Last month, I introduced the overall concept of lily padding as a combination of location-independence and letting the Dharma take the lead. During my seven years of jumping from lily pad to lily pad, I have found that it is during house-sitting that the Dharma has the most to teach. The first article in this series* described how tonglen breathing can help to dissolve the collective fears that surface when strangers hand over their home and pets to me. But what happens once the door closes and I become the keeper of a new temple-of-sorts?
Paradoxically, the first thing I “do” once the door closes is to accept the new lily pad exactly as I find it. I am often asked what happens if I am left with a house that is a mess, with badly behaved pets, or even ghosts. My answer is always the same: I welcome the situation for what is and let metta do the rest.
Over the last seven years, I have come to think of metta meditation as cultivating my own portable loving-kindness Wi-Fi hotspot. The effects of metta on animals are more immediate and more obvious than on spaces or people (living or dead!), so I’ll begin this month’s story on four legs.
I usually arrive at a new house-sit sight unseen, except perhaps for a glimpse or two that I might have caught during a Skype conversation. However, I was once asked to attend an interview in person for a year-long placement. The listing described it as a 14th century country estate in Kent with a little border terrier in need of love. The border terrier and I hit it off at first sight. So much so that his owner jokingly asked me whether I’d sewn liver into my trouser hems in preparation!
We then visited the former gamekeeper’s cottage that would serve as the sitter’s accommodation. It was converted into a lovely studio flat with a back door that opened onto an enclosed cobblestone stable yard. As we looked around, we heard an unexpected thump against one leaded window. I looked up startled to see a rottweiler hurling itself against the glass, snarling excitedly, and leaving drool prints. Then another appeared, doing the same! The owner looked a bit sheepish as the pair continued to jump up to get a good look at us, and explained I would also be expected to look after the two guard dogs. They were definitely not mentioned in the listing.
Now, I have always believed there is no such thing as a “bad” pet, only those asking for more love in misguided ways. However, until that moment, I had never truly had that belief tested. The owner confessed that one of the rottweilers even had a court order to be destroyed after attacking a passerby, and offered to terminate the interview if I felt too uncomfortable to continue. But the Dharma had other plans and urged me to open the back door nonetheless.
What happened next took us all by surprise.
As I walked in with as much metta as I could muster, this frenzied pair of 60-kilogram dogs went quiet, rolled over, and showed me their bellies! As I bent down to give them both a rub, I heard an astonished voice behind me say, “The sit’s yours if you want it.” I stayed the year and rottweilers are now my favourite dog breed.
Three years later, a homeowner confided to me during our telephone interview that she was struggling to find a sitter due to her rescue cat’s extreme shyness. As a kitten, she had been locked in a flat for three days with her previous owner who had hung herself in a moment of despair. Understandably, the cat had been scared of her own shadow ever since. Her current owner added that her son was killed in a car accident a few years earlier, and that she could not face spending December in the UK ever since. Curious to see how metta might help the situation, I agreed to spend the holidays there.
In week one, the only signs I was sharing a space with another sentient being was an empty food bowl and a litter tray in need of emptying. I continued to live there with zero interference except metta meditation, and—as I sometimes do when faced with a home that really feels like its energy is congested—I called for backup.
No, I did not call the Ghostbusters but The Healing Trust, a UK-based charity that accepts requests for distant healing anywhere in the world, with no strings attached. I volunteered for them as a hands-on healer in my 20s, but stopped when I got seriously ill myself in my 30s. Although metta and healing are strictly speaking not the same, they do share the same core intention of sending unconditional love.
By week two, I could sometimes spot a tail coming out from behind the sofa, and by week three, I had company on the sofa and even a shy request to go explore the back garden! Even more surprising was her owner asking me to teach her how to meditate when I returned for another stay a year later.
It’s quite common for a cat or a dog to be drawn to my lap like a magnet during metta meditation, even a tortoise recently head butted my thigh and proceeded to scale it like it was Mount Everest in his quest for love. Luckily, that wasn’t quite the case when I agreed to help look after a smallholding near the Norfolk coast with some 100 rare British breed farm animals.
There were two farmhands on site during weekdays, and I lived there full time to cover nights, weekends, and holidays. Within a few weeks, they noticed that the animals were inexplicably more peaceful if I was on site. I explained metta to them, and we experimented one day when we were moving sheep from one field to another. It could often take several people half a day to move a flock of sheep or a herd of cows to another field, which would be accompanied with much forcing and shouting. Metta, however, got the job done quietly in under half an hour with only two of us. It earned me the reputation of being the Pied Piper of Norfolk thereafter.
The effects of metta are perhaps less obvious on spaces and people. Although I always clean a home as a thank you before handing it back to its owner, it still makes me smile to get an email a few weeks later from curious homeowners with something along the lines of, “My house feels more clean than clean, it practically hugged me when I got back! What did you do?”
As for the effects of metta on people, I will let you in on a little lily padding secret I use that can be applied anywhere. Effectively, I am facing two of life’s biggest stressors—moving house and changing jobs—every few months, completely on my own. In a future article, I’ll describe how this has evolved my notion of home from a physical location to an inner state. For now, I’ll share how metta helps me feel at home wherever I land.
One of my all-time favourite stories is The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. In the story, a lone shepherd selflessly re-forests a whole valley in France one acorn at a time, over the course of both World Wars. And one of my all-time favorite historical figures is Julian of Norwich, a 14th century Christian anchoress living as a religious hermit in a cell attached to a church in Norwich, Norfolk. Her book Revelations of Divine Love is considered the first book written by a woman in English, and is best known for this quote:
“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
So, before I venture out to explore the area surrounding any new lily pad for the first time, I metaphorically combine the planting of acorns and the anchoring of divine love by sending metta to all sentient beings I might encounter during my stay. I then spend the first few days in a kind of samadhi state as I find my bearings and silently bless all those who cross my path, allowing my own portable loving-kindness Wi-Fi hotspot to dissolve any and all fears of the unknown.
All Is Well (Matt Kahn)
The Man Who Planted Trees (animated short by Frédéric Back)
All Will Be Well: The Radical Optimism of Julian of Norwich (Mirabai Starr)