How the Netflix Show Atypical Reminds Me of the Metta Sutta

When he says things like “Most people I meet don’t even try to get me,” I find it really powerful and that statement hits me really hard. I’m not trying to write about Atypical, but I wanted to write about it to tell you this. Sam is sort of obsessed with Antarctica (In the same way that I’m sort of obsessed with Buddhism, I guess).

 

By Daniel Scharpenburg

I started watching this show on Netflix called Atypical.

When I say “started watching” I mean I watched all 18 episodes in this month (I like Netflix a lot). It’s a coming of age tale about a teenager named Sam who is on the autism spectrum. The autism community has had different reactions to this show. Some people really don’t like it, saying it’s too stereotypical or they should cast someone who is actually autistic in the lead role, although there are autistic people in the cast, the actor that plays Sam isn’t one of them. He’s a good actor though.

Anyway, I’m not one of those naysayers. I like it a lot and I find Sam to be really relatable. When he says things like “Most people I meet don’t even try to get me,” I find it really powerful and that statement hits me really hard.

I’m not trying to write about Atypical, but I wanted to write about it to tell you this. Sam is sort of obsessed with Antarctica (In the same way that I’m sort of obsessed with Buddhism, I guess)

So, he says this:

“When I’m stressed, I recite the four species of Antarctic penguin. Adelie, Chinstrap, Emperor and Gentoo. It helps. Mom taught me when I was little. You should try it next time you think you’re dying. Except if you really are dying, it won’t help at all.”

He recites these penguin names when he’s upset—just recites them over and over until he feels better. It gives him something to focus on until he has a chance to calm down.

This makes me think of early Buddhism.

There’s a teaching the Buddha gave that’s called The Metta Sutta. Metta is usually translated as “loving kindness.” That’s kind of a clunky term, I think, but it’s supposed to express that this is more than just regular kindness.

The story behind it is that some monks went to meditate in the woods at night and they got scared. They were afraid there were ghosts around because it was spooky. So they went to the Buddha and asked what they should do. He presented kindness as an antidote to fear.

How’d it work?

The monks memorized the teaching and recited it whenever they started to feel scared. Just reflecting on kindness and harmony made them feel better. They distracted themselves from their imaginary fears and we can do that too. The implication in the story, I think, is that these ghosts the monks are afraid of aren’t real. So, all they really need is this distraction to keep themselves from worrying about them.

They just recite this text in the same way that Sam recites the penguin names in Atypical.

The Metta Sutta

“This is what should be done

By one who is skilled in goodness,

And who seeks the path of peace:

Let them be able and upright,

Straightforward and gentle in speech.

Humble and not conceited,

 

Contented and easily satisfied,

with few responsibilities and easy going,

grounded, and not impulsive;

not chasing status

 

And not doing the slightest thing

which is denounced by the Wise in others

May they have happiness and peace;

May all beings be happy in themselves

 

Whatever living beings there are

fearful or fearless—without remainder

Huge, large,

medium, small. Fine or coarse.

 

Seen or unseen,

Remote or living nearby,

Born or seeking birth:

May all beings be happy in themselves

 

Let none deceive another,

Or despise any being in any state.

Let none through anger or ill-will

Wish harm upon another.

 

Like a mother’s own child,

[she will] protect that only child with her life

Thus for all beings should

the heart become infinite

 

Radiating kindness over the entire world

Spreading upwards to the skies,

And downwards to the depths;

Outwards and unbounded,

Freed from hatred and ill-will.

 

Standing, or going, or seated, or lying down,

as long as one is free from drowsiness,

one should practice this mindfulness.

This, they say, is the holy state here.

 

Not falling into views,

ethical and with perfect vision

Having given up greed for sensory pleasures,

freed without doubt from birth.”

 

That short text is the Buddha’s teaching on how to live a life of virtue. When those monks were afraid of ghosts in the woods, he gave them this teaching for two reasons.

One was to help them distract themselves from their fears. But he also wanted to make sure he was giving them something useful as well. So, it works on two levels, and because he gave them something useful to repeat, it has come down to us as a teaching.

In the days of early Buddhism it’s one of the texts that got shared a lot by both monks and laypeople. Teachings like this, on virtue, can benefit everyone. I’d say one doesn’t even have to be Buddhist to get a lot out of this text.

The first verse in particular is my favorite:

“This is what should be done

By one who is skilled in goodness,

And who seeks the path of peace:

Let them be able and upright,

Straightforward and gentle in speech.

Humble and not conceited”

We could all be more straightforward, gentle and humble. The world needs a lot more of that. I’m not sure if I’m capable of memorizing the whole thing like those monks did, but I’d like to get that first verse down to repeat to myself when I’m anxious or afraid.


 

Photo: Netflix

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

 

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Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel lives in Kansas City. His background is in the Zen tradition and he was empowered to teach by the Dharma Winds Zen Sangha. He runs Fountain City Meditation. He has experience leading meditation events, giving dharma talks, and doing koan study.

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