Walking along the Rhine River during my lunch break from teaching yoga in Basel, Switzerland, I felt mellow and full of gratitude to have such a wonderful job opportunity. Then my phone started to vibrate. Instantly my mood shifted, and a powerful sense of urgency took hold of me. It was like a Rube Goldberg chain reaction—I was balancing a cappuccino in one hand, fighting an uncooperative purse zipper with the other, trying to keep my glasses on my nose, and worrying that someone was calling from my mother’s nursing home.
As my phone rang a thought flashed through my mind: “Since everybody who knows me knows I am in Europe and there is a five-hour time difference, this must be important and I’d better answer!” My life was built on the idea that taking care of my mom and my students and my business and my friends and my dog must come before my own needs, including the needs for space, peacefulness, and quiet appreciation of life.
I realized I was working myself into a dither by letting my phone be the boss of me. And why? Out of sheer habit. My need to answer the phone was part of an automatic-pilot way of thinking that told me it was wrong and selfish to put myself first.
After the incident in Basel I got to a place where I felt stuck. I had been badly hurt by a dear friend who told me that since I hadn’t been there for her when she needed me, she was turning her back on our friendship. It was the last straw for me. How could she abandon me when my life was so hard already? I was stuck in a puddle of anger, pain, and betrayal. I told myself that I wanted to forgive and forget, and I knew that my resentment was hurting me, but I couldn’t seem to let go of it.
Then I went to hear Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, give a talk. During the talk, Jetsunma paused and said in a soft voice, “Let go. Let go. Let go.” It was then that I knew I was ready to let go.
Jetsunma granted my request for a meeting and greeted me at the door with a big hug. She offered me a cup of tea and a seat on her couch. We sat facing each other with our legs crossed, and I told her how I felt hurt by my friend’s accusations that I had not been a good friend, that I had not given her the attention she needed.
When I had finished speaking Jetsunma held my hand and simply said, “You must take this onto your path.” She told me that I had to let go and forgive everyone. “And that includes yourself,” she said. Aha! How had I forgotten that so completely?
Jetsunma suggested that I begin practicing maitri for myself. Like many Buddhist practitioners, I’ve always loved the practice of maitri, or lovingkindness. I learned to use this practice as a method for cultivating genuine caring and good will for others. Practicing maitri toward others fits nicely with my bodhisattva vow, a commitment to living one’s life in a way that is helpful to all living beings.
The practice of maitri is deceptively simple. You repeat these four lines:
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you be safe
May you live with ease
Each time you recite the sequence of lines, you visualize a different category of sentient being:
Those you love
Those you don’t love
Those you have never met
These three categories cover the entire spectrum of how we relate to other beings: attachment, aversion, and ignorance.
Practicing maitri helps to soften the boundaries of these categories. It opens our hearts and reminds us of our commonality with everyone. When we really see, in our mind’s eye, a person we think we don’t like, and instead of solidifying our reasons for hatred we honestly wish them happiness, good health, safety, and an easeful life, we start to forget what we thought we hated and why we felt that way in the first place. A sense of equanimity toward everyone arises as we do this practice—we feel compassion for those who were once invisible to us, and our disregard and apathy morph into concern for their well-being and safety.
And just as we sometimes feel love or hatred toward others, sometimes we feel love toward ourselves, sometimes we hate ourselves, and sometimes, now and then, we don’t even notice ourselves. As a Buddhist, if my focus is truly to help others, I need to work with these emotions toward myself. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo reminded me that walking the bodhisattva path—dedicating one’s life to the benefit of all beings—includes doing whatever we can to help ourselves be happy and free.
The little cell phone drama in Basel was not such a big deal, but if you add up all the moments when you become exhausted or stressed out because of the mistaken sense that you are doing something for someone else, those moments become a pile of resentment, isolation, and feelings of depletion.
Many of us have people who need and depend on us. How can we really be helpful to others when we are depleted? What good are we to others when our generosity has shriveled and our patience has run out? I’d like to be more loving, but I also know it is my responsibility to give myself time, space, sleep, exercise, fun, and healthy meals. When I take the time to provide myself with those things, I find that I have more goodness to give to others.
Thinking of yourself first, when your goal is to help others, might seem counterintuitive, but in fact it is the only way it can work. In the end, the notion of putting oneself last is really an inside-out form of self-cherishing. That’s why during pre-flight instructions the flight attendant says to put on your own oxygen mask first, and then put on your child’s mask. When we are happy, healthy, safe, and at ease, we can model those qualities for others as well as make choices and take action from a place of sanity and lovingkindness. The following maitri practice will help you to open your heart and connect to the senitent beings around you.
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