Metta -- Loving Kindness --Meditation

by Mark Marion


I remember being in Sunday school at about age six or seven, staring at this framed picture depicting a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus with lustrous hair draped over one eye and a form fitting beige tunic. Jesus is sitting in a meadow surrounded by children, some of whom are on his lap or under his feet. The picture both fascinated me and made me feel slightly queasy. Not only because it seemed fake. ("He's Jewish," I told my mother, "like Ethan," who was my best friend at the time. "Jesus is not supposed to look like Veronica Lake!" My mother was not amused.)

The queasiness I felt was not so much for questioning depictions of Jesus, as for believing that Jesus would never permit someone like me to sit on his lap or play at his feet. Even then I knew only good kids get to romp in the meadows of heaven with Jesus. And little boys who like other little boys and want to get to know other little boys (in the Biblical sense of know) were not welcome.

A flash of memory, like this, will sometimes spontaneously appear in my meditation practice. On longer meditation retreats, but occasionally in daily practice, images from the past (often long forgotten mem ones) will pop up without any conscious intention. I am doing sitting meditation, just watching my breath, and then this film clip from my life will begin to play. So, I bring my attention back to my breath but this doesn't always stop the experience. Some memories are neutral, but often what bubbles up has some energy and emotion connected to it: a wave of grief, fear or anger will grip me for a little time. If I am able to be spacious, non-grasping, it will pass through. At other times, it has a power and energy that can't be ignored and the feeling stays with me for hours or days. Anyone who has been doing meditation practice for a period of time will probably recognize similar experiences.

Metta, or loving kindness meditation, seems to evoke these interruptions. It somehow "hones in" on the experiences from the past where I've closed off or shut down from life in response to some pain or fear. It's as if the softness of loving kindness will bump up against the ways I've hardened myself. And, like water around a stone, gently soften and dissolve a numbness and hardness I have carried, a numbness associated with some past experience of confusion, self-loathing or fear that I had no capacity to handle when it originally occurred. It takes patience to sit with boredom or itches or grocery lists that arise in meditation. It takes courage to sit with pain that arises out of the blue, out of the "doing-nothing-going-nowhere" space of meditation. Yet compassion has a way of finding what I don't want to feel, what I naturally resist, what hurts.

One of the themes that seems to return again and again in Metta, appears in the form of fragments from the past, snapshots of confusion and shame about growing up gay. In one memory I'm a 10-year-old on a camping trip with cousins and brothers-joking, laughing, feeling at ease. My uncle appears in his bathrobe, open in the front. For the first time in my life I notice his chest-broad, matted with dark hair&emdash;and I'm transfixed, fascinated. He notices me noticing him. All of a sudden it seems that everyone is very uncomfortable; the sense of ease, fun and unselfconsciousness of moments before is gone and is replaced by a quiet awkwardness and my embarrassment. My uncle clears his throat loudly about fishing tomorrow. One of my cousins answers and then the circle of talk, of laughter and activity continues again. But now, I am outside of that circle, separate. I no longer feel like part of it. I feel confused and alone.

Another memory&emdash;beginning seventh grade, coming back to school after summer. Everything has changed. Making friends, especially guy friends, which used to be easy is now difficult. Harassment seems to be everyone's favorite activity. I'm now an outsider. I walk too slow, talk too low and won't participate in the male-bonding rituals of one-upsmanship and attacking the vulnerable. "Fag" is everyone's favorite epithet. Now there is a wall around me keeping everyone out. Inside that wall, I'm at war with myself: I know what I am, but I'm unwilling to accept that this could be true.

In Metta, breathing, practicing compassion for myself and all sentient beings, I encounter these memories and I want to pull away, to shut down. When I am able to not resist it, to just let it pass through&emdash;I am almost always grateful. I feel more whole. It helps me to know that the alienation, fear, confusion, and loneliness are in no way unique, not personally mine. Variations of these stories are a universal part of the gay experience. Only the details vary. In Metta, images and emotions that arise are sometimes not from my own past, but are about a friend, a client, or even someone that I have never met, but I feel like I know, like Matthew Shepard. From the perspective of compassion it is the same suffering, the same pain.

I wonder if it's like peeling away layers of an onion which are really layers of suffering, layers of the hardening and contraction that this suffering has created. In meditation, when memories arise spontaneously they find an atmosphere of compassion and acceptance that was entirely missing when the original event occurred. In that moment there was no safe place to express or even recognize the fear or bewilderment or grief. That is why there is the numbness, the hardness, the coldness. In Metta, I visualize the warmth and acceptance of Buddha nature, reaching out to the bewildered gay kids, of the past and present, who are just trying to survive. Alienation, self-loathing, loneliness, threats to safety . . . gay and lesbian people all over the world experience this. In reciting the Metta Sutta, compassion is extended to the suffering of all gay people. "So with a boundless heart, should one cherish all living beings . . . radiating kindness over the entire world . . . outwards and unbounded . . . freed from hatred and ill will."

One of the subtle gifts of meditation practice in general, and Metta in particular, is that I find in myself a greater acceptance, a reclaiming of lost parts of my own history and a greater sense of wholeness.

This is especially important because one of the most harming aspects of homophobia is how it can make us not only strangers to others but to ourselves. A painful self-consciousness, a distrust of one's own natural instincts, can evolve as the result of experiences that teach over and over again that what comes naturally is not understood or welcomed. What is most true about who we are can not only alienate us from those we depend on, but also endanger our safety. Then, to adapt, we learn to suppress our natural way of being and become separated, alienated from it. Here society's good-bad duality that targets homosexuality and all its qualities as bad has penetrated our internal experience and made us divided inside also. Metta, or loving kindness, slowly heals this fissure, slowly closes this divide in myself.

As this hardness I bump up against softens and opens in the warmth of compassion, the pain of estrangement slowly dissolves and I slowly find my way back to the good gay heart.


Mark Marion is a psychotherapist in San Francisco and a practicing Buddhist. This article is excerpted from his "The Bad Buddhist and the Good Gay Heart" which appears in Queer Dharma 2, edited by Winston Leyland.


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