By Kellie Schorr
In the Deep Midwinter is a 4 week series on the Four Immeasurables as a Buddhist meditation in the tradition of Advent, a Christian season of introspection the weeks prior to Christmas.
While having my teeth cleaned, the dental hygienist and I had the following exchange:
“So, are you ready for Christmas?”
“Well, I’m a Buddhist, but I do have lights on the house and lots of candy around. We will put up a tree on the 8th, which is Bodhi Day in some traditions, although in January for others.”
“You don’t celebrate Christmas?”
“I don’t celebrate the story of the baby born in the manger, but I do celebrate light in darkness, and goodness born in the midst of troubled times.”
“Oh. I don’t think I’ve met a Buddhist before. How did you get into that?”
(Only in the deep south do people make being a Buddhist sound like falling into a vat of chemicals)
“It’s just who I am.”
When I was finished the hygienist stood up to leave, gave me a kind smile and said, “See you in 6 months, ma’am. Have a merry Christmas.”
Christmas. It’s everywhere.
From deadly-kiss mistletoe hanging over the door at the post-office to “Best Christmas Horror Movies” on Netflix, no one is dismissed by the baby, the manger, the myths, the traditions, the cooking, the music, the lines, and that weird reindeer with the red nose. The more people try to “block it out” the more obsessed and angry they become with the whole holly jolly thing.
The better way is to just be, and let it be. When those two circles of being intersect, find the similarities and things that nurture you, and let the rest go like crumpled up gift wrap.
For Christians, the four weeks prior to Christmas day are set aside as Advent––with a universal theme for each week—to go deep to the heart of what this season really means. The four weeks, often marked by candles: are Peace, Hope, Joy and Love. For Buddhists, we have a list of four as well—one that shows us how to give meaning and reduce suffering in the world.
Our list is the Four Immeasurables: Lovingkindness (Metta), Compassion (Karuna), Sympathetic Joy (Mudita), and Equanimity (Upekkha).
In the deep midwinter seven major religions have holidays or sacred rituals around the same time. The practices are different. The food and requirements vary. The one thing they all have in common is light. The star of Bethlehem shining over the babe of Christmas, the oil lamp of Hanukah celebrating the light that didn’t go out, the Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha Gautama become enlightened, the burning yule log of Solstice, the fire temple of Zartosht No-Diso, the multi-colored candles of Kwanzaa and other rituals all point to our single devotion when the planet is at its darkest—the need and value of light.
As we practice the Four Immeasurables, Metta—Loving Kindness—is indeed our light.
It is defined as the wish and heartfelt desire that all people, without exception, be happy. More than a passive wish, however, it is the living practice of focusing our attention and actions on the happiness of others. It is an antidote to selfishness, greed and impoverished thinking. What better light can we offer a season bookended by Black Friday crowd trampling and pictures of unwrapped material goods presented as evidence of love?
Loving Kindness is not the same as waiting patiently in line while a coupon shopper takes 15 minutes to argue over the price of a box of candy canes. It’s not opening a door for a man with a cup of steaming hot chocolate in each hand. It’s not even telling your aunt that you love the tablecloth she gave you although it’s oval and about three times larger than your square dining room set. Those things are “being nice.” Being nice isn’t a bad thing but the luminosity it carries is significantly smaller than the immeasurable light of metta.
Providing people with truth, delivered in a gentle, helpful way, is Loving Kindness. Being there for the grieving, the homeless, and the harmed without advice, but a listening, caring ear is Loving Kindness. Celebrating with the happiest people, and sharing your own space for joy is Loving Kindness. Attention, presence, speaking truth to power and empowering justice for all people are Loving Kindness.
Perhaps the words of teacher Sharon Salzberg illustrate how best to practice Loving Kindness in evergreen malls and dark silent nights.
“To reteach a thing its loveliness is the nature of metta. Through lovingkindness, everyone and everything can flower again from within.”
Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness
It is easy, too easy, to decry our cultural materialism, complain about the busy schedules and bad drivers, moan over being inundated with religious imagery that doesn’t speak to your heart, and grimace at the invasive persistence of jingle bells. What’s better, and more helpful, is to find the things in people and places that are, in fact, lovely and bring it to the surface for all to see. Shine that light.
“And I heard her exclaim as she drove out of sight…”
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be well.
May all beings live with ease.
On this deep midwinter night.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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