Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

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For some months, Mitchell and I talked about Still Water holding a weekly lunchtime Metta meditation in Lafayette Square in front of the White House. Between the weather, schedules, and my niggling embarrassment at meditating in public, we decided in the fall to hold off. But given recent events in our country’s political life, I feel compelled to go and sit.

Is sitting Metta meditation a meaningful act of social engagement given the exigencies that exist in our country right now? I hope so. This meditation sends Metta, which is lovingkindness, to ourselves and then to our loved ones, our acquaintances, our enemies, and all beings with the hope of bringing us and them well-being and freedom from suffering. A version from Jack Kornfield goes:

May I be filled with lovingkindness
May I be well in body and mind
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers
May I be truly happy and free

In doing this meditation, we aren’t simply wishing these things to be true, we are asking ourselves how we can make them real and what stands in the way of them coming to be. It’s a way of taking stock of the health of our own bodies, hearts, and minds, and of the health of those around us. It can help us transform our basest qualities—greed, anger, and ignorance—into our highest aspirations—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. This practice helps foster insight into our own relationship with lovingkindness toward ourselves and toward others so we can take corrective action. It can reset attitudes of anger and judgement into openness, curiosity, and understanding.

According to the great spiritual teachers, seeking social change through violence or ill-will can only foster more suffering. The transformative powers of Metta meditation mean it is a real antidote to today’s social and political ills. As the quotations from Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., below convey, meditation is action; and love, when combined with action, can create lasting social change. By building our ability to love ourselves and others, we can demand justice and call out unskillful actions and speech, but we can do so from a place of love and understanding, not of hate and condemnation.

Sitting Metta meditation in Lafayette Square is not an action against President Trump, but instead an effort to promote lovingkindness in ourselves and in our national life. Practicing Metta is a call for all of us to generate lovingkindness and treat each other with the respect and decency each human, and each nonhuman, is inherently due as part of an inextricably interconnected world. We each have our deep failings and have acted with breathtaking unskillfulness—President Trump has not cornered that market. In fact, in sitting in Metta meditation, we sit with the energies we share with President Trump—a desire to be happy and love of family and country. We sit to better understand, grow, and extend these energies, working with our own misunderstandings, limitations, and edges. We know that we make countless errors in our speech and actions and that we each carry our own prejudices and ignorance from our ancestors, and so we sit in humility and aspiration, not in accusation.

As an unofficial Still Water event, you’re invited to join us this Thursday from 12:00 to 12:30 pm at the southwestern edge of Lafayette Square on Pennsylvania Avenue (just down the street from the Renwick Gallery) to practice Metta meditation. Bring something to sit on, as we will likely sit on the ground. You’re also invited to join us for this Thursday’s evening at Crossings, where we will practice Metta meditation and then discuss how we hold these times as socially engaged mindfulness practitioners. What are we doing in our daily lives to respond constructively to what is before us? What lets us act from love, and what stops us? How can we as a community meet this moment to be worthy of our tradition and to create the future we want to see?

I hope you can join us at either or both of the sittings on Thursday,

Scott Schang

Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that man is the sum of his actions. This is very similar to our Fourth Remembrance [of the Five Remembrances]: we have to give up everything and everyone we love. All we take with us and all we leave behind are the fruits of our thought, speech, and action during our lifetime. That is our karma, our continuation. When a cloud is polluted, the rain is polluted. Purifying thoughts, words, and actions create a beautiful continuation.

Buddhism uses the word “karma.” Karma is action—action as cause and action as effect. When action is a cause, we call it karmahetu. That thought, speech, or act will have an effect on our mental and physical health and on the health of the world. And that effect, bitter or sweet, wholesome or unwholesome, is the fruit of the karma, the fruit of the thought—karmaphala. We are continued into the future through the effects of our thoughts, speech, and actions.

Thought and speech are forms of action. When we produce a thought that is full of anger, fear, or despair, it has an immediate effect on our health and on the health of the world. Painful thoughts can be very powerful, affecting our bodies, our minds, and the world. We should make an effort not to produce these kinds of thoughts too often. If you’ve said something that’s not worthy of you, say something else today, and that will transform everything. A positive thought will bring us physical and mental health, and it will help the world heal itself.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?,” Delivered at the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention, Atlanta, GA, Aug. 16, 1967

Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. But there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly.

You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love.

Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. (Yes) Power at its best [applause], power at its best is love (Yes) implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. (Speak) And this is what we must see as we move on.

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