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Metta Had a Little Lamb

Welcome, dear readers, to another month of taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.

Last month’s article, Metta’s Long Corridor, saw me sitting with a reality that I had already outgrown while waiting for a new reality to birth.

Rather poetically, the Dharma moved me on to a nearby organic livestock farm to help with lambing—lambs being perhaps the ultimate symbol for innocence, rebirth, and spring after a challenging few months of feeling lost in winter’s woods.

On my first day, we prepared for the month ahead by penning in a designated area in the stable yard with hurdles, scattering a thick carpet of dry straw, cleaning and filling the silage feeders, scrubbing and filling the water troughs, and preparing a small caravan for anyone doing the night shift.

Traditionally, lambing in the UK begins on the first day of March. Sheep pregnancies last five months, so rams are released into the fields during October to ensure spring births. Each ram is “raddled”—fitted with a harness and paint block—or simply has his chest painted a specific color so that farmers can tell which ewes have mated and with whom. A few months later, they call in the vet to do ultrasounds and to mark the back of the ewes accordingly: not pregnant, single birth, twins, triplets, and sometimes even quadruplets! Mothers-to-be are then “dagged,” whereby their tail and the area around their vulva is shorn to prevent “dags” (fleece clogged with poo), which can cause infection for either ewe or lamb later on.

Some farms leave their flocks outside to get on with things themselves, while others take the approach that the controlled environment of a birthing pen increases the chances of survival as it is easier to spot when a mother or a baby might need assistance.

And so, on the last day of February, we herded the pregnant ewes from out in the fields and into their new “baa-ternity” ward to await the arrival of an estimated 89 lambs. Chaos doesn’t come close to describing the stampede there, or the flurry of multicolored fleeces depending on fathers and expected numbers.

Our mother and daughter hosts taught us the signs to look for when a ewe is in labour: stopping “cudding” (chewing); pawing or circling the straw to make a nest (like a dog might before taking a nap); a swollen vulva; and generally taking herself off somewhere less busy.

The first few births I witnessed were a complete surprise to me, as ewes tend to remain silent and—if all goes well—the lambs simply slide out head first. Afterward their mother licks them clean, and they are already taking their first steps and hopefully a drink of colostrum (mother’s first milk)! Where it can become dangerous, and why this particular farm chose to pen its mothers-to-be, is if a lamb gets stuck (usually because of awkward positioning), if a lamb is born pre-mature or stillborn, or if a first-time mother does not understand what is happening or that the lamb she has birthed is even hers.

One disadvantage of a lambing pen is that it is so cramped compared with being out in a field that mothers and lambs can sometimes become muddled. And so, once a ewe has birthed all her lambs and they have had their first drink, they are moved into their own private pen for a week or so to ensure that they bond only with each other. A family is also spray painted with their birth number within the flock, and lambs are fitted with elastic halfway up their tails (to dock them to prevent infections) and around the boys’ testicles to castrate them. These slowly cut off blood supply and usually drop off within 10 days.

It was heartening to see just how many neighbors and complete strangers of all ages stopped by daily to take in the spring magic that was underway. We did our best to explain the processes and give updates while we continued the never-ending rounds of feeding, topping up silage, mucking out, and strawing down.

I could fill this month’s article (and possibly next month too!) with all the practical things that I learned inside the lambing pen, but regular readers are probably wondering when exactly does metta make an appearance in all this? And so I will continue with all that was birthing outside the lambing pen as well in the run-up to Mother’s Day—celebrated on the third Sunday before Easter in the UK.

While I’m not a biological mother myself, I like to think that my metta meditation practice is a form of universal mothering, starting with nurturing myself, my loved ones, anyone in my current orbit, and ultimately all sentient beings.

When we were alone, a regular visitor confided in me that she felt close to a nervous breakdown. I did my best to listen and learn what might help her. A few days later, she came to thank me for teaching her about first-time ewe mothers and the fear and confusion they often feel because they do not understand what is happening to them or what this little being presented to them is (preferably presented in a towel so that identifying smells don’t become muddled). Learning this had given her an unexpected compassion for her own estranged mother, and she called her for the first time in years.

A young mother and her eight-year-old daughter stopped by daily after school. Sensing the mother’s exhaustion and her daughter’s restlessness, I struck up a conversation about favorite books and bedtime stories, and suggested a few that they might not yet know. The following day, both thanked me . . . the daughter for her new favorite audiobook and her mother for some quiet time!

And on a rare day off, I wandered down the lane to the nearest town, only to happen upon what looked like a car accident. I stepped closer to see if anyone was hurt or needed assistance, and recognized another regular visitor to the lambing pen who is studying to be a midwife behind the steering wheel crying and frozen in shock while three cars were queuing to get past. I jumped in the passenger seat and did what I could to bring her back to the here and now so that the cars could pass her, and chatted with her in a nearby lay-by until I was satisfied that she was fit to drive. I saw her again a few days later, smiling this time, and she thanked me for steadying her that day.

Four fellow volunteers also came and went during that lambing month. Each of them reminded me of myself at various stages of my life, and that this volunteering on organic farms journey that was nearing its one-year anniversary.

The first was recovering from long-term burnout while feeling her biological clock ticking and supporting her mother through breast cancer radiotherapy. She later thanked me for really listening to her, as well as really triggering her too! Apparently, my kindness had pushed all her buttons and she promised to be kinder to herself going forward.

Another had done nearly as many placements as I have, while weaning herself off antidepressants and moving back in with her mother as an adult. She later thanked me for making her laugh with tales of my volunteering dramas, and even suggested that we have our own counseling service! Apparently, the worst farm she had visited so far had expected her to stay in a moldy caravan, and me sharing some of my weird and wonderful experiences had helped her with perspective and to keep going.

Another volunteer was only 16, volunteering for a week as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. Although she had never done farm work before, she was a joy to work alongside. And when she asked me over lunch whether she was the youngest volunteer I had come across in the last year, I said yes . . . as well as one of the best, much to her surprise! Apparently, I was a good teacher, which warmed my heart to hear, considering just how tired and conflicted and, frankly, jaded I was still feeling about my previous placement.

And the last volunteer was also new to the scheme. It represented literally his first steps outdoors after years of suffering from agoraphobia. By the third day he burst into tears in front of me, and I assured him that all the tensions he was picking up on were not his but the host family’s own private difficulties and exhaustion after a month of being on 24/7 call to the ewes and their lambs. Feeling too panicked to continue, he asked a friend to pick him up in the middle of the night! Apparently, my kindness had shown him there was no shame in not being a good fit, and the following week he was going to try staying at my favorite placement, which I described in Metta Clears a Path.

When the lambs were strong enough to be turned out onto fresh pasture, we carried them by hand low to the ground so that their mothers would follow their scent into the field. Their wonder and glee at discovering a wider world beyond their pens was pure joy to witness.

And so, dear readers, whatever sorrow or fear or doubt or illness or worry or heartbreak currently has you in a holding-pen, please remember to do all that you can to mother yourselves with as much metta as you can muster until the Dharma carries you out to a new level of freedom.

Or, to metta-morphose the bittersweet song “Mother” by Tori Amos:

Go go go go now
Out of the nest it’s time

Go go go now
Circus girl without a safety net

Here here here now don’t cry
You raised your hand for the assignment

Tuck this metta under your helmet
Be a good soldier

First my left foot
Then my right behind the other

See more

Sheep farming glossary of terms (Zoetis)
The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (Duke of Edinburgh)
The sheep are in, the lambs are coming (YouTube)
The Sheep’s Tale by John Lewis-Stemple (The Herald)

Related features from BDG

Working in Old Age
We Become Who We See
The Language of Kindness
On Cultivating Loving-Kindness
Walking the Motherhood Walk

More from Living Metta by Mettamorphsis

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