Welcome back to another Living Metta experiment in taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world. This month takes a look at how metta can affect our material surroundings.
Regular readers may remember an earlier article “Traveling Light and Lighter: The Life-changing Magic of Lightening Up”* from my previous Lily Pad Sutra column, which explored the fear of inner and outer emptiness, and how combining location-independence and meditation practice for seven years helped me befriend both . . . as well as making me a minimalist by necessity.
When I first rented a flat of my own again in Liverpool in 2018, friends made the inevitable jokes about finally putting down roots or settling down. I’d smile to myself at those, as—if nothing else—those seven years taught me that my true roots were firmly planted in the Dharma and—for all my non-stop moving—I was the most “settled” person I knew: all my property-owning friends talked about was getting away!
Staying in one place after that nomadic chapter of my life wasn’t challenging in itself, nor was relating to others who perhaps wouldn’t dream of location-independence. The hardest part? Re-adjusting to the “real world” . . . of “stuff.”
I’d had a sneak preview of this culture shock when I was housesitting in the Scottish Hebrides three years previously. During my four months there, my weekly grocery shop consisted of a day-long hike through deer stalking countryside with a backpack to a shop that stocked exactly one brand of everything. When weather warnings were issued for a week of 100-mile-per-hour hailstorms, the islanders panic-shopped, leaving the shelves completely bare. At first, I thought I’d walked onto the set of a historical drama set during Second World War food rationing. However, when the ferries to the mainland and utilities were cut off for almost a fortnight, I came to understand their forward planning.
After weeks of surviving on porridge oats and peanut butter, I was beyond excited when the ferry services to the mainland recommenced. On my first visit to a superstore, I took one look down the heaving aisles of endless choices and—instead of buying all the foods I’d been fantasising about huddled under layers of blankets wondering whether the roof was going to blow away—I simply froze somewhere between nausea and panic and barely bought a thing.
Back in 2018, my newly rented flat came furnished, which took some immediate purchasing pressure off. Other than groceries and the occasional piece of second-hand clothing, however, I hadn’t needed to buy anything new in years. My first few shopping trips to outfit the kitchen or buy bedding were a repeat of my Scottish superstore experience, and I would return with the bare minimum. An even bigger test of my equanimity was observing my fellow shoppers sometimes exploding into arguments with each other or with innocent bystander staff, loading trolleys to bursting capacity looking like they were carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. It was like watching a real-life zombie movie, only with hungry ghosts.
The word that kept coming to my mind was from the title of James Wallman’s excellent book on how society has had enough of stuff: Stuffocation (Spiegel & Grau 2015). As I sat with my own overwhelm and sadness for both people and the planet, knowing full well I couldn’t change anyone or somehow “fight” the material world itself, a new approach dawned on me: What about making the material shopping with metta? I may not know what particular strangers need to eat or have an answer to the world’s bigger production and distribution problems, but I could generate metta as I shopped and observe what happened.
May all shoppers choose happiness.
May all shoppers choose peace.
May all shoppers choose freedom.
This new approach to shopping was inspired by the many experiments I had read about testing the effects of meditation, prayer, and intention on everything from seedling germination to hospital patient recovery rates to Dr. Masaru Emoto’s famous water molecules. Possibly my favourite double-blind experiment tested whether blessing chocolate would elevate the mood of people who ate it more than chocolate that wasn’t blessed.
The three different methods used? Senior Buddhist monks, an electric device “imprinted” by experienced meditators, and a ritual performed by a Mongolian shaman. I’ll let readers discover the results for themselves by reading Dean Radin’s eye-opening (and mouth-watering) book Real Magic (Harmony 2018): “. . . the earlier study involving chocolate suggests that blessing food and beverages does more than just provide a feel-good ritual. It may also add an intangible new spice: magic.”
So, in addition to generating metta for shoppers, I was inspired to generate metta for the goods themselves. Most religions have some form of blessing for their food before eating, so why not supersize that practice to add a little magic to everyone’s food? Whether or not this actually changed anything for anyone else, it certainly transformed the overwhelm and sadness I was feeling. If nothing else, it tickled me to think that chocolate plays a crucial role in bringing about world peace one delicious piece at a time.
When I moved into an unfurnished house eight months later, the new blank canvas was secretly a relief. After buying the necessary second-hand appliances to wash and cook, I set up a camping hammock and resolved to take my time furnishing the house with metta (my equivalent of Marie Kondo’s tidying method catch-phrase to describe surrounding yourself only with objects that “spark joy”).
Although my nomad’s heart was now confined to only the four walls of a house (rather than the four corners of the globe), it was fun to experiment by meditating, daydreaming, and sleeping in different spots at different times of the day. Ever so slowly, my new temple-of-sorts began to share what colours and objects it wanted to be filled with.
And so began several months of scouring Liverpool for whatever sparked metta. This is not an easy concept to put into words, but I’ll try: any piece of furniture that would inspire and simplify the space while causing minimal harm to the planet. This unhurried approach made me many new friends in the city’s various charity shops, and the money from each item I ended up buying was donated to children in need, a hospice, and heart medicine research. And when the Dharma moves me on again, I plan to return them to charities again so they can raise new funds and furnish new homes.
My favourite find in this treasure-hunt-of-sorts was the person who sold me my appliances. We both discovered a love of good conversation in the transaction, and I now pop in when passing to put the world to rights with my local fridge-o-sopher. They recently confessed that they spied me in the local superstore, smiling to myself at the shelves, and didn’t want to interrupt whatever was going on as I was obviously enjoying myself!
I also discovered a way to power the house with metta for real through choosing a not-for-profit and green energy company called The Leccy* modeled on Nottingham’s Robin Hood Energy** which started as an alternative to some of the questionable business practices of the UK’s bigger utility companies.
Filling the house with metta has also worked its magic on various repair visitors over the months: they usually struggle to find the address (which isn’t 9¾ as per Harry Potter fame), ask on arrival “have you just moved in?”—especially hilarious when I consider the house fully-furnished by now, and then open up in unexpected ways as they fix whatever they were called out for.
The funniest example was a plasterer who asked whether it would be ok to blare the radio for company while he skimmed a wall downstairs. I happily agreed and smiled to myself upstairs when he sang along to Todd Rungren’s version of Love is the Answer at full volume:
Light of the world, shine on me,
Love is the answer,
Shine on us all, set us free . . .
When I later went to check on his progress, the DJ announced the passing of the actress Doris Day earlier that day and we spontaneously burst into a duet of her (very Dharmic) signature song:
Que sera sera,
Whatever will be will be,
The future’s not ours to see,
Que sera sera . . .
The most surreal example was an electrician who stopped by to rewire the boiler after an emergency Sunday morning breakdown. While upside down, he spontaneously told me all the reasons he didn’t believe in God. I heard him out, wondering how on earth I’d gone from stranded tenant (wearing all her clothing at once to fend off the cold with chattering teeth) to confessor, and discovered what lay beneath his vehement atheism: a dear relative was dying in the hospital.
And the most colourful example was a roofer (who by default spends all day with a bird’s eye view of the open sky) quipping on departure: “I love the colours of the walls in here! It feels like home in a way I can’t put my finger on.”
It then dawned on me that perhaps filling a physical space with metta might, over time, create a force field of its own? Not unlike a decompression chamber on a submarine, or a spaceship, perhaps metta requires anything standing in the way of loving-kindness to be shed?
While I was experimenting with furnishing my new surroundings with metta these past months, a dear friend was downsizing to live in a caravan after a very challenging life chapter. We would jokingly send encouraging texts back and forth celebrating every tortoise step going against our natural inclinations—my latest addition versus their latest substraction—the funniest of which was:
Feeling a bit better today and attempting to declutter the van a bit. Too much stuff, as you know, I could never be a minimalist.
Last month found her ready to roll off the drive, and she’s slowly finding her new way. On a return visit this week, she watched as some 25 firefighters did their best to prevent her former neighbours’ house from the ultimate subtraction:
It was big and bad and I’ve never seen anything like it in real life before. Everyone’s fine, I’m so thankful.
Two days later, the metta-morphosis (and funny side) was already underway:
Neighbors are doing so well, they’re staying with the other neighbors and they’ve invited us to join them for a BBQ tomorrow night.
So, my fellow would-be metta scientists, I urge you to find your own way and pace blessing what surrounds you. Or, to metta-morphose the lyrics of singer Madonna’s famous anthem to 80s consumerism Material Girl:
’Cause we’re living in a metta-real world
And I am a metta-real girl
Real Magic: ancient wisdom, modern science, and a guide to the secret power of the universe by Dean Radin
Stuffocation: how we’ve had enough of stuff and experience matters more than ever by James Wallman
The Hidden Messages in Water by Dr Masaru Emoto