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Metta Magic Tricks Part Two, Beyond Shadow and Light

When I’m asked what my favourite aspect is of cultivating a meditation practice alongside location-independence—or what I like to call lily padding—my answer often surprises: my favourite aspect of lily padding is the Dharma’s metta magic tricks.

Last month’s article for this Lily Pad Sutra column explored some of the many surprises I feel the Dharma has pulled out of its metta magician’s hat along the way.  I initially wrote it in playful anticipation of Easter Sunday, which fell on April Fool’s Day this year. However, once it was posted, I realized that I had only shared examples of seeming shadowy situations containing unexpected light. With the recent equinox, it seems only fitting to balance my exploration of the Dharma’s metta magic tricks with examples of seeming light-filled situations containing an unexpected shadow.

Some readers might be familiar with the recent exposure of sexual harassment in various religious and charitable organisations, and the #MeToo movement emerging from the bright lights of Hollywood. If you are, these are some examples of what I mean by unexpected shadows hiding in plain sight of seeming light.

What follows are two instances where I was surprised by unexpected shadows while lily padding, and how taking refuge in the Dharma provided yet more metta magic tricks . . . complete with escapes that the Great Houdini would admire!

The first instance occurred during my third year of jumps. An acquaintance recommended an interfaith ministry training course she had recently graduated from, and I attended a taster day out of curiosity. It was such a lovely day and I was beyond excited to discover something so tangible and inclusive where I could apply all my spiritual exploring without joining a specific religious order.  And every friend I told about it afterward encouraged me to go for it as it sounded like a perfect fit. I signed up for the two-year training and read voraciously in anticipation of the first teaching weekend.

On the first day, something already felt off but I put it down to nerves and newness. The second day felt even stranger. I could not understand why, as I was meeting lovely people and learning interesting things about the world’s different faiths.

I sat in meditation with the unease over the next month, and decided to try one more teaching weekend. What happened next turned out to be one of the rudest spiritual awakenings I have had.

It started innocently enough, with the course director asking all 50 students to sit in a circle, close their eyes, and bring to mind all the unlovingness within them. Within seconds, my body went haywire and I ran to the bathroom as discreetly as I could before vomiting violently. As I knelt over the toilet shaking, sweating, and crying in pain, the course director actually came into the cubicle and told me off for not being able to face the darkness within me!  Before I even had a chance to speak or clean myself up, I was yanked back into the group circle. The course director then blocked the room’s exit, explaining that from now on nobody was allowed to leave during group exercises, and placed a bucket in the middle of the circle. 

Everything inside me wanted to run, but feeling ill and shocked it was easy to waiver and wonder and doubt myself. I found the presence of mind to meditate during the group exercises that followed, remembering all the projections I had already survived lily padding, and somehow made it through the day without more vomiting!

In each group-sharing exercise that followed, the course director made a subtle dig at me. By the end of the day, she had successfully turned the group against me as the poster girl of what happens when we don’t face our inner darkness.

I wished them well and decided to drop out.

After leaving, I felt unexpectedly hungry and treated myself to a consolation meal. The restaurant I chose was deserted on a Sunday afternoon and I was grateful for its emptiness to gather my thoughts. When I looked up from the menu, I noticed a couple now sitting a few rows over. 

Although she was wearing a hat and oversized glasses, I recognised my favourite singer songwriter sitting with her husband!  To say I worshipped this artist is an understatement: I knew every lyric she’d written in the last 20 years, and had seen her live in concert more times than I can remember.  Her words had comforted me through many dark phases and articulated feelings in ways I couldn’t at the time. However, I had never actually met her in person and my mind was reeling: could this weekend of light and shadows possibly get any more surreal?

As many times as I had imagined finally meeting her in person, I couldn’t bring myself to disturb the couple. Instead I pulled out a book and did my best to respect their privacy.  When they left, I asked for my bill and where the toilets were. I was surprised to find the cubicle occupied and waited outside. Well, guess who came out?  She gave me a shy smile as she washed her hands and I discreetly wriggled past my “personal savior” to the now vacant throne.

The rest of this particular metta magic trick took another year to play out fully, when a fellow student emailed me out of the blue to apologise for succumbing to peer pressure, reporting that the group had since discovered plenty of shadow in the course director’s behaviour, and expressing regret that they did not find my courage to simply walk away when I did.

The second instance of me stumbling upon an unexpected shadow occurred four years later at a residential meditation retreat center. During a children’s course I was assisting, I expressed concern to the course leader when we were alone over confiscating teddy bears from seven year olds to teach them non-attachment. I was unexpectedly screamed at, accused of all manner of things, and pulled off the course on the pretext that I was experiencing an inner “storm.” Before the end of the day, all but two fellow volunteers at the center had stopped speaking to me or even making eye contact.

It felt like a super-sized version of the interfaith ministry course all over again, and once again I turned to meditation for refuge until a next step felt obvious. Interestingly, the Dharma asked me to stay on and stick it out this time. So I went about my daily chores as usual, turned up for all the daily sits, generated metta for all involved, and stayed friendly and polite with all during social hours.

I didn’t have to wait a year for the Dharma’s metta magic trick to play out fully this time. About a week later, fellow volunteers who were shunning me in public found ways to be alone with me and—in a spiritual version of the current #MeToo movement—voiced heartbreaking situations they had been placed in at this and other retreat centers.

When the European director of the overall organisation happened to visit, I requested an interview and was surprised to be scheduled one. We sat down in an all-glass office, me, wondering what surprise the Dharma had up its sleeve this time, and the European director expecting to have to counsel a mentally unstable volunteer. Within minutes, the director was smiled at me, pulled out a notebook, and said, “You’re not having a nervous breakdown, you’re talking a lot of sense. Tell me more.”

The director listened for an hour and a half to all the concerns that had surfaced in the previous fortnight while all those who’d both spread rumors about me and confided in me paced outside the glass walls nervously, unable to hear what I was saying.

When I’d spoken what I felt was everyone’s peace, the director thanked me, looked me in the eye and promised, “I will clean house.” I walked away dazed at what had transpired by not walking away the previous week, and packed my things to leave the organisation for good.

A year later, I got the surprising inner nudge to return for a fortnight. I filled in the online volunteering form, half expecting to be rejected. Instead, I was accepted straightaway. On arrival, I discovered most of the same characters from the previous year’s drama were still in residence. It took all my self-control not to giggle at the wide berth I was given again (out of respect this time), and I privately high-fived the Dharma when I discovered a new paragraph in the volunteers’ handbook outlining a proper complaints procedure against staff or teachers.

Both these experiences were deeply upsetting at the time, both personally and because I had great respect for the organisations and teachers themselves. However, the refuge of meditation and trusting my own sense of the Dharma worked metta magic that I never could have orchestrated or predicted myself. In hindsight, they taught me that light and shadow are a pair rather than a polarity: that every winter will have its spring, and that every seeming crucifixion—given time and metta—will have its rebirth.

In the spirit of equanimity and the equinox, I’ll end this month’s article as I ended last month’s . . .

Dharma, surprise me!

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