All You Need Is Metta
When I understand myself, I understand you, and out of that understanding comes love. Love is the missing factor; there is a lack of affection, of warmth of relationship; and because we lack that love, that tenderness, that generosity, that mercy in relationship, we escape into mass action, which produces further confusion, further misery. We fill our hearts with blueprints for world reform and do not look to that one resolving factor, which is love.
Outside the Bozeman bubble, things can seem pretty grim. ISIS, climate change, Donald Trump...it’s a whacky time to be alive. For myself and many people I know, waking up to the incredible odds stacked against the human race and the planet created a sense of urgency; that surely, something must be done. Hours and days of internet rabbit holes, researching conspiracy theories (and actual conspiracies), documentaries, and fervent conversations became my life. I spent increasing amounts of time in an insular haze of information addiction, accumulating all the “facts” that would confirm my suspicions of immanent apocalypse. As friendships faded, I entrenched my position ever deeper. Something seemed very wrong with the world, and I believed that if I could just understand it enough, I would have an idea of what to do.
Years later, I feel more grounded in reality. I’ve seen that what a Bozeman upbringing shielded me from is what a majority of the world has lived with for eons. Social injustice, environmental destruction, political and systemic corruption...they are indeed endemic threats to the survival of life as we know it. But now it’s clear that the frantic, messianic attitude that can overtake naive people such as myself is unhelpful to addressing any of the pressing global problems.
That said, I don’t regret those crazy years. The search came from a genuine place, an intuition that yes, things in the world are not quite right. Throughout this personal transformation, the edges of the internet provided what mainstream 21st century Western culture couldn’t. New ideas, new perspectives, and most importantly, hope that personal and societal change is actually possible. As I stumbled from conspiracy theories to alarmist news to activism forums, I eventually discovered what I was looking for in a place I had always avoided.
“Spirituality” is a polarizing word in today’s hyper-secular culture. It’s desperately clung to as a cure-all or passionately avoided as distasteful delusion, depending on who you’re talking to. The collision of scientific discovery with the mythic imagination has been an inevitable consequence of a globalized world. Deep within ourselves, we have thousands of years of stories orienting us to a supposed god, and on a more shallow level, 200 years of scientific interpretation claiming that it’s all bullshit. We’re stuck in an impossible state of cognitive dissonance; genetically programmed to seek deeper meaning in the transcendent and intellectually conditioned to believe that there’s no such meaning to be found.
Logic and philosophy attempt to deliver us from this snag, offering workarounds and rationalizations that seem to explain away the need to know our own source. Countless theories coat the pages of history, yet the nagging persists. As the Taoist philosopher Alan Watts put it, “Outside and even within the Church, modern man is therefore indifferent to religion as he knows it, and yet his nervousness, his chronic sense of frustration, his love of sensationalism as an escape, his fitful use of every substitute for religion from state-worship to getting drunk, show that his soul still desires that release from itself, that infusion of life and meaning through being possessed by a power greater than itself, which is found perfectly in union with God alone.”
When I began to encounter writers like Watts, I knew with intuitive certainty that I was on the right track. I didn’t grow up religious and my education, combined with the internet, inoculated me against the influence of organized religion. Taking for granted the scientific assumption that spiritual pursuits are delusory at best, my mind remained closed to alternative views. Just at the point in my university career of dropping the whole enterprise of deeper anything, I encountered a professor, Michael Sexton, in the MSU English program whose class nudged me onto the path. I remember him standing at the front of the classroom, in his wizard-like way, uttering the phrase “Sarvam Dukkham (DOO-CAM), Sarvam Anniccam (ANEECH-AM).” It means “life is suffering, life is flow” in Sanskrit and is a central tenet of Buddhist teachings. The phrase grabbed me; deep wisdom in four words. With that push and an increasing sense of personal dis-ease, and despite my entrenched resistance, I wandered my way into spirituality. It’s been almost a decade since that class, “Classical Foundations of Mythology.” And my conviction that what I needed and continue to need is a flowing relationship with the deepest elements of myself, sometimes called God, has only increased. And while I still believe that the authentic religious desire has been misconstrued and warped by centralized institutions, that doesn’t change the fact that there’s something vital in the impulse.
In Buddhism (which is more of an experiential philosophy than a religion) there is a type of meditation known as “metta.” Loosely translated, metta means loving kindness. In the practice of metta, the meditator intentionally cultivates positive feelings for oneself and the world through awareness and imagination. As the warmth and love grows within, recipients are selected and the love is psychically shared. By the end of a fifteen minute metta meditation, it’s not uncommon for tears to flow as deeper emotions are released.
All spirituality is attempting to cultivate more love. For the millions of books on the subject, that’s what it boils down to. And the literature of every religion, the grand narratives of heroism and treachery, are all metaphorical attempts to point out the cause of our suffering, which is essentially that through trauma and confusion, we close ourselves to love. Time and again, we’re told that it’s not love that disappears, but it’s we, in our ignorance, who turn away from love.For me, it’s been a long road to opening up to the hurt places and allowing the trust, which is so vital to the spiritual life, into my heart. I have a long way to go yet. But after many years of searching, I feel an integration taking shape. Various traditions and practices, from Christianity to Buddhism, inform my spiritual life, and the way I see it, that’s not a contradiction.
As I’ve written about before, our little city is home to The Bozeman Dharma Center, a thriving Buddhist community with groups representing three main schools of Buddhist thought. Located across Main Street from Lindley Park in the Northwest corner of a commercial building, The Dharma Center draws people from every demographic to gather in the cultivation of metta. Together we sit, attempting to understand ourselves and each other more deeply. Harkening back to the quote I started with, “When I understand myself, I understand you, and out of that understanding comes love.”
My main association with the Dharma Center is MindSpace, a meditation group for young adults. Every Sunday at 7:00 pm, we meet to sit in silence and then discuss the implications of how spiritual practice affects our lives. We’ve been convening regularly since January and a beautiful group of people has formed; curious, kind, and inspirational friends who help each other open and heal and are more appreciated than they know.
As a group, we’ve seen continuous growth. Gatherings that once had four to six people are now seeing as many as 19. And from my perspective, the growth has been mirrored on the inside. The meditations feel more still; the conversations more heartfelt and vulnerable. What once felt weird--occupying a silent room with strangers--now feels intimate--sharing space with friends. Slowly, something larger than ourselves is taking shape.
As MindSpace expanded, the Dharma Center graciously accepted us ever-deeper into their tight-knit community. And now, ten months after our inception, we have the honor of hosting a full event. “The MettaThon,” as we’ve named it, “is a continuous twenty four hour Buddhist buffet for all ages, offering teachings by local dharma teachers, silent meditation, streamed video broadcasts, yoga, poetry, and other mindful activities. The goal of the MettaThon is to introduce the Bozeman community to the Dharma Center and a variety of Buddhist teachings. Come when you want, leave when you’re ready. Or stay for a full Earth rotation as we cultivate Metta while practicing Dana.”
Our official poster for the MettaThon doesn’t truly capture the excitement we feel. Planning led to animalistic noises of joy as we considered all the possibilities. The experienced leaders of the three main Dharma Center sanghas (communities) will be teaching. Various forms of moving meditation, inspirational talks and award-winning documentaries, poetry, dialogue...most of what’s happening within the contemporary mindfulness renaissance will be offered at some point in the MettaThon. It’s an amazing opportunity to come deepen your existing practice or explore what spirituality means to you, perhaps for the first time.
Spirituality is simultaneously a trending twitter hashtag and a culturally ostracized taboo. Impassioned atheists and dogmatic monotheists, deists, and animists alike turn to the outside authorities of science or special books to know what is true. But there is another way. As the mystics of the ages have pointed out, what we seek is already within. Finding the Dharma Center has been one of the best things that’s happened to me, and I tried to illustrate why in the hopes that others who may also be searching will read this and be moved to step out of, or into, their comfort zone. And if that’s the case, there will be no better opportunity than the MettaThon, which begins at 6 am on Saturday, October 15th. The day will be filled with many things, but most importantly, lots of metta. And as the Beatles would probably agree, metta is all you need.
For more information on the Dharma Center, The MettaThon, or to learn more about Buddhism in general, visit bozemandharmacenter.org