“May I be healthy. May I be at ease. May I make wise choices. May I avoid blame.”
I silently repeated these words as I sat with a few hundred other meditators in the main hall at Spirit Rock, an insight meditation center in West Marin. I’ve attended weekly women’s groups, several daylong workshops and a short residential retreat there. And for the past two Januaries this is where Harlan and I have spent New Year’s Day: meditating, doing gentle yoga, and listening to renowned Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein give dharma talks (teachings of the Buddha), tell entertaining stories, and grace us with her signature throaty laugh. She is a delight, and it’s a lovely and intentional way to start the year.
The words I spoke in my head are a particular form of meditation called metta, or loving-kindness meditation. Metta is a practice of sending wishes of well-being out to the world, starting with yourself. I view it as a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. After repeating the mantra (which can be any phrases of your choosing) several times you then send metta to someone you love, to an acquaintance, to a difficult person, and eventually to all sentient beings.
When I first tried metta I found starting with myself extremely difficult. I had so much self-judgment and so little self-worth that it was much easier for me to skip straight to offering loving thoughts to others. This year I noticed that practicing metta toward myself felt good. I was filled with warmth and my loving thoughts were genuine. I found that starting with me made it even easier to send love out to others. It created an abundance of love. It’s lovely to see that all of the work that I’ve done in recent years has led to such a notable improvement in how I feel about myself.
At one point during the meditation Sylvia instructed us to send metta to one of the other attendees in the room. I glanced behind me and noticed someone checking the football score on his phone. My initial reaction was to feel a flicker of judgment. Everyone else in the hall had their eyes closed, focused on the task at hand. We’re in a meditation hall for a day dedicated to the practice of mindfulness and he’s on his phone? But then I considered that he might be experiencing difficulty with the practice. Perhaps his own discomfort was preventing him from being present. He might have been unhappy with himself the way I used to be. Or maybe he just really needed to know how his team was doing. As soon as I acknowledged that there were many possible reasons for his distraction my judgment turned to compassion. It didn’t matter why he was looking at his phone. It had no bearing on my experience, unless I allowed it to. And compassion, for ourselves and others, is the goal, isn’t it?
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore. I stopped when I realized that they’re kind of a recipe for disaster. You can read more about that here. All that pressure to achieve a particular goal can easily lead to failure. So I don’t make resolutions, but I do set intentions. Intention feels positive, hopeful and more likely to lead to growth. Intention leaves room for falling down, picking yourself back up and beginning again.
My intention for this year is to take empowered action in my life. Empowered because I believe in myself, and action to remind myself to take concrete steps towards growth experiences. I intend to practice this with my writing, my marriage, my parenting, and my connection to others. In terms of writing this might look like scheduling time to write every day, signing up for more workshops and classes, sharing my work in new ways, starting a memoir. In my personal life I intend to work on controlling my narrative, rewriting the unhelpful stories I sometimes tell myself. “The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master” is a quote that resonates with me. For several years, particularly while I was sick but often even when I wasn’t, I felt like I didn’t have control over my life, that I was at the mercy of my circumstances, and I doubted myself. But I’m done with that mentality. I will no longer let my thoughts dictate my actions. I will stretch myself and push forward, even when it’s scary, and even when my mind tries to make me feel small.