Welcome back, dear readers, to another month experimenting in the Living Metta laboratory of life taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.
Regular readers may remember an article posted this time last year, Metta Makes the First Move, about helping first-time university undergraduates settle into their accommodation. The agency booked me for the same placement again this autumn but, from the first day, I may as well have landed on another planet: last year’s family crowds, army of porters, and trolley dashes had given way to this year’s orderly booking system, half-empty buildings, and media reports that student accommodation was now the UK’s most expensive prison system!
So, rather than porter students checking in this academic year, I was instead asked to deliver any postal, food, and grocery deliveries to self-isolating flats. Some students were suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases, others were quarantining after arriving from abroad. I must admit, the contrast between last year’s happy chaos and buzzing corridors with this year’s gloomy silence and echoing hallways got to me the first week. Ironically, these particular halls of residence were converted into flats from a former maternity hospital, for which the biggest claim to fame was the birth of John Lennon’s first-born son, Julian, who inspired three of The Beatles’ biggest hit songs: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Hey Jude,” and “Good Night.”
I sat with my growing unease and personal opinions of current world events and remembered an unexpected conversation I once had with my mother when I was maybe a year or two younger than the undergraduates self-isolating behind closed doors in 2020. She struggled with post-traumatic stress and suicidal ideation her whole life from having grown up in World War II Germany, and I learned from an early age how to talk her down off of the subsequent inner ledges.
Every once in a while, in one of her incoherent regressed states, my mother would come out with unexpected wisdom. For example, one night while I watched TV she walked over to stroke my hair for no obvious reason, and I turned to smile at her as she wasn’t normally tactile.
“You know, I never worry about you.”
I calmly asked her why.
“You’re such an optimist, you really do believe everything can change with the arrival of tomorrow’s mail.”
She wasn’t wrong, and I credit that innate optimism coupled with my daily meditation practice for getting me and others through many difficult times.
That memory also sparked this month’s Living Metta experiment: how to deliver “tomorrow’s mail” to students I wasn’t even allowed to interact with?
As many of the maintenance, cleaning, and security staff were feeling nervous about the growing number of onsite confirmed cases, my first idea to calm the mounting tensions was to create an up-to-date daily list on the office wipe-board of rooms to approach with common sense.
I then silently blessed every parcel, meal, or bag of groceries I was asked to deliver. While I wasn’t allowed to knock on doors (to minimise physical interaction) I made as much noise as possible and called out, “Hello, it’s the Covid Donkey with a special delivery for you!” This usually coaxed students to the door with a confused smile, and I would ask them from a safe distance how they were doing. Some were absolutely fine, simply hunkering down with their online learning; others were clearly struggling. I assured them that many others were in the same boat and that they could call reception any time, 24/7.
What got the most laughs was relating support they had from the most unexpected corner. As the UK government gradually issued more and more social-distancing restrictions, more and more Post-it protests appeared in the students’ windows.
Personally, I respected their creativity—literally using what they have on hand to make their feelings known, despite everything. However, a university staff member felt otherwise and stopped by the office to demand that the “F*CK BORIS” (referring to the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson) Post-it Notes be taken down. The head of security, himself a survivor of two hostage-takings in a previous job abroad and the resulting post-traumatic stress, looked the requester straight in the eye and calmly replied:
“F*ck Boris? F*ck Boris? Too right, f*ck Boris! The Post-its stay.”
As the number of COVID cases in the city mounted to the point of Liverpool having the third-highest infection rate in Europe, and 2,000 soldiers being called in to enforce mandatory testing, the statistic that worried me more was the unreported 600 per cent rise in suicide rates worldwide. I plugged my earbuds in to play meditation music as I blessed both the deliveries and each block of flats I delivered them to.
Early one evening, I passed a Deliveroo cyclist waiting by the gates to hand over a takeaway meal to a student who wasn’t self-isolating. What caught my attention was a radio strapped to his handlebars playing the exact same Gayatri Mantra I’d been listening to! I smiled and asked whether that was Deva Premal singing? He nodded his head and grinned as I motioned to my earbuds that I was listening to the identical recording. I joked that maybe the mayor ought to consider blasting it on public speakers throughout the city for the foreseeable future? That idea got a knowing grin, an enthusiastic air fist pump, and a “too right, positive vibes only!” as the Deliveroo Deva rode away.
A few days later, a UK-based student whose parents had come to take her home until further notice asked me if anyone might like all the practically unused kitchen stuff she was leaving behind. I told her about a homeless shelter I passed every day on the way home and promised to deliver them that evening. The two bags of various herbs, spices, and oils were welcomed with enthusiasm, and inspired my manager to task me with unpacking the unused freshman freebies boxes that would otherwise be binned—the result? Some thousand pot noodles, snacks, and drinks for the shelter as well.
As I unpacked box after box for two days, a student knocked on the glass door of the banned common room, visibly shaking. I let him in, sat him down on the sofa, and made him some tea so that he could tell me what was on his mind. I insisted he take off his mask, as we were alone, and out spilled his loneliness and fears and confusion at finding himself stranded in a foreign country in these unusual times. Why couldn’t he just man up like his father? I assured him that many unseen others were feeling the same, and asked him frankly if he would ever speak to his best friend the way he was speaking to himself just now? He said, empathically, no way, so I challenged him to consider why he though it was okay to speak to himself that way. Understanding dawned, and we talked through some simple self-kindnesses he could easily try in the coming weeks. While full-on meditation felt like too much too soon, I coached him through pranayama breathing to a count of three as a way to greet any future panic attacks with self-kindness rather than self-hatred. And I even offered to share the real secret to adulthood: no, not YouTube, I joked, but learning to love yourself unconditionally. Everything else is essentially window dressing.
I passed him on my Covid Donkey delivery rounds a few days later, and asked whether he was remembering to treat himself as he would his best friend. I received my second knowing grin and enthusiastic fist pump that week. He even now stops by reception for a cup of tea when he notices his mood sinking from too much solitude, and is considering returning home until January—as are many other undergraduates.
And so, dear reader, please deliver metta wherever and however you can just now even if we have no way of knowing where it will arrive or what may be going on behind masks and closed doors of all kinds.
Or to metta-morphose The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” with Julian Lennon’s Everything Changes:
Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let metta into your heart
Then you can start to make it better
I can change, you can change
Everything wrong with our lives
Metta can change all of our lives
Everything changes everyday
We’ve got to find a better way
And on our hearts we’ve got to pray
‘It’s like a prison’: students speak of lockdown struggles (The Guardian)
Students defy guidance and race home before lockdown in England (The Guardian)
Impact the World: Deva Premal Interview (YouTube)
Impact the World: Miten Interview (YouTube)
Yesterday Trailer (YouTube)