Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Seventy-two labors of Zen

Here’s a brief exercise to help you appreciate how dependent you are on the energy and hard work of others:

1. Begin by settling comfortably and taking a few deep breaths.
2. Bring to mind some modern convenience that you find indispensable. It may be your car, your computer, or your cellphone.
3. Reflect for a few moments on how important this object is to you and what your life would be like without it. Sure, you could always get another one, but right now you depend on this particular object — it’s the only one you have.
4. Think of all the people and hard work that contributed to creating this object, from raw material to finished product. If it’s your car, for example, you can think first of the miners in various parts of the world, possibly working in difficult circumstances, who extracted the iron and chromium and other ores that make up the metal. Then you can imagine the steel and iron workers who mixed the alloys and forged the parts. You can also imagine the oil workers who drilled the oil and the plastic workers who synthesized and then cast the plastic for the steering wheel, dashboard, and other plastic components. Next, you can imagine the engineers who designed your car and the autoworkers who put it together, part by part — and so on.
5. Take a few moments to appreciate these people. Sure, they got paid for what they did, but they also contributed their precious life energy. Without their love, sweat, and dedication, you would not have a car to drive. You may feel moved to thank them for their gifts. As you can imagine, you could spend quite a few minutes reflecting on the “innumerable labors” that brought you this car — or this computer or cellphone. The point, of course, is to reflect with gratitude and appreciation on your interdependence — on all the many ways that you depend on the energy and dedication and good intentions of others to make it through your day. When you’ve spent some time reflecting in this way, you may find that you see even simple things through fresh eyes.

Remembering the goodness in someone

Here’s an exercise that’s designed to evoke appreciation in even the most stubbornly negative person:
1. Begin by settling comfortably and taking a few deep breaths.
2. Spend a few minutes reviewing all the good things that happened to you in the past 24 hours. You may recall a moment when someone treated you with love or kindness — maybe it was a friend or family member or just a person in a store or on the street. Perhaps you’re reminded of some simple pleasure, like eating a good meal or seeing the sunlight in the trees or the smile on a baby’s face.
3. Reflect in the same detail on all the good things you did during the same 24-hour period.
4. Allow yourself to feel appreciation and gratitude for these special moments.
5. Reflect in the same way on the previous week. Continue to breathe while you recall all the good things that happened. If negative memories come up, set them aside for now.
6. If you have enough time, gradually extend the meditation to the past month, the past year — the past two years, the past five. Recall as much as possible all the pleasant, happy, joyful moments, as well as all the good things you did and all the ways you were gifted or supported by others.
7. Allow feelings of gratitude and appreciation to well up in your heart. If you have plenty of time, you can extend the meditation to include your whole life. Of course, you won’t be able to remember all the good things, but be sure to cover all the headline events, including the ways that your parents nurtured and supported you and made it possible for you to grow into the person you are today. If you have resentment toward one or both of your parents, do the forgiveness meditation in the previous section.

Forgiveness: The universal solvent

If resentment — which is just another word for old anger that has built up over the months and years — is the gunk that clogs the free flow of love in and out of your heart, then forgiveness is the universal solvent that washes it away. You may harbor resentment for one person in particular or for a room full of people, harkening all the way back to early childhood. Whatever your situation, you can dissolve the resentment if you choose — but you have to be willing! To make it easier, you may want to begin by including the people you resent in your lovingkindness meditation. (See the section “How to Generate Love for Yourself and Others” earlier in this chapter, or listen to the lovingkindness track on the CD.) And guess what? Here again, you may discover that the person you most need to love and forgive is yourself. Here’s a meditation to help you dissolve resentment, hurt, and guilt and open your heart again to yourself and others:

1. As usual, begin by sitting comfortably, taking a few deep breaths, relaxing your body, and closing your eyes.
2. Allow images and memories of words, actions, and even thoughts for which you’ve never forgiven yourself to float through your mind.
Perhaps you hurt someone you loved and drove him away or took something that didn’t belong to you or said no to an opportunity and later regretted it.
3. Reflect on how much suffering you’ve caused and how much you may have suffered yourself. Allow yourself to feel any pain or remorse.
4. Gently and wholeheartedly extend forgiveness to yourself, using words like the following:
“I forgive you for all the mistakes you’ve made and all the suffering you’ve caused. I forgive you for all the pain you’ve caused others, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I know that you’ve learned and grown; now it’s time to move on. I forgive you! May you be happy and joyful. I take you back into my heart.” (Here and elsewhere, feel free to use your own words, if you prefer.)
5. Open your heart to yourself and allow yourself to fill with love.
Feel the clouds around your heart dispersing.
6. Imagine a person you love toward whom you feel some resentment.
Reflect on how that person may have hurt you. Reflect also on how many times you’ve hurt others in a similar way.
7. Gently allow the clouds around your heart to continue dispersing as you wholeheartedly extend forgiveness to this person, using words like the following:
“I forgive you for the ways that you’ve caused me pain, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I know that I too have hurt others and let them down. With my whole heart, I forgive you. May you be happy and joyful. I take you back into my heart.” Feel your heart opening once again to this person.
8. Imagine someone whose forgiveness you need.
Perhaps you hurt or mistreated him in some way.
9. Gently ask his forgiveness in words like the following:
“Please forgive me for what I did or said to cause you pain, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I ask your forgiveness. Please take me back into your heart.”
10. Imagine this person’s heart opening to you and the love flowing freely back and forth between you once again.
11. Imagine someone toward whom you feel great resentment — someone, perhaps, whom you’ve excluded from your heart because of how he once hurt you.
12. Gently allow the clouds around your heart to disperse, and wholeheartedly extend forgiveness to this person, as described in Step 7.
13. Reflect on all the many people toward whom you’ve closed your heart because of the pain they seemingly caused you.
Feel all the layers of resentment and pain that have built up around your heart over the years.
14. Reflect on all the many ways that you’ve acted as they did.
15. Imagine all these people in front of you, and, with your whole heart, forgive them all and ask their forgiveness in words like the following:
“I forgive you for whatever you may have done to cause me pain, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I forgive you. Please forgive me. May we open our hearts to one another and live together in peace and harmony.” Again, feel your heart opening wide and allow love to flow freely between you.
16. Take a few moments to breathe deeply and rest your attention in your heart before getting up and going about your day.

Instead of doing the full forgiveness meditation presented here, you can just extend forgiveness to particular people as the situation requires. But every time you practice forgiveness, be sure to include some for yourself.