Finding the heart


This time I would like to talk about the heart. Sadly I don’t really understand enough to talk about this one from a teachers perspective, so I will tell a story instead.

Back in the day, around 2008(ish), when my son was a little baby, I used to push him around in his baby buggy all the time, so he would fall asleep already. That could take a while. We would walk through the park, come sunshine or rain, mostly on weekends and early in the morning, and it was quite peaceful. Nobody would be bugging us. Sooner or later he would be sound asleep and I always listened to podcasts. I had a little iPod and I would download the Zencast. I don’t even know if that one is still around. The fun fact about the Zencast back in 2008 was, that there were not that many Zen teachers putting out Dhamma talks on a regular bases yet, it was the very early day of podcasts. So what they did was to just substitute other Dhamma talks. One day, we were walking along the river on a Sunday morning, a guy named Gil Fronsdal started talking in my headphones about something called ‘Metta’. That strange word apparently meant ‘Loving kindness’ and was a key term in Buddhism. I was dumbfounded. Coming from a Zen/Martial Arts background everything related to ‘loving’ obviously had to be some weird nonsense for tree huggers and hippies.

Nevertheless, I listened and eventually even learned. And as it is often with things like that, it somehow got stuck back in my head. Years later, by then deep into Theravada territory, I was still trying to get a grip on the whole Metta thing. It’s not that I did not try, but I never quite understood what is was supposed to be all about. I tried to read smart books about the topic, like Jack Kornfield’s ‘Path with heart’, but didn’t even make it through the first chapter before I kinda lost the epub file. I even bought another copy, hardcover this time, but gave that away, too. I seemed to have the wrong training/personality for this stuff. It’s not even like loving kindness was totally unknown in Zen. During my brief encounter with a Japanese Zen teacher we had little tea ceremonies as a group. I remember him always saying stuff like: “And now we drink tea-givers love!”, and I was like: “Yeah, let’s do that, wait… what?” It was Zen alright. Even love was weird in Zen.

Somehow I made it to a Metta practice anyway. Persistency works. Turns out you don’t have to really get it to just send friendly thoughts to people. You think of someone you like and wish the person to be happy and healthy and peaceful. That’s easy enough. I could do that. So, I did that for a while, just sending out good energy to people and even myself, in a sort of grumbling way, like: “Yeah, I should maybe be happy, too, whatever…”.

So all was well, until I went to a week long meditation retreat in the deep south of Germany with Bhante Nyanabhodi. I signed on on the bases of: I want a retreat, he is a monk, … sold. What I did not know, was that he is the official successor of his teacher Ayya Khema and hence basically running her lineage. I also had no idea that Ayya Khema was known for her very Metta-centered approach to the dhamma training. This is karma for you. I only wanted to go on retreat for a week.
Halfway through the retreat Bhante Nyanabhodi decided to share Ayya Khema’s favorite Metta-practice with us. It was a visualization technique where one imagines a lotus-flower in the middle of ones chest, where the heart is. The flower begins to bloom and sends out light that shines through the whole body, radiating the loving kindness one then shares with other people.
I mean, seriously, a Lotus flower sharing love? Can it possibly get more hippie than that? I remember silently groaning in deep pain to myself, when the instructions unfolded.

However I went along with it thinking something like: “Well, as long as I’m here…”. I come from a strict breath work and Vipassana practice, but I do know a lot of energy visualization techniques from my Tai Chi training. I just never combined both systems. Maybe this is why my approach to this new way of doing Metta meditation proved to be slightly more effective than expected. I basically cried through every meditation for the rest of the week.

After the retreat it took me more than a month to regroup myself and get a grip on my practice again. The results of this simple metta meditation left me in quite a bit of a shock and I still am in awe how such a powerful technique can work in a mind of someone who evolutionary speaking is barley one step ahead of sitting in a tree and wondering why it is not possible to eat stones. This btw, is the reason for the monkey picture I drew and that you find at the top of this post. I like monkeys and I’m really bad at self portraits, so there you go.

Based on my new experience with Metta meditation I have to reconsider a lot that I thought I knew about the Buddhist path. Bhante Nyanabodhi calls Metta the greatest and most powerful integrating force on our way to enlightenment. Especially for us in the West, who are basically divided from others and our self from birth by a society that institutionalizes greed and hate and fear on every step of our childhood.

Also, it is not like this approach to the practice is in any way shape or form new or revolutionary. It is completely in line with the Buddha’s teaching. It is just one more possible way to approach inner development and the Buddha was very clear on this one:

Mettavihari yo bhikkhu pasanno buddhasasane
adhigacche padam santam sankharupasamam sukham.

“The bhikkhu who lives exercising loving-kindness and is devoted to the Teaching of the Buddha will realize Nibbana — the Tranquil, the Unconditioned, the Blissful.”

[Dhammapada Verse 368]

As a last thought I would like to point something out, that Bhante Nyanabodhi said repeatedly during the repeat. He explained that this approach to the Dhamma, a path through Metta, is only for the most brave among the Buddha’s students, since the student has to face his own heart. I thought about this a long time and now I have to agree with him. Whenever I have witnessed a strong warrior backing out of a fight, he was usually facing himself. The more intimate the encounter, the faster the flight. Facing your own heart should therefor be the toughest challenge we can encounter. More than anything else I learned from this experience, I got a certainty that this is the one challenge we cannot run away from forever.

Oh, and btw, I bought another copy of Jack Kornfield’s ‘Path with Heart’ and this time a made it to the second chapter. So, there seems to be hope…

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