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Vanishing Metta

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

Last month’s article, Metta’s Checkup, had me saying “ahhhhh” for the Dharma’s dentist. This month found me generating metta for more unspoken gaps than dental cavities in need of filling.

Possibly the funniest definition of worry I’ve come across is that you’re simply praying for what you don’t want. And Buddhism often refers to hungry ghosts to describe grasping outside ourselves to meet an intense emotional need.

So what happens when these two concepts collide, attempting to make sense of something more nuanced than worry or grasping? Rather than an elephant in the room no one is addressing, is there perhaps an elephant in our heart—regret over what might have been, what is no longer possible, or can never be?

And so this month, I felt inspired to generate metta for unseen and unspoken grief—others’ and my own.

Two different and unexpected opportunities to experiment with this idea cropped up on the organic regenerative farm where I now live and work.

The first came after innocently congratulating a pregnant coworker on her wonderful news, and having her confide when we were alone that she had in fact been carrying twins but lost one fetus to vanishing twin syndrome. The conflicted look on her face—equal parts excited glow and deep sadness—as she explained the medical term, told me more than the actual words coming out of her mouth. In other words, I was catching a glimpse of the elephant in her heart.

As the gestation weeks progressed, her movements became more and more limited and I made a point of dropping by the office after closing up the market garden to check if she needed a back rub and a listen. A lovely new friendship emerged from the “pain” I was inflicting to increase her range of movement, and in time I discovered she was a practicing Buddhist.

The paradox of her decreasing mobility was how it was highlighting what she jokingly called being a bad Buddhist, that is, her own inner struggle with doing nothing. This confession made this metta meditator smile, and made sense of why she preferred a chanting practice over stillness. My response? Gifting her with two of my favorite humorous books on Buddhism to enjoy on nights she struggled to sleep and needed a laugh and some reassurance that doing nothing was precisely what she was being asked to practice: Benjamin Hoff’s The Dao of Pooh (EGMONT 2019) and David Michie’s The Dalai Lama’s Cat (Hay House Visions 2012).

When her husband let the cat out of the bag that she’d never had a baby shower despite already being a mother of two, he asked for help organizing a surprise one. I said yes as much to celebrate the baby who would eventually be born as the one who would not.

The others helping on the sly were mothers who’d never attended a baby shower either, so we improvised as best we could. One offered to decorate the venue with bunting, a typically British tradition not unlike raising Buddhist prayer flags. Another offered to organize a craft area for any children attending. And I offered to empty out the farm’s staff kitchen of crockery, cutlery, and glasses so we could all enjoy a potluck feast.

One guest suggested we all bring a bead to string together a necklace for the mother-to-be to wear during labor and breastfeeding to remind the mother-to-be of all those rooting for her and her new arrival, and this offering turned into the most touching part of the celebration.

The heavens opened on the big day, so the baby shower was in fact a baby downpour! We all huddled inside to keep dry and warm, and in turn added our respective bead and spoke aloud our good wish. Some brought seeds, others pieces of jewelry that held meaning for them. Me? Along with plenty of motherhood metta, I added a tiny Ganesha elephant with a bell to help remove any obstacles in the weeks ahead and as a silent nod to the vanishing twin.

And then the Dharma surprised me with a glimpse of an elephant in my own heart.

Regular readers have followed the ups and downs, hilarity, and heartbreak of my past year and half WWOOFing—volunteering on organic farms. Some of the hosts and fellow volunteers I met along the way remain friends, others have vanished—either through choice or circumstance.

One, however, did both.

We met in a woodland management placement nearly a year ago now. Whether you believe in past lives or soul mates or twin flames or love at first sight, the sense of familiarity meeting him felt stronger than all those concepts combined and unlike anything I’d experienced before. What was hugely confusing at the time was being the one person in the group he avoided, often to the point of ignoring me altogether.

As I sat with being cast as the elephant in the room at the time, I considered that perhaps the sense of familiarity was mutual but possibly uncomfortable to him rather than comforting as it was to me? Amidst the hundred and one mind games our hostess played with us—as described in Metta’s Tree Medicine and Metta’s Long Corridor—I decided that walking away but continuing to volunteer elsewhere nearby so as to keep
a gentle eye on the three vulnerable souls (one being him) I’d come to love with a momma bear protectiveness there was best.

In the months since leaving the woods, I often bumped into him or got updates on his wellbeing from mutual friends. Distance didn’t dim the sense of familiarity, and I often wondered why he chose to stay in such a toxic environment.

Long story short, before I could solve this particular metta mystery, I discovered that he had left the area without a word to anyone.

I normally take people’s ebbs and flows in my life in my stride, however this vanishing act unexpectedly felt like a gut punch the likes of which I’d never experienced: I barely knew the man, yet had I fallen in love with him somewhere along the line? or had some hungry ghost of my own filled in so many blanks that I believed I had?

As I sat with my feelings of grief and confusion and anger and sadness and regret, no clarity emerged. And there was no mutual friend I could either ask for more information or confide in to gain some kind of closure.

And so I stripped this unspoken loss of a vanishing twin of my own back to first principles, and what I devote writing this column to: what elephants in my own heart were still in need of metta?

While that exploration is still ongoing, redirecting the enquiry to feeding my own heart more metta rather than a hungry ghost more “what was that all about?” energy was both the kindest and most freeing thing I could do—both for him and me.

And so, dear readers, whatever or whoever may have vanished from your own lives, please do yourselves the kindness of feeding the elephants rather than the hungry ghosts in your heart.

Or, to metta-morphose the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s song “You’re Missing” written in response to all of the unspoken everyday losses in the wake of 9/11: 

Shirts in the closet, shoes in the hall
Mama’s in the kitchen, baby and all

Everything is everything
Everything is everything

But metta’s missing

Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair
Papers on the doorstep, you’re not there

Everything is everything
Everything is everything

But metta’s missing

Related features from BDG

Gathering Blackberries: End of Season Reflections on Loss and Belonging
Let there Be Loss
Master Shandao’s Exegesis on the Deep Mind: Gain and Loss in the Two Kinds of Practices
My Journey Toward Sowa Rigpa – The Science of Healing

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