As fall transitions into winter here in Seattle, a literal cloud of darkness settles over the lives of many people in the city. That makes it a perfect time to explore meditations on mettā, or loving-kindness, and gratitude.
My practice usually tends toward mindfulness of breathing as a method of calming and centering the mind, followed by open awareness exercise, simply noticing the ever-changing nature of phenomena. If my practice is going well, the switch to open awareness is relatively quick, after just a couple minutes. If my practice is a bit weak, I can spend a whole meditation period just coming back to the breath again and again.
With the disappearing sunlight, though, a sort of gloom can descend on me as a long-time sufferer of mild SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). In these times, the mindfulness practice seems a tiny bit foggy and forced; shifts to open awareness are dull when they occur, lacking the bright energy of a well-balanced emotional state.
When I notice this, I shift my practice to loving-kindness in formal meditation and seek out things to be grateful for in my daily life. This home, food, family, a wonderful partner. Things too easily taken for granted, but things and people that sustain me and whatever help I am able to offer others in the world.
Part of the background story to the loving-kindness practice taught by the Buddha is a story of monks going to a forest to meditate and being scared off by frightful tree spirits there. When the monks came to the Buddha asking what they should do, the Buddha sent them right back into that frightening forest: this time armed with the practice on loving-kindness. The practice radiated out into the forest, taming the spirits, thus protecting the monks. And to this day, the mettā sutta can be chanted as a sort of immediate protection charm for any number of difficulties one might have.
Recently I was reminded of that background story by a Zen priest here in Seattle, Seiho Morris. His added wisdom was that the forest we face today is as real and fearful as those the monks encountered 2500 years ago. For us in Seattle it is the urban forest, the disconnection wrought by so much concrete and so many new faces each day, the traffic and, of course, the legendary grey skies that settle in over the city for seemingly two-thirds of the year. With that, the words resonate anew:
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
The simplest of things: able, upright, gentle in speech, humble, easily satisfied, unburdened and frugal…. So simple, but so powerful insofar as they are distant from the norms of our society, especially lately it seems. So when the seasons give me an opportunity, I take it to reflect on these basic values and where my life is in respect to them. No judgement, just seeing. Seeing and adjusting. Adjusting and opening the heart toward its natural state of warmth toward all.