Welcome everyone to another month in the Living Metta laboratory of life taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.
This month’s experiment began—of all places—on an actual meditation cushion.
For any readers who’ve never attended a gong bath before, it’s a form of non-denominational group meditation in which different vibrations and frequencies provide a sonic massage of sorts. While silent and stripped-down Vipassana meditation is my usual practice, this monthly get-together hosted by a white witch to honor each full moon is my transcendence change of pace complete with cinematic soundtrack. I often describe it as an acid trip minus the acid to anyone who’s curious to try.
As I settled myself in for March’s Worm Moon gong bath, a new visitor sat down next to me. She scanned the roomful of participants growing still and all the different instruments being set up with much over-confident bluster.
I smiled at her in welcome, quietly arranged my own blanket and pillow, laid down, closed my eyes, and sent her metta. Before the first gong was struck, she grabbed my hand like a small child and anxiously whispered: “I’m REALLY scared.” Surprised at being touched by a stranger in the current climate of coronavirus caution, I happily accepted her hand, opened my eyes, and asked her if anything in particular was scaring her that could be adjusted.
“I have terminal cancer.”
Sensing that what is usually a pleasure to me could understandably become torture to her, I motioned to the leader to come over to us before we began. She listened patiently to the newcomer’s fears, explained what would happen over the next hour and a half, and offered to let her leave if it all felt too much.
Interestingly, the newcomer chose to stay—and to keep hold of my hand.
Now experienced meditators know that touching others during a sitting is usually a no go. However, as I scanned my body to check whether this unexpected company was welcome, I felt a resounding “yes.” In a previous article—Metta’s First Follower—I explored how our bodies can be both metta’s temples and nightclubs. In that moment, my body became both metta’s lighthouse and anchor too.
As the sound waves crashed and ebbed dramatically around us, she squirmed, she laughed, she cried, she gripped tighter, and she even sat up a few times to shout “you’re all asleep” to no one in particular in the room.
Not exactly typical sangha behavior.
To my own amazement, though, my own body, heart, and mind stayed completely at peace while I kept hold of the uncertain hand I’d been offered for an hour and a half.
When it came time for us all to come to, she let go and left the gathering has hastily as she’d arrived. The leader came over to check on me, describing the effect of the disruption on the two dozen other participants in the room—everything from sympathy to annoyance to aggression. I was genuinely surprised by her stories, as the metta I had generated within felt stronger than anything going on around me . . . influencing the room rather than being influenced by it?
The leader then kindly added: “You’re in a class of your own: whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
You’d have to be living in a lighthouse yourself not to have sensed the currents of uncertainty engulfing the globe. The following day, the first of the serious national quarantine measures were enforced in the UK.
My previous column, Lily Pad Sutra, described the seven years in which I combined meditation practice with location independence. During that phase, a friend jokingly nicknamed me the agile anchorite. If the term is new to you, an anchorite is someone who withdraws from society to pray for the world—a religious hermit of sorts—usually enclosed within a cell attached to a Christian church. One of the most famous anchorites was Julian of Norwich, attached to St Julian’s Church in Norwich during the 14th century. The Black Death plague killed a third of the city’s population when she was a child, including much of her own family. During her anchorite years, she wrote Revelations of Divine Love, which remains in print more than 600 years later. Pope Benedict XVI summed up her core teaching as:
God is love and it is only if one opens oneself to this love, totally and with total trust, and lets it become one’s sole guide in life, that all things are transfigured, true peace and true joy found and one is able to radiate it.*
And so began my ongoing experiments of being both metta’s lighthouse out in public and metta’s anchor for all sentient beings behind closed doors amid the swelling sea change around and within us all . . . in the hope of providing some of the same comfort I was able to provide the gong bath stranger to myself and the wider world.
Some experiments are as subtle as smiling hello at everyone and their dog I encounter on my daily hour of exercise (an early morning walk in my local park) in the hope of reminding them that we’re all in this together, while others are more comic, such as giving away free toilet rolls to make any anxious-looking strangers laugh for a moment and remember that every one of us is currently up the proverbial shit creek.
I also take the time to hold my own hand as needed in the face of the waves of my own emotional responses to witnessing shop shelves emptying day by day, conversations stopping uncomfortably whenever someone coughs, my employers uncertain whether they’ll weather this storm, and strangers running day-to-day errands wearing masks and gloves like science fiction film extras.
And so, my fellow metta-scientists, whatever high or low tide you may currently find yourself experiencing, please consider joining me in the Dharma’s masterclass of being both metta’s lighthouse and metta’s anchor, blow what may in the coming months.
Or, to metta-morphose two of singer Blondie’s major hits:
Bang a gong, get metta on
Well you’re windy and wild…
… the tide is high but I’m holding on
I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that
* BENEDICT XVI: GENERAL AUDIENCE (The Holy See)
All Will Be Well: The Radical Optimism of Julian of Norwich (Huffington Post)
Coronavirus: Mystic’s ‘relevance’ to self-isolating world (BBC)