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Metta Month: Unite for Peace in the Middle East

Having conversations about Israel and Palestine is fraught, to say the least. (Jon Stewart nailed it the other week.) I find myself experiencing different kinds of quick reactions to articles, Facebook posts, invitations to attend demonstrations and protests. I keep noticing in myself a strong wanting to know which “side” is right, who to be angry with, who to defend, who in my life I need to convince of what. This does nothing to actually contribute to healing.

I traveled to Israel in March, on Birthright. I went because I wanted to explore my relationship to Judaism. I felt conflicted about going, I felt conflicted when I was there, and I still feel conflicted. I don't think that's going to change anytime soon. I'm working on allowing that conflict to be present.

Here’s what I’m not conflicted about.

This week I offered metta instruction to a group of 16 students in Astoria, Queens. (In metta practice we offer phrases of good will towards different people, and we notice what it is like to do that in the body, heart, mind.) We began with a mentor figure/trusted friend, then ourselves, then a neutral person, then a difficult person, then all four together, then included everyone in the room, and then opened outward to include everyone who had ever visited or would visit the space where we were practicing, everyone in Astoria, Queens, and further outward to include all beings everywhere.

Many of us reflected afterwards that it was very challenging. Some people and groups were easier to extend good will towards than others. We explored this together: it seemed so hard to hold space for that many people, especially neutral people, difficult people, those we don’t know, people we don’t come into direct contact with in our daily lives.

It makes sense that this is challenging. It's also something we can work with.

In her book, Lovingkindness, Sharon Salzberg explains the Pali roots of the word metta.

The first root meaning is “gentle.” Salzberg likens this to a gentle rain that falls indiscriminately on everything and everyone. It does not favor one person over another. It is not passionate and possessive. It is not sentimental, only seeking to rain on those it likes. It is open and unobstructed.

The second root meaning is “friend.” To me, a friend is someone who, in her heart and in her actions, wishes for us to have what we need in order to be happy.

What if we could have that kind of attitude towards all?

This doesn’t mean we approve of or condone the behavior of those who act in harmful ways. We can have an awareness of that AND acknowledge that the person causing harm is, like us, a human being who wants to be happy. This also doesn’t mean we have to become self-sacrificing, because we don’t actually privilege anyone over anyone else. We extend good will equally towards all, including ourselves.

This also doesn't mean that we never make decisions or take action. But let our decisions and actions also hold space for the recognition of how we are alike, rather than only how we are different. 

Maybe it sounds naive or mushy or unrealistic. But what's the alternative to acknowledging the shared connection between all beings? We already know what the alternative is. It isn't working. 

Whoever we think is the wrong-doer, the person who started it, the person who is causing the most suffering, the person who doesn’t get it and is wrong and here’s why. They, too, are a human being who wants to be happy.

In this spirit, I’ll be attending this peace gathering this Sunday August 10th, Unite for Peace in the Middle East, organized by the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. They are doing trauma relief work in Gaza and Israel. (You can read about the great need for trauma relief work in this NY Times article.) The agenda for the day includes interfaith prayer, several different speakers, compassion practice, nonviolent communication training, and more. I’m hopeful that this gathering is being organized with wise intentions to help all beings heal, and to create a space for compassionate conversation to emerge. 

Image sources [1] and [2]

August is Metta month at IDP. Practice metta with is every day. More info here.

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