in my heart, and the unending voice of irritation in my mind. The antidote for these unpleasant emotions has been to practice what Buddhists call metta. The Pali term for unconditional kindness, metta is one of the four Brama Viharas, or “sublime attitudes,” in the Buddha’s teachings directed to the heart. [See the October Valley Insight newsletter for more information on this practice.] When cultivated intentionally, these four qualities––kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity––contribute to the “awakening and liberation” of the heart and to the lessening of suffering. The cultivation of metta, in particular, writes Christina Feldman, “is directed toward uprooting the deeply embedded psychological and emotional pattern of ill will or aversion”––impatience and irritation towards others, for example––and replacing it with an attitude of kindness towards everyone we encounter. This “training of the heart” and “commitment to intention” can be life changing.
One traditional form of metta meditation is a concentration practice in which the meditator silently offers well wishes to various people in her life, including both people dear to her and those with whom she experiences difficulty. Usually done while meditating, the practice includes the repetition of certain phrases. One version goes as follows:
May you be safe and protected.
May you be peaceful and happy.
May you be healthy and strong.
May you live your life with ease and well-being.
When meditating, I move slowly through the phrases while keeping the image of the recipient in mind, and I move from one recipient to another, from a person I love to someone about whom I am neutral, to someone for whom I have painful feelings. The entire meditation may last for half an hour or more.
When shopping, however, the process is much simpler. As I walk through the aisles, I silently direct a single phrase to the other shoppers I encounter. Because of what I observed of my parents in their later years, I often pay particular attention to the individuals––the infirm and the elderly––who experience difficulty getting about. Some of these folks hobble slowly and somewhat erratically through the store, others hesitantly steer their electric wheelchair carts in and out of the aisles. In the past they may have been an annoyance. But I have found that slowing down, stopping to consider each shopper as a human being who, like me, just wants to be happy allows me time to pause, notice my impatience, if there is any, and let it go. I have learned to wait patiently and with kindness as the old man in front of me slowly turns the corner with his cart or shuffles to the end of the aisle. I practice patience in the checkout line as an older woman fumbles with her credit card or experiences confusion over her groceries. I silently repeat phrases from my metta practice––“May you be well, may you live a life of ease and well-being”–– and, in doing so, I experience a softening of my heart. And often a sense of joy.
But it’s not just the elderly or infirm who become the recipients of my practice. Sometimes I practice my intention by repeating metta phrases on my way to the store, stopping at the traffic light and looking around at the people in their cars or on the sidewalk. When I get to the store, I may silently recite the phrase “May you be happy” as I meet people in the aisles, or when I’m standing in line at the deli. The checkout line, of course, is the real testing ground: people and carts pile up, the store does not have enough staff to open another counter, or I invariably pick the line that turns out to be the slowest. Or the cashier comes to the end of her shift just as I get to the register. Or the new cashier is in training and having trouble working the machine. (You know the scenario.) That’s when I pause, take a few deep breaths, pay attention to my feet on the floor, my body standing in line, and remind myself that I don’t need to hurry. Impatience dissipates as I touch down to that place of warmth and tenderness in my heart, silently uttering words of kindness, and often feeling joy simply to be in the presence of people who, like me, just want to be happy.
Until the spring of 2020, my supermarket metta practice was blossoming. Gradually, my new orientation had turned shopping into a very pleasant, even a loving experience, one that, if the teachers are right, was bringing more kindness into the world. But then the pandemic struck. Social distancing and mask wearing had become the norm and, whenever I went to the supermarket, I found myself bristling with annoyance. There were the people, usually men, who refused to wear masks as a protection from the virus. There were the slow, the unconscious, the self-absorbed shoppers who paid no attention to social distancing, to the directional arrows in the aisles, or to the fact that their masks had slipped under their noses. There were the shoppers who, crowding the aisle with their carts, their bodies, their children, failed to notice that other shoppers needed to get by. And the shoppers who, having encountered their friends, grouped together in front of the yogurt display, oblivious to the flow of traffic around them and the need to social distance. (When did that become a verb?) Sometimes it was hard not to feel the old animosity rising up in me.
My experience at the Hannaford market one day last summer felt like a failure. Having come to the supermarket straight from some errands, I was looking forward to getting back to the cabin as soon as possible. But the store that morning was especially crowded, not only with patrons but also with employees stocking products on shelves. Shopping for hair products, I was astonished that one of these workers continued to arrange bottles of shampoo and conditioner while I stood, patiently waiting for him to get out of the way. Didn’t he see me? Was he tired of being interrupted and just wanted to get on with the job? Whatever the reason, I was feeling prickly by the time I made my way to the checkout counters. Only three lanes were open, and shoppers, their carts piled high with groceries, were stacking up in the aisles. Doing a quick count of the items in my cart, I wove in and out of the crowd to get to the express lane. There in front of me were two older women (they had been shopping together) with two separate carts overloaded with groceries. Glancing at the other checkout lines, I saw that there was little reason to make a move. So, I stood and stood and stood some more as the woman in front of me unloaded her cart of maybe fifty items onto the conveyor belt. Then when it came time to pay for her groceries, her card didn’t work or she couldn’t remember her password, or her password didn’t work. I don’t know for sure. But there was a sustained flurry of activity as first her friend and then the cashier tried to solve the problem. Another member of the staff had to jump in to help. It seemed to take forever for the transaction to be complete.
I was pissed. I wanted to complain to the other shoppers, I wanted to complain to the cashier. I’m grateful that I knew enough to keep my mouth shut and see the process through. But there was no feeling of kindness in my heart. I was beset with irritation at the women who used the express lane for their mounds of groceries, at the cashier who let them through, at myself for picking this lane, and at all the other shoppers who, even with carts fully loaded, managed to get out the door well ahead of me. When I got home, I relished the chance to relate to my husband the story of the checkout line holdup as dramatically as possible. To share my still simmering indignation.
The next day I experienced an uncomfortable awakening. My meditation teacher had announced that the focus for the morning’s online gathering was the Brahma Viharas. She asked that, in preparation, we listen online to Emma Thompson read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness.” Dutiful student that I am, I listened to the poem, then printed a copy, reading it over several times. Nye’s poem, I discovered, is no superficial consideration of kindness. From the start, it ushers us into the landscape of loss essential for true understanding:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
You must know loss, the poem continues, you must know desolation, you must be able to look upon the death of someone you don’t know, even the body “by the side of the road,” and “see how this could be you.” After knowing “sorrow as the deepest thing inside,” Nye concludes, the only thing that “makes sense anymore” is kindness. Not just niceness, civility, or politeness but the radical form of kindness that lives deep within you, that understands the suffering inherent in human existence, that “goes with you everywhere / like a shadow or a friend.” The kind of kindness that the Buddha celebrates in the Metta Sutta when he says
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings.
I sat with Nye’s poem for a while, thinking about the sorrows and losses I have experienced in my own life––the frightening depression I experienced in my forties, the death of my father and several dear friends in my fifties and sixties, and the feeling of devastation and loss that haunted me for days after my mother died a few years ago. I considered what those experiences had taught me about loss and despair and the healing power of kindness. I also thought about the anger and anxiety that had recently lodged in my heart. The pandemic was proving to be highly contagious, yet many Americans, in spite of the rising death rates, were being indifferent to or reactionary about safety precautions. The nation had also experienced the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, not to mention the reactions to those protests by white supremacist groups. Then there were the ongoing affairs of the Trump administration, led, as it was, by a man whom I saw as the embodiment of the three defilements, “greed, hatred, and delusion.” Although my reactions were a natural response to a difficult period in the life of our nation––and one from which we hadn’t recovered––I realized not only how much inner discomfort I was experiencing but also that much of this affliction was my own construction. I had a choice as to how to respond to the world around me, and that choice included kindness, compassion, and equanimity instead of anger, resentment, and agitation. It was time to rededicate myself to an attitude of unconditional kindness towards everyone and everything I encountered. And to reaffirm my relationship to all of life.
Then I recalled the situation at the supermarket the day before and the two women with their mountains of groceries in the express lane. I pictured the women in my mind, their efforts to buy their groceries and their frustration when they couldn’t get the credit card to work. I thought about the fact that, like me, they were older than most of the people in the store; that had I been in their shoes, I would have been embarrassed to be holding up the line. I thought about how the one friend was trying to help the other, and how patiently the clerk was treating them both, and how the shopper in line behind me seemed much more relaxed and accepting than was I. I remembered the glimpse I caught of the women out in the parking lot as they left the store. One of them was overweight and walked with a limp. She was chatting with her friend, possibly expressing relief at being done with her shop. I realized that she was not that much different from me.
Then it occurred to me: there was no reason why I could not offer metta to these women after the fact. So that’s what I did. Imagining the women in the checkout line, picturing them in my mind as best I could, I directed to them, wherever they were, the words “May you be well, may you be free from suffering, may you be peaceful and happy, may you live a life of ease and well-being.” The women were, of course, unaware that I was offering kindness towards them. But that’s not the point. I was aware and, although the women may in some mysterious way have been the beneficiaries of my kindness, I was the real beneficiary. In that moment, I opened my heart, reaffirming my intention to practice kindness and honoring once again my connection with all living things. But let me be clear: the act of affirming my most wholesome intentions did not mean that I would blind myself to the realities in the world or that I would renounce my values regarding the rights and the well-being of all Americans. It simply meant that my heart could try again to stay open, healthy, and whole and that I would be doing what little I could to tip the world in the direction of kindness.
[T]his very life is the classroom of our awakening.
–– Christina Feldman, Boundless Heart
East Corinth, Vermont
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Carol Holly has been practicing Buddhist meditation in the Theravadan tradition for over twenty years. She is a member of the Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center in Northfield, Minnesota, where she serves on the Board, and Valley Insight Meditation Society. Doreen Schweizer and Mark Nunberg are her primary teachers, but she has been influenced by the talks and writings of Joseph Goldstein, Gil Fronsdal, Jack Kornfield, and Christina Feldman, among others.
A retired English professor, Carol and her husband divide their time between the family cabin in East Corinth, Vermont, and their home in Northfield, Minnesota. Their son and his family live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, conveniently located halfway between Vermont and Minnesota. In addition to reading fiction, poetry, and history, much of the energy that Carol used to put into teaching and writing about American literature now goes into her Buddhist study and practice. She regularly writes essays about her Buddhist practice and views her writing as an act of faith.