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Hard Metta

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Welcome back, dear readers, to another month in Metta’s Guest House, where Rumi’s poem by the same name meets metta meditation behind the reception desk of an actual guesthouse in Liverpool, England.

It’s been a hard month, both in terms of some of the guests we’ve welcomed and in terms of the team dynamics I mentioned in my previous article.

. . . Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably . . .

“The Guest House” by Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi

The first night’s happenings that I’ll relate here were the result of a last-minute online booking that entered the reservations system in the middle of the night. Now I’ve learned to view these bookings with some caution as the bookers often arrive determined to continue whatever party they’ve just left—complete with all the guests. Imagine my surprise when a few minutes later a tearful woman and her baby turned up, with a taxi driver in tow carrying all their belongings. She tried to give him a handful of cash by way of thanks, but he refused to accept anything and wished her well as he headed back out for his next fare.

The woman stood shaking at the front desk, clearly on the verge of a panic attack and barely able to string a sentence together. I gently coaxed her through the usual verification questions, and—not wishing to pry—asked her what could possibly do to help in that very moment?

She explained that she’d just come from the local hospital and didn’t want to go home. When I innocently admired her beautiful baby boy Kamal (meaning perfection in Arabic) as distraction, she began sobbing again. It turned out she and his father had argued at the hospital earlier that day, and he’d blurted out that they should have aborted the baby, which had been diagnosed with Down Syndrome. I found myself reeling at how much that would have hurt and was amazed that she had found the presence of mind to book accommodation rather than retaliate or put herself in harm’s way by going home.

I helped the mother and child to their apartment, made sure the heating and hot water were on, and shared what food I could from the staff refrigerator. I also left her the reception mobile number in case she needed a sympathetic ear or cup of tea later. In the end, she began texting me once Kamal had fallen asleep. I felt inspired to share a link to a hilarious and heartbreaking memoir called Expecting Adam, written by Martha Beck about giving birth to a son with Down Syndrome. An academic at the time, Beck used to put little Harvard sweatshirts on her son to silence the hecklers. That got a laugh from my guest, and soon the day’s hardness turned a little softer one text message at a time.

A few nights later, a very agitated middle-aged man tried to check in, talking a mile a minute. My first impression was that he had taken some sort of drug, but when he kept returning to reception, increasingly agitated, it became clear that something else was going on. The man insisted that someone had broken into his apartment, so I immediately went to go check. It clearly hadn’t been burgled, but he was adamant. I reassured him only he and I had the keys, and that I would be at reception all night if at any point he felt unsafe. During one revisit to reception the man rang his mother, and I took a risk by asking if I could also speak with her. Given how paranoid he was behaving, I was amazed when he handed me his phone.

Expecting Adam book cover. From abebooks.com

I introduced myself, and received gushing gratitude immediately: apparently her son was severely mentally ill, had just been kicked out by his girlfriend, and she was worried that he might hurt himself until she could reach him from the other side of the country. Now, considering I didn’t want to add to the man’s paranoia, I made only non-committal noises in reply to his mother. When her son wandered away, I quickly explained that while it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to sit in his apartment overnight, I would be happy to keep making him cups of tea and ring her with updates if I felt there was a downward turn. She was grateful to know where he was and that he was safe, and after we said goodbye, I rang the local police to let them know I was on a suicide watch of sorts. Obviously, they couldn’t do anything pre-emptively, but promised to help if needed.

And so I kept the kettle boiling until 4am or so, when he finally managed to fall asleep.

I’ll never know the outcome of this guest mother’s and guest son’s stays, but I like to think that sharing metta helped to hold a soft space when their lives felt at their hardest. Little did I realize that I would soon have to hold that same space for myself. Three hard things happened that week that put all my metta meditation practice to the test.

As I shared last month, I had been feeling more and more like my work team was fighting me and I was considering moving on to a new team within the company. I went for the interview, felt it had gone well, but I wasn’t offered the job. Then a new management role was announced within my existing team, which turned an already hostile work atmosphere into The Hunger Games overnight. And then I discovered that a coworker had reported a grievance in against me, bizarrely for the very thing he was guilty of doing to me. 

Blindsided isn’t the word.

I sat with the feelings of confusion and stuckness and injustice. 

I walked with the feelings of confusion and stuckness and injustice. 

I lay in bed with the feelings of confusion and stuckness and injustice.

And generated metta for myself with every breath and every step and every nap. 

Buddhist loving-kindness meditation gets put to the test

Paradoxically, the most loving thing I could think to do was just to curl up and truly accept how utterly shit everything felt; no sugar-coating or reframing or turd-polishing.

The eventual HR meeting to hear what I was being accused of was beyond surreal and, while I answered the questions as best I could, every fiber of my being regressed to a two-year-old “not fair!” inner tantrum.

It really wasn’t fair in any way, shape, or form. But holding a soft space for myself when life felt hard helped me to see the Dharma’s re-direct unfolding: this was no longer a team I wanted to be the glue for, no longer a job I wanted to do, and definitely not a company I wanted to work for. 

While it’s still not clear to me yet what is waiting to be birthed, generating metta helps with the contractions.

And so, dear readers, whatever hard happenings are taking place in your own life, please remember to hold a soft space, as they . . .

. . . may be clearing you out for some new delight.

“The Guest House” by Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi

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