Social Activism Liberated from the “Us versus Them” Mentality – Metta Meditation

Luma the Cedar lives in Wedgwood on traditional Coast Salish land. More info: https://linktr.ee/lumathecedar

*I gave this talk on July 29, 2023, at an Interfaith Prayer Ceremony standing beneath Luma the Cedar, in Seattle, on traditional, unceded Coast Salish land of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Muckleshot, Snoqualmie, Puyallup, and Tulalip people. Good evening. My name is Jordan Van Voast, I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for around 30 years. I don’t have any special qualifications, although I’ve had the good fortune to study and practice with authentic lineage teachers. It’s an honor to be here with all of you and other faith leaders, and with Luma the Cedar to come together and support each other and to recognize the importance of taking care of our environment, especially right now as our world is experiencing a climate emergency and a breakdown of so many ecosystems. Before I lead a short meditation, I’d like to give some context, because in Buddhism, prayer or meditation isn’t simply an exercise in quieting the mind, chanting a mantra or invoking a deity, but using our own innate wisdom to solve problems with logic and reason.

Scientists are saying July will be the hottest month ever in recorded history, probably in the last million years. The climate crisis and the Sixth Great Extinction can be so overwhelming that the natural tendency is to not face it, to deny and repress the fact that the collective impact of human actions are destroying the basic foundation for life as we know it. Unless we can reverse the damage to Mother Earth, our children and grandchildren will be increasingly faced with the prospects of a grim battle for survival as opposed to being able to enjoy life as we did when we were children.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The future isn’t written in stone, and we all have power to effect positive change through the force of our individual and collective actions, beginning right here and now. Those actions can take many forms – how we educate ourselves and organize together to protect Luma, our lobbying efforts to change the deeply flawed Tree Ordinance, educating the public regarding how candidates for next Tuesday’s City Council primary election stand regarding urban tree and forest protection. There is also the powerful impact of our individual actions regarding how we live, our carbon footprint and resource consumption.  You might think that “I’m just one person, how can I make a difference?” One droplet at a time, the rain barrel is filled. We are all droplets.

Action in a Buddhist sense begins with volitional action in the mind. External action is important, but what is our intention, what is the state of our mind when we engage in climate justice work?  To give an example – in our efforts to create a better world, do we lash out in anger at people who we deem as the enemy, politicians and developers “out there” who act contrary to what we want? This may seem like a novel idea to some and a bit controversial, but in Buddhism, enemy is understood as being ultimately a mental construct, a concept that we manufacture in our minds. Our mental habit that creates this sense of us and them, this duality, is the root cause of conflict and division in our world. Of course, we shouldn’t use spirituality to negate the actual harm that other people do when they cut down trees for a quick profit, or create legislation that makes it easier for harm to occur. We need to respond to harm whenever and wherever it occurs. But in order to realize our goals, we need to act skillfully and engage in conflict resolution from an enlightened perspective, without the mental afflictions of anger, jealousy, pride, and so forth.

Healing the planet requires that we heal our relationships with other beings, and that means first healing our own mind. Not engaging in hatred or ill will. Not seeing ourselves as separate, but recognizing that our own happiness is interdependent with the happiness of all sentient beings and the broader web of nature, of which we are only one tiny strand.

So with that, let’s do a metta meditation. Metta is a word from the ancient Pali language, first used in Sri Lanka to record Shakyamuni Buddha’s oral teachings. Metta is often translated as loving-kindness and what that means is a sincere and open hearted wish for ourself and all others to be happy. It’s not a sentimental love that we only extend to our friends and family, but is universal. And the happiness that we extend to others with our imagination isn’t merely the happiness of material comfort, worldly success, and so forth, but the unconditional happiness that comes with realizing our innate potential to be fully awake, with no mental afflictions – nibbana in Pali or nirvana in Sanskrit.

This is an optional meditation, feel free to skip parts and come back later. The point though is to begin cultivating an awareness of the soil and root structure of your mind, watering your inner garden so that it develops the beautiful flowers and aromatic  sweetness of liberation and enlightenment, not just for your own personal happiness, but in order to be of benefit to all living beings.

The meditation involves repetition of a few basic phrases which I will say aloud and then you can recite silently, if you wish, while imagining the people you are sending metta to experiencing that unconditional happiness. The phrases are:  May you be safe and well.    May you be happy and content.     May you be healthy and strong.     May you be peaceful and at ease.

There are different ways to do this meditation, but I like to begin by directing metta to ourselves, because if we can’t love ourself, how can we love anyone else, or the planet? It’s not possible.  After we send metta to ourself, then we send metta to a dear friend, or a favorite pet, then to a stranger or neutral person – perhaps someone we see on a regular basis, but don’t know too well, a worker at a grocery store, or the postal carrier. After we’ve practiced with these easier categories, we move on to the difficult person. This is where we really test our capacity to open our heart and become a true peaceful warrior. The difficult person is someone who may trigger our anger and acts contrary to our desires. Probably there are a lot of politicians we could choose from in this category, or it could be someone in your past who has harmed you. But please be gentle with yourself, don’t force anything here. If you notice resistance, either stay with the neutral person, or go back to yourself.  Just recognize though that it is possible to forgive someone while still holding them accountable. Lastly, we send metta to all sentient beings.

So take a moment to feel your connection with the ground and your breath and then repeat silently to yourself.

  1. (Oneself) May I be safe and well. As you repeat the phrase silently, connect with the feeling in your heart that these words evoke.  May I be safe and well Allow yourself to feel complete love and acceptance, without any guilt or shame or negative judgments that have been placed on you by others. May I be safe and well

May I be happy and content.    Let go of any disappointments you keep lugging around and just rest in your essential nature which is love and clear awareness. May I be happy and content

May I be healthy and strong. Feel the chi or energy flowing through your entire body, circulating through all your organs and limbs. May I be healthy and strong. To do this work, it’s important the we are healthy and strong, connect with that wish for yourself. May I be healthy and strong Connect with Luma the Cedar’s energy and the energy of Mother Earth.   May I be healthy and strong

May I be peaceful and at ease. Imagine yourself like an ancient tree in the forest, swaying in the wind, birds singing on your branches. Deeply rooted in the earth.  May I be peaceful and at ease

  1. (Dear friend or favorite pet) May you be safe and well. May you be happy and content. May you be healthy and strong. May you be peaceful and at ease.
  2. (Neutral person) May you be safe and well. May you be happy and content. May you be healthy and strong. May you be peaceful and at ease
  3. (Difficult person) Now, if you are feeling emotionally resilient and safe – switch to the difficult person and remember that they act the way they do only because their mind suffers from the sicknesses of greed, hatred, and ignorance and that their harmful actions will bring a suffering karmic result in their future . May you be safe and well. May you be happy and content. May you be healthy and strong. May you be peaceful and at ease.
  4. (All sentient beings) May all beings be safe and well. May all beings be happy and content. May all beings be healthy and strong. May all beings be peaceful and at ease.
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