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Metta’s Back

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

Last month’s article, Cutting Metta’s Losses, found me pruning both inner and outer fruit trees at a sound healing retreat center ahead of the coming growing and teaching season. This month found me returning to the Vipassana center where I sat my first 10-day course back in 2009.

Although I’ve continued my meditation practice since, I hadn’t sat a course there in some seven years as described in Metta Magic Tricks Part Two, Beyond Shadow and Light. It surprised me how drawn I felt to return, but perhaps pruning for the coming season also required a stripping back to first principles?

On arrival from a sound healing retreat center to sit in silence for ten days, I had a private giggle at the registration desk when one of the course managers asked if I would ring the 4am and 4.20am gongs and open up the Dhamma hall each morning. I agreed much to their delight and with the promise of earning paramis, and went in search of the bed I’d been assigned.

Like birthdays or anniversaries or new years, being back on site and slowing back down into the course timetable surfaced random placeholder memories of who I was and where I was “at” with each previous visit to sit or serve. And whenever staff or students asked me the inevitable ice breaker question of how many courses I’d already sat, I honestly couldn’t remember. . . though I could well remember being a new student baffled by anyone who’d genuinely lost count like I now had!

After two years of continuous volunteering on organic farms, rather than offering the center financial dana for a future student, I silently offered the Dharma experience dana instead for any new students in need of metta‘s back-up.

Before I could even set foot in the dining hall for supper and the welcome talk, a woman nearly ran into me on her way out. From her fumbling apology, I sensed everything was already feeling overwhelming for her and so I gently asked if I could share the garden bench she’d found.

She shimmied along to make me some room and as I sat down next to her, I commented at how beautifully the landscaping—particularly the young birch trees outside the Dhamma hall—had matured in the last fifteen years. She visibly relaxed that I was familiar with the place and the process, and the conversation soon turned to her recent mastectomy, loss of her father, and her current doubts and fears about the upcoming experience.

I patiently answered her questions, and then grinned, “The welcome talk we’re about to listen to will probably answer all those questions too. What do you really want to know?” She sheepishly rolled her eyes at the early starts. I held my hands up that I’d soon be the most hated person on site waking everyone up bright and way-too-early every morning. Her look of abject horror that I would be setting my alarm for 3:45 a.m. was priceless, and I jokingly promised to hit the gong as gently and lovingly as possible lest anyone felt tempted to turn the mallet on me. Perhaps we could invent a new genre of detective fiction—meditated murder—whereby everyone silently clobbered me in turn and no one could be questioned until the course broke silence very well-rested on day ten?

Satisfied that she would stay the course, I braved the chattering mayhem of the dining hall for a bowl of soup and felt drawn to sit with two women. They were perhaps in better spirits than the bench-warmer I’d just jokingly plotted breaking the first precept with, but also feeling just as nervous.

One was a dentist and mother of a two- and four-year old whose husband had sweetly made attending possible for her by taking the children on a little holiday with reassuring videos she’d filmed on his phone to play each day they were apart. What she had no way of knowing yet was that in her own way she had pre-empted Goenka’s nightly video discourses—recorded in the 90s to standardize Vipassana teachings worldwide—that would be reassuring her every evening.

Another was a mental health practitioner and mother of already self-sufficient teenagers. She was visibly relishing each spoonful of soup, gushing about how clean everything was, and how delighted she was with her single room. For some reason, she’d pictured conditions straight out of a Dickens novel. I teased her that her imagination was about to be sorely disappointed: to the servers we may well look like extras on a film set in a Victorian mental asylum walking around looking only at our shoes, but that they would ensure we had more than enough delicious food to eat and sparkling facilities to use.

Once they’d exhausted all their questions, I assured them that the seemingly strict course structure was in place to support rather than torture them and that there was no shame in deciding to leave early if they felt the course was too much for them at any stage.

I surprised them both with my only piece of unsolicited advice: enjoy both the silence. . . and the surprising comedy of the next ten days. Alongside surfacing and observing unexpected emotions, deep reflection, intense boredom, physical discomfort, and forgotten memories, there would also be a lot of uncontrolled farting, snoring, and giggling to bring us all back to the present moment.

I explained how our places in the Dhamma hall were ranked from the front according to how many courses we’d previously sat, and gave them both the same assurances I’d given the bench-warmer: whenever they wobbled inside the hall, they could look up at my back and know I had theirs. And whenever we passed each other outside the hall, I would silently bless them with the courage to continue.

After the orientation talk, we were herded to the hall and I was surprised to find myself assigned a place in front of the assistant teacher. I may have lost count of how many courses I’d already sat, but clearly the course administrators had their methods. I secretly thanked all my previous selves for their forgotten efforts getting me a front row seat with extra leg room, putting the VIP in Vipassana.

The course progressed peacefully enough other than the occasional foot falling asleep during adhitthana group sittings, and by day seven I found myself wondering what I was still doing there. I withdrew to my room to strip the confusion back to first principles, only to be surprised by what I found at the heart of it: I didn’t need to be here anymore.

And as I sat with that burgeoning understanding, I had to laugh that—after months of outgrowing unsustainable patterns—now I was outgrowing beneficial ones too! Perhaps like hardening seedlings off by moving them out of the greenhouse until their roots outgrow their propagation cells, I had now outgrown my meditation cell?

I spent the remaining days of silence letting those dots connect, grateful for what all the hours on the meditation cushion had cultivated in me.

The final day when students break silence with each other to ready them for the outside world again—affectionately known as Metta Day—arrived soon enough, and I checked in with my three newly sprouted students.

I found the bench-warmer full of tears, and listened until she’d spoken her peace. I passed on the mantle of my metta meditation blanket covered in hearts as a take-home reminder to be kinder to herself while she learned to parent herself now.

The new mum was bubbling with fresh parenting insights, and thanked me for my silent Buddha smile every time we passed. Quite the compliment coming from a dentist!

And the mental health practitioner was full of enthusiasm and suggestions about how the process could be made emotionally safer for both students and servers. I shared with her my own experiences making similar suggestions—as described in Metta Magic Tricks Part Two, Beyond Shadow and Light—and encouraged her to submit hers for the next Trust Meeting.

When she in turn asked how my ten days had unfolded, my spontaneous answer surprised us both: it felt like it was time for me to turn my back on purifying yet more sankharas and face purifying paramis instead.

And so, dear readers, whatever you may be turning your backs on just now too, please remember that one way or another metta always has yours.

Or, to metta-morphose Macklemore’s song about all that Vipassana taught him:

And now metta‘s back, finally just laughin’
Expectations are resentments waiting to happen
Studying the dharma, karma, vipassana practice
Bahá’u’lláh, Buddha, God, to the mountaintop and I’m travelling

Learning, yes, reflecting on what matters
People, impermanence, lack of attachments
It’s space and time, a couple of man-made distractions
The measure of a spirit that no human can ever capture

Church, this booth is my Vatican
I don’t control life, but I can control how I react to it
Student of the breath, brick beats and balancin’
Desire versus truth until I finally find happiness

I just keep walkin’ my path and blessed to share my story

See more

From Myanmar to the World: Overland to India (YouTube)
Doing Time, Doing Vipassana (YouTube)
The Dhamma Brothers (YouTube)
Vipassana meditation

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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