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Metta Stands Out

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

Last month’s article, “Metta’s Back,” found me sitting a 10-day course at the same Vipassana center where I first learned the meditation technique 15 years ago—only to discover it would be my final one. This month found me returning to serve a final 10-day course both as a thank you and as a confirmation that it was time to move on.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After returning from my 10-day sit last month, I discovered a new handcrafted dome made of young hazel wood at the sound-healing retreat center where I’m still volunteering.

The Dharma’s joke was on me—after sending me into silence to discover I’d outgrown spiritual purification, I was sent back into sound-healing to discover a sweat lodge! Even funnier was when the fire-keeper couldn’t make it at the last minute, so I offered to substitute so that everyone else could still participate.

The dance leader arrived the night before and held a small ceremony to help build the fire that I would be tending the next day in order to heat the rocks to pass into the sweat lodge. We then covered the dome’s floor with fresh herbs, the hazel-wood frame with blankets, and sprinkled a cornmeal line from the fire pit outside (representing the masculine), to the rock pit inside, representing the feminine. Only the fire-keeper and dance leader were allowed to cross this until the sweat was completed.

I learned that dance in this context refers to any kind of spiritual work that moves energy, and that the dance leader had originally trained in Native American traditions some 30 years ago but had adapted the next day’s ceremony in honor of the “originals” of both Wales and Ireland—the Celts and the Tuatha Dé Danann. And those originals danced with their equivalent of the three dantian centers, only they called them cauldrons that were either upright or tipped.

I also learned, more practically, that the best rock to heat without accidental shattering when a dance leader throws water on them inside the sweat lodge is basalt. Essentially, I was going to be barbecuing old cobblestones and then passing them along the cornmeal line on a pitchfork at the dance leader’s request.

The next day’s ceremony was mostly out of earshot for me while I generated metta tending the fire outside. It was an interesting new role to play and space to hold for the others given that I was still digesting the Dharma’s recent guidance that I’d outgrown spiritual purification. Given the fierce heat of tending the fire, though, I probably sweated as much outside as everyone inside the sweat lodge!

Afterward, we ritually dismantled the site, showered, changed clothes, and gathered again to share experiences. It was heartening to hear how safe everyone had felt with me standing guard outside—although credit due to the molten hot pitchfork—and that no cobblestones exploded once passed inside the sweat lodge. And I discovered a new way of serving that didn’t require purification.

A week later, on the morning I was due back to serve a 10-day course, the Vipassana center rang to ask if I would consider being a course manager.  My gut response was no as I’d played that challenging role before, and it didn’t sit right knowing this was to be my final serve.

On arrival, I was assigned to the kitchen team, and while putting on my apron and hairnet I was approached by the catering manager who asked if I would consider being kitchen manager. My gut response again was to say no as I’d played that challenging role before too and it didn’t sit right knowing that this was to be my final serve.

When the team gathered for the first kitchen meeting, my gut response was to raise my hand for a role I’d not yet played as the female dining room attendant. For the next 10 days, I was holding the dining room space for the female meditators—followed by servers—by setting up, replenishing, and cleaning down meal times. Once again, the Dharma’s “no more purification” joke was on me as I wouldn’t be helping the students purify in the Dharma hall as the course manager, or sweating it out with the other servers in the kitchen as the kitchen manager. Instead, I would be the go-between minus the red-hot pitchfork.

Regular readers of my column may remember “Metta Puts the Kettle On,” in which I described a metta experiment to serve the servers alongside the guests during hospitality’s end-of-year silly season.

I decided to try a reboot here.

While the students were learning to observe their breath with anapana inside the Dharma hall, between sitting periods they were also adjusting to the center’s layout, course timetable, and eating in complete silence. As I wasn’t allowed to speak or gesture, I opted to generate metta for the students and to make life easier in the kitchen by returning a steady stream of used dishes during the mealtime rather than dumping a trolley-load at the end.

I often felt like David Attenborough observing both groups’ habits and changes day-by-day under the influence of metta. An experienced long-term server—about to sit their first 30-day course!—wisely pointed out that the students would probably seem restless until day four, when they would receive their first vipassana teaching and try adhitthana. And so I held firm boundaries as kindly as I could while sankharas of all sorts arose and passed away, such as making sure students weren’t disturbed during their silent meal times and that they vacated the dining hall in time for the servers to eat—more difficult than it sounds without words or gestures!

I knew from previous experience serving in the kitchen that with so many different nationalities, ages, levels of English fluency, motivation for serving, degrees of volition, meditation experience, and culinary abilities randomly thrown together to prepare meals for hundreds under very tight deadlines, inner kettles can boil very quickly. At the next team meeting, I welcomed anyone in the kitchen who needed to cool down to come help me with dining hall tasks for a few minutes for some support or silence as needed, rather than taking sankharas out on each other or the food.

Everyone took me up on the offer at different stages: when they cooked too much or too little; injured themselves; had their feelings hurt; lost their confidence; vented a frustration; shared a worry; checked the meaning of a word; or just needed to hear themselves think.

As predicted, both of the groups I was serving and generating metta for settled into their respective routines after Vipassana Day. By then, the students were getting the hang of observing themselves instead of bumping into each other or the furniture while trying to avoid physical and eye contact, and servers were getting the hang of cutting themselves and each other some slack instead of turning on themselves or each other under pressure.

On Metta Day (day 10), it was a genuine joy to finally be able to look at and speak to the 80 or so female students I had been observing. Many credited my smile and colorful trousers for brightening their tough days. One even gave me the rare compliment of never having been kicked out with such kindness! And another gifted me her tee-shirt after I admitted that it had made me smile each time she wore it. My favorite part was shining a light on any team member behind specific praise, which sometimes meant bringing the chef out of the kitchen into the dining hall to hear how much a student had enjoyed a certain dish or taking a student out of the dining hall into the kitchen to see for themselves just how big the mountain of dirty dishes can grow and how cheerfully the two kitchen porters were tackling the hardest—and often most thankless—job in any kitchen.

It was gratifying to hear long-term servers later comment on how harmonious this kitchen had stayed, despite the inevitable mishaps, miscalculations, and misunderstandings. And the catering manager later thanked me for being a little anchor for the others so that everything could flow more smoothly.

I recently watched a fun kitchen-hack video compilation, and had to laugh when the presenter added an ice cube to instantly stop a pot on the stove from boiling over. So effective and magical when you see it in action, and I like to think adding metta can do the same.

Whether fire-keeping, keeping the peace, or even cooking with ice cubes, perhaps standing aside rather than in the thick of any purification in progress is where the Dharma wants me next.

And so, dear readers, whatever you may currently be outgrowing or bumping into or trying to purify in your own life, please consider that perhaps the best way to serve both yourself and others is to stand aside with metta. Naked flames and red-hot pitchforks are optional.

Or, to metta-morphose the lyrics of Suzanne Vega’s outsider anthem “Left of Center:”

But I’m only in the outskirts and in the fringes
On the edge and off the avenue
And if you want metta you can find metta
Left of center wondering about you

I think that somehow, somewhere inside of us
We must be similar if not the same
So I continue to be wanting metta
Left of center against the grain

Related features from BDG

From Traditional Roots to Modern Mindfulness: The Movement of Vipassana Meditation in the 20th Century
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Two: Mindfulness and Keen Awareness
Lessons Beyond the Meditation Hall
Vipassana Meditation and Mindfulness
Dipa Ma: The Daughters of the Buddha Are Fearless
Vipassana Meditation and Mindfulness

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