On Saturday, at the end of our yoga class, our teacher said she wanted us to close our eyes and go through a Buddhist meditation exercise. I was kind of in a hurry, but what the heck. The world could wait. I fastened my eyes shut.
First, she said, we were all to think of the last time someone made us really happy. I thought about it, breathing steadily and purposefully. It had happened recently.
Next, she said, we were to repeat these sentences over and over, silently, in our minds: I wish to be happy. I wish to be healthy. I wish to be free from pain.
We were silent for a few minutes as we — basically — wished ourselves well. I found I could do that with great enthusiasm.
Next, she directed us to silently recite the same sentences about someone we loved. All right. I wished happiness, health and freedom from pain to someone I loved, over and over, feeling a nice, warm glow.
Then, we moved to those same wishes for someone we didn’t know, someone we had only neutral feelings for. But who? I opened my eyes a slit and noticed the woman to my left. I’d never seen her before. So I closed my eyes and began to wish her well, repeating those phrases once again. It felt good — like a warm light was pouring over me. Clearly, I was a good person, I was enveloping the world around me in love.
Next, our teacher said, we were to wish the same things for a person we didn’t really like. Oh, really? I didn’t want to complain, but this kind of spoiled my feel-g0od, love-the-world mood. But whatever. I shut my eyes and thought about a person I didn’t really like. I envisioned her face and felt my nose start to wrinkle and my lip curl. I wish you to be happy … healthy … free from pain. Oh, sure, I was reciting those words, the way I had before. But my mental voice had taken on a sing-song, sarcastic tone. I lacked — what was it? — oh, yes, sincerity. I felt like I was trying to pry my heart open with a crowbar. It wouldn’t budge. So much for universal bonhomie. My universe of goodwill was going to be lacking a few people here and there. Exceptions to the rule!
“I thought that was quite interesting,” I told the teacher at the end of the class. “It really got to me — especially the part about sending good wishes to someone I don’t like.”
She nodded in a zenlike way. “You realize,” she said, “that it’s not about them. It’s about you.”
Yes, I did realize that — along with something else. I’d grown up in a mainstream Protestant church, told by parents and grandparents and relatives and ministers that I was a miserable sinner, needing to be cleansed of my faults and shortcomings. I was used to that. I’d walked away from it. Who needed that kind of abuse and joylessness?
But this Buddhist meditation! It beguiled you, made you comfortable and warm and almost self-congratulatory about your expansive soul. Then it turned a mirror on you, with a hard, unforgiving light and a reflection that magnified every one of your many and serious flaws. How very effective. How devastating. How perfectly psychological.
You can walk away from a religion that beats you up. Walking away from a new and uncomfortable knowledge of yourself is a lot trickier. Good grief. I’m pretty sure the Buddhists have my number. I just hope the Methodists never find out.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)