Loving-kindness contemplation

All this thinking about karma makes me wonder about what I left for the students who came after me; I’d like to make it better. I’ve come to campus today to try a “loving-kindness contemplation,” an exercise to improve both personal and shared karmas.

I was introduced to the contemplation a few nights earlier during a “joy class” at a center directly across the street from campus. This particular organization teaches a version of Buddhism tailored for a secular audience. While its founders claim that the practices are rooted in the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, they have been tweaked and elaborated upon to appeal to Westerners, particularly those who might want to focus on the benefit to society at large. Individuals are taught a variety of contemplative tools not just to promote their own joy and peace, but to help create a culture of kindness, generosity, and courage.

They call those who engage in this work “spiritual warriors.” I can see why they say it requires bravery: to do it properly one must face painful realities. I had thought reviewing my past behaviors and actions would be the hardest task but I see now that those never existed in isolation. My private dramas were unfolding alongside these communal events, their causes and effects crisscrossing and overlapping in mysterious ways. Did those events influence me? Did my thoughts and actions contribute to them? A Buddhist would answer “yes” to both—though no one can know precisely how or to what extent.

Having come to the end of my recollections of my college years, my heart feels a bit battered and sore. This, I am told, is a good place to start. In my joy class, I learned that spiritual warriors are those willing to wade through the muck turned up by their own tender hearts. It is important to keep going even when the journey gets tough, to learn to dwell in the discomfort. This is fertile ground for compassion.

A loving-kindness contemplation transforms the pain into something positive. You might channel it as contentment or good will or the absence of suffering, but the idea is to share the feelings that radiate from an open heart in some systematic fashion; experts generally suggest starting with a recipient for whom it is easier to summon kind feelings and move out from there.

In the version we practiced in class, guided by the instructor, we were told to start with ourselves by thinking these words: “May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.” For about a minute I concentrated on that sentiment, but I couldn’t feel any tenderness for myself. My heart softened when we were told to repeat the statement, but replace ourselves with someone we love. Then we were instructed to direct happiness to those for whom our emotions are “neutral” and, finally, to those we find “challenging.” I was able to scrape up a sense of compassion for both categories—certainly more so than I had for myself.

Sitting on Sproul Plaza, I put my own spin on the exercise. My recollections have left a delicate ache in my chest, and I know I must use that sensation. As uncomfortable as it might seem, I must kindle it—cup my palms around that spark and see if I can’t help it ignite. Because I’ve been thinking of the earthquake and the fires, I turn that raw softness to the victims of those tragedies. I expand my feelings to encompass everyone affected by those events, all who were attending school here at the time or lived in the region. Then I think of the participants in my joy class, some of whom seemed so sad, and I send them this warmth that oozes from my broken heart. I offer it to all the students, every drop of the river that continues to flow through this institution. The flame of my tenderness is stoked; now I picture a map of the United States and I see it spread out from where I sit. I send it across the land and over the ocean; it travels North, South, East and West. I keep going until the light that emanates from my heart wraps around the entire globe.

At the end, I have one person yet to be officially included: me.

Then I realize there’s no reason to treat myself separately. By extending my compassion to everyone, I’ve included myself. I’m part of the network of humanity. When I see it like that, I feel a surge of sympathy for the girl I was and the woman I am. I’m just another person doing the best she can.

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Karma

I can track my college career by tragedies. A few weeks after the start of my freshman, a violent earthquake collapsed a section of the Bay Bridge and part of the freeway in Oakland. It flattened houses and set businesses ablaze. I was walking to class when it hit; I tripped and blamed the uneven sidewalk.

My sophomore year began with a fire in a fraternity house that killed three students. Just a couple weeks later, and within a few short blocks, a terrifying situation took place in a popular bar. A psychotic gunman held hostage 33 people, most students. After seven hours of terror, police managed to bust in and the deranged man was shot dead—as was a student who took a bullet to the chest.

How does that kind of fear and destruction affect us? Some are touched directly. The victims whose time was cut short, their family and friends—those lives are obviously altered to some degree or another. What about everyone else? The quake killed 63 people, injured almost 4,000, and left many homeless (some estimates of those needing shelter were as high as 12,000). But in ways difficult to fathom, none of us was left unscathed. Aftershocks of that and the other tragedies rippled out.

Fall semester of my junior year, another fire tore through the Oakland and Berkeley hills. I watched its progression from the window of my second-story apartment south of campus on Telegraph Avenue. The tenets of my building were asked to prepare for evacuation. We waited for further word, our radios dialed to pick up what our eyes couldn’t. I saw the fire come around the bend from Oakland toward the houses on the hills above like some hungry dragon laying waste to everything in its path. It was sneaking up on a house I had always admired, a Victorian painted crisp white against the dark hillside. I told myself the fire would stop before it got there; that house was special, it deserved to survive. Then the trees around the house ignited as easily as birthday candles and a few seconds later the roof was smoking. Too soon, it was nothing but the outline of a house, everything but its frame consumed by an inferno within, leaving a skeleton against a bright white light. The only other time I can remember feeling as helpless, horrified, and heartbroken as that moment was watching live footage of the twin towers collapse on September 11, 2001.

I still recall the pieces of burned things that rained down for days after the fire was contained. Even after the sky began to clear, slowly turning from dark grey to hazy orange, bits of blackened stuff floated through the air. I snatched one of these items as it fluttered past me on campus. It was part of a page from a book, charred illegible and so delicate it crumbled in my hand.

Had we somehow brought these events upon ourselves? Related to Buddha’s theory of causation, is the concept of “karma.” It’s the application of Buddha’s theory on a personal level: an individual’s actions and thoughts affect the events that occur in that person’s life. According to this idea, the students and the people of this community, area, and region were responsible in some way for the misfortunes that were befalling us. Had the 25 people killed in the fire done something awful to deserve their fates? What about the thousands whose homes were destroyed? Taken too literally, the concept of karma can seem to blame those who suffer tragedy. Cancer patients grow their own tumors. Jews caused the Holocaust. Thankfully, I’m told that’s far too simplistic a take on karma. There’s personal karma, but there’s also collective karma, which are social and historical forces too broad and complex for sorting through and allotting culpability. Personal and collective karmas crash and mix in unpredictable and mysterious ways.