Welcome, welcome, welcome, dear readers, to another Living Mettaexperiment taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.
Wherever you are in the world just now, chances are you’re experiencing emotional turbulence, be it your own or others’. Some days, I secretly wonder whether we’ve all become Jiffy Pop pans of personal and collective sankharas overnight.
Most days, I manage to munch on the resulting popcorn and observe the unexpected twists and turns of 2020 with relative equanimity. Other days find me hiding behind my hands, or even the sofa, half-anticipating and half-dreading the next kernel exploding.
If I’m honest, the thing I feel most deprived of just now is conversation untouched by fear or censorship or COVID. And the Dharma recently provided me with it from the unlikeliest of sources: a homeless man asking for change outside my local grocery shop.
I first spotted him a few weeks ago, his nose buried in a book. I asked whether I could buy him anything—cash becoming rarer and rarer in the UK. On the way out with his favorite caramel chocolates, I asked what he was reading and he lifted the cover to show me a title by Stephen King. I laughed out loud and teased him, asking whether the real world wasn’t scary enough for him these days?
From then on, I always made a point to stop and ask if he had all he needed before I shopped and then talk books on the way out. Inevitably, the one thing he’d ask for was a product I’d never heard of, which unexpectedly slowed my visit into a treasure hunt rather than the mad dash it had become of late.
A few weeks later, I unexpectedly passed him walking a few streets over from his usual spot looking really distressed. I asked how he was, and my normally cheerful fellow bookworm just stood there and shook. I gently probed, and it turned out his best friend—the man who’d taken him under his wing when he first became homeless and helped him learn the ropes of sleeping rough—had been taken into hospital with pneumonia earlier that day and he was on his way to visit him in the ICU. My heart broke a little for him as it didn’t sound like his friend was going to survive.
I recognized a panic attack brewing, and got pragmatic: “Do you have somewhere to stay?” He nodded, explaining he’d made a shelter out of an abandoned structure in the local cemetery that was impossible for others to find. I explained that I had just moved house, and had plenty of goods I was planning to donate to charity shops. Was there anything he might want? A blanket and a pillow if I had any spare, he replied shyly. I did, and agreed to bring them to him outside the grocery shop later on when he returned from the hospital. I then went home and for no obvious reason other than it felt right, sprayed my meditation cushion and blanket with calming essential oils and said goodbye.
When I brought them to the grocery store later on as promised, he burst into tears saying he’d learned lately not to get his hopes up. I happily handed over the cushion and blanket, and he immediately buried his nose in them sighing at how good they smelled. I then pulled out some pocket tissues saying I always carried some with me as I tended to have that effect on people lately.
Between his sobs and apologies for crying, I discovered that not only was his only friend close to death, but that he’d been jumped by three men the night before for the £4 he’d managed to scrape together (“I’d have happily given them the money to avoid the beating”), that his ex-partner used to batter him (but he refused to hit a woman no matter what), that he was ex-military (sadly, the most common reason for homelessness in the UK), and that the next day was his son’s birthday but he had no way of contacting him as his ex had custody of their kids and refused to let him know where they were.
I rubbed his back as he cried, and teased, “Is that all?” That made him laugh a little, and we both looked up at the anxious shoppers milling past doing the social distancing dance and wrestling awkwardly with trolleys and hand sanitizer and masks and the green/red light system controlling entry-flow. I pointed out how most people were corn kernels ready to pop for just one of those reasons when he’d clearly opted for the special offer deluxe package! That made him belly laugh properly, and he confessed that sometimes what was hardest for him was feeling so helpless in the face of so much unhappiness in others.
As we sat cross-legged together, he told me about his military service in Nepal and using his week’s leave to learn meditation from monks there. I grinned, understanding why I’d felt moved to pass on my meditation cushion and blanket, and asked if they had told him about bodhisattvas. He shook his head. I explained that really evolved souls sometimes hold themselves back spiritually for the sake of others, a bit like holding a door open for a stranger. Had it occurred to him that maybe by sitting outside the shop doors asking for help he was blessing others?
As that particular “aha”sank in, people continued to stop to drop coins in his cup or hand him food or offer second-hand clothing or share a kind word. What was heartening for me was just how many people I recognized from the local park or businesses or previous workplaces. It tickled me to discover how many acquaintances we already had in common, as well as seeing them with fresh eyes from this new point of view. I then remembered listening to a radio program last Christmas about a survey of British cities by generosity, and seeing first-hand why my adoptive Liverpool had ranked first.
I asked whether passers-by were usually so generous and he reckoned having me sat next to him made him more relatable. Just then, an elderly couple walked past and the woman eyed me up suspiciously and muttered to her husband in disgust, “There’s no way she’s homeless!” We laughed until we were both crying; rather than him feeling a failure in life, clearly I was the one who needed to try harder! Then a lovely single mum of two toddlers I used to waitress with last year at various weddings walked past in surprise, and asked whether I was volunteering these days. I shook my head and said that I was simply hanging out with a new friend.
At the end of that first of many sit-downs since, he hugged me and asked if there was anything that he could do for me. Stunned by the question considering all he was facing, I blurted out, “You already have. This has been the most authentic conversation I’ve probably had since March, thank YOU.”
There isn’t a tidy ending to this living metta experiment as it’s still ongoing. However, relocating my daily sit to outside my local grocery store is what’s unexpectedly sustaining me these days just as much as any actual food I buy.
I can’t remember the source, but my favorite definition of intimacy is “not knowing together.”
I suppose it’s fair to say in our own ways we’re all waiting for change just now. Or, to metta-morphose Italian DJ Benny Benassi’s “Cinema” as our personal and collective Jiffy Pop pops:
I could watch metta for a lifetime, you’re my favorite movie
A thousand endings, you mean everything to me
I never know what’s coming, forever fascinated
Hope you don’t stop running to me ’cause I’ll always be waiting
You are my cinema, I could watch you forever