Over the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing ways to approach what Tara Brach calls the Gateway of Truth. Tonight we’ll continue our discussion of her book True Refuge by starting to explore the Gateway of Love. Chapter Nine describes how to meet our fears lovingly.
We enter the Gateway of Love with a poem by Hafiz:
How did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give the world
All its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light
Against its Being.
We all remain
Tara recounts the story of Ram Dass, who, after four decades of spiritual practice and leadership, had a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1997. When I met him at the Insight Meditation Society in the early 90s, I was impressed by his wit, warmth and vitality. Suddenly he was deprived of self-sufficiency, speech, and mobility, and he could no longer play his beloved cello. His initial response to such powerlessness was a mixture of fear and despair.
And then he turned to Maharijji (Neem Karoli Baba), the Indian guru who had given him his Hindu name and who had died 24 years earlier. As he spoke to his guru’s photo, Ram Dass felt the peace and grace of Maharijji’s ever-loving presence. Connecting with being loved and his own capacity to love gave Ram Dass strength and courage to resume his spiritual quest. (For an in-depth account of this journey, I highly recommend his book Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying.)
Focusing on loving thoughts has neurological benefits. Neurophysiologists have found that when people practice loving kindness or compassion meditation, the left frontal cortex, which is deactivated during trauma, lights up. This brain activity is correlated with subjective feelings of happiness and peace. Other neurological studies show that a 20-second hug stimulates the production of oxytocin, the hormone associated with feelings of love and safety. When we simply imagine being hugged or sense our own tender touch on the cheek or the chest, ocytocin is released. Through visualizations, words, or touch, meditation on love changes brain activity so that positive emotions arise and traumatic reactivity is reduced.
In my practice of Guided Imagery and Music, I have the honor to witness people transcending fear and connecting with their own inner resources and wisdom. I do my best to provide an atmosphere of loving acceptance for inner musical journeys to unfold spontaneously. One of my clients in Mexico was frightened about severe pain in his colon. He gave me permission to share his story of healing:
As he listened to Shostakovich’s third quartet, “Angel” visualized the violin’s jagged melodic lines twisting into knots like his knotted intestines. Dissonant harmonies provoked coughing, and he reported what his painful colon was expressing, “I’m stuck and static. I want to move!” In the slow movement of Beethoven’s third Piano Concerto, he felt compassion for his embattled colon, which he imagined softening and transforming into its natural state. During a final playful piece by Prokofiev, Angel stroked his belly tenderly. He left the session with new awareness and confidence. His colon had been carrying stuck energy associated with his tyrannical father; it was now loosening up and freeing itself, just as Angel was individuating after his father’s death. Through bringing loving kindness to his pain, Angel no longer perceived his colon as an affliction separate from himself. He realized that his colon was a helpful ally for transcending childhood wounds.
Tara says that fear arises from a sense of separateness, and it fades when we perceive our connectedness to others and to life. She includes a loving kindness meditation aimed at developing our capacity to receive love and to trust that we belong to the web of life:
Sit comfortably and close your eyes, breathing fully.
With gentle attention, scan your body and mind, noticing whatever fear or vulnerability you may be feeling….
Connect with your longing to feel safe, protected, and loved.
Then remember a place—in the world or in your imagination—where you are deeply at home. It might be a spot in nature or in your bedroom, a coffee shop or a church.
Take some moments to evoke it with all your senses, imagining the forms and colors, the scents and sounds of your healing place. Let yourself be held by the peaceful, comforting or beautiful energy around you.
Now imagine the face or sense the presence of anyone who helps you to feel loved and safe. It might be your grandmother, a beloved teacher, your dog or a dear friend.
It could be a spiritual figure like the Buddha, Kwan-yin (the bodhisattva of compassion, or Jesus.
Sense this loving presence perceiving your vulnerability and your longing for safe refuge. Look into their eyes and receive a message of love: “I am here with you, and I care about you.” Imagine this presence offering kindness directly to any doubts or fears that might arise. Let loving energy surround you and hold you in a safe embrace. Take some moments to absorb the love and ease that is being offered.
Now, softly place your hand over your heart or on your cheek, receiving the touch as a sign of their care and protection.
With this inner preparation for receiving love, let us turn our attention to this week’s celebration of Thanksgiving. Consider that all around the world countless living beings are longing to be safe, healthy and happy. As we count our blessings, let’s send them Metta or loving kindness prayers:
May all beings be peaceful and happy.
May all beings be healthy in body and mind.
From inner and outer harm, may all beings be safe.
From suffering and its causes, may all beings be free.
Sensing our connection to the web of life reminds us to be grateful.
In his book The Art of Forgiveness, Kindness and Peace, Jack Kornfield writes about Buddhist monks who begin each day with a chant of gratitude for the blessings of their life. Native American elders begin each ceremony with grateful prayers to mother earth and father sky, to the four directions, to the animal, plant, and mineral brothers and sisters who share our earth and support our life. In Tibet, monks and nuns even offer prayers of gratitude for the suffering they have been given: “Grant that I might have enough suffering to awaken in me the deepest possible compassion and wisdom.”
Jack says, “Gratitude is a gracious acknowledgment of all that sustains us, a bow to our blessings, great and small, an appreciation of the moments of good fortune that sustain our life every day….Gratitude is confidence in life itself. In it, we feel how the same force that pushes grass through cracks in the sidewalk invigorates our own life. Gratitude gladdens the heart. It is not sentimental, not jealous, nor judgmental. Gratitude does not envy or compare. It receives in wonder the myriad offerings of the rain and the earth, the care that supports every single life.”
An Ojibway Indian mused, “Sometimes I go about pitying myself, and all the while I am being carried by great winds across the sky.”
May we all remember that we are supported by the universe.