Words: Kem McIntosh Lee
As spring and summer unfold, we are finally opening the doors to our home-bound lives and enjoying more time outside and with others. The optimism that many of us feel reminds me of the loving-kindness meditation I teach using the image of the Dutch door, a house favourite found in 17th century homes. Not only cottage-core cute, this split door was especially popular in rural New York and New Jersey, originally settled by the Dutch. Family, friends, and animals could come and go with ease when the door was wide open. When fully shut, the door provided privacy and protection.
The most useful and charming feature of the Dutch door is that it could be opened solely from the top half, allowing fresh air and sunlight to stream inside. Farm animals and blowing leaves were kept outside while children were kept in. A homeowner could receive packages, wave to passers-by and keep the barking dog inside with this wooden boundary.
The Dutch door is inherently friendly and still used today. It is often painted in happy colours such as sage, aqua and blush pink. Check on Pinterest and you will see many cheerful examples. I teach loving-kindness meditation, also known as metta, using the Dutch door example because it makes a tidy metaphor travelling through the pronouns “I, you, he, she and they”. I often call it a prayer. Before we begin, a reference to the definition of suffering and why we ask to be from suffering. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha acknowledged that suffering exists and we create suffering with craving, attachment, desire and aversion. There is an end to suffering which is called The Noble Eightfold Path.In loving-kindness meditation, we ask to be free from suffering, especially the suffering we create. This is vastly different from asking to be free from pain. Life includes pain that is inescapable, from birth and death, sickness and injury, financial challenges and relationship strains. We ask to be free from suffering which subtly means we are asking for help accepting life’s pain by practising non-attachment to how we think our life should be.
To begin your loving-kindness meditation, find a comfortable seat and breathe mindfully. Once you have settled into place, pick a colour you love to represent your Dutch door. Mine is always yellow. Visualise your door wide open on a sunny day. Repeat several times, “may I be free from suffering and the root of all suffering, may I be healthy and at peace, may I be free.” Imagine your five- year-old self standing in the grass beyond the door. Notice how small and precious you are, full of optimism and an open heart. Walk outside and place your hands on your five-year-old shoulders and give your tiny face a genuine smile. Thank yourself for evolving into the person you are today. Repeat, “may I be free from suffering and the root of all suffering, may I be healthy and at peace, may I be free.” A natural love will saturate your body as you show tenderness towards your young self.
After repeating this first phase several times, imagine a person (or pet) who you love easily. With your Dutch door wide open, greet he/she/they in the sunlight with the phrase, “may you be free from suffering and the root of all suffering, may you be healthy and at peace, may you be free.” Bow in recognition to this person who has taught you how to love. Hug them and smile with eye contact. Feel gratitude for knowing this beautiful person and repeat the loving- kindness prayer. Notice your heart opening and your muscles relaxing.
Now gently shut the lower section of your Dutch door and think of a person who is neutral in your life. You might not know this person’s name or any details about her personal life. I often choose a friendly woman who works the register at my pharmacy. I enjoy our brief conversations when I pick up prescriptions at the check-out counter.
See yourself standing behind your colourful, half-shut door. Visualise the neutral person beyond the door. Repeat, “may she be free from suffering and the root of all suffering, may she be healthy and at peace, may she be free.” Repeat several times as your heart becomes puddle-soft and notice how loving-kindness directed towards others feels intrinsically rewarding.Gently close your Dutch door fully for the fourth and most interesting segment of loving- kindness meditation. Focus on a person who triggers you, someone who you might not have chosen to be in your life, someone who requires a solid boundary from your side to maintain emotional equilibrium. Perhaps you select a neighbour who angers you, a difficult boss, former friend or spouse. You can choose someone you will never meet such a person in the news. Imagine this person standing in the distance outside of your home. Whisper the prayer, “may he be free from suffering and the root of all suffering, may he be healthy and at peace, may he be free.”
When we work with a trigger person, our heart muscles develop strength much like running up a steep hill. Our heart trains in loving and we gain emotional fitness by this prayer to a challenging person. My trigger person during 2020 was often a politician. This segment of the loving- kindness meditation helped me relax with the upsetting words and actions I read from the news. It kept me emotionally solvent instead of fixed in anger.
When you are ready to move on, choose a group of people or a nation that has been experiencing great pain. You might think of refugees from Syria, children separated from parents at the US border or animals maligned by climate change. See this group huddled together as you open the bottom half of your Dutch door. Kneel down in humble genuflection as you send the loving- kindness prayer. Recognise that you share the same basic human needs for food, clothing, shelter and love. Repeat, “may they be free from suffering and the root of all suffering, may they be healthy and at peace, may they be free.” Bear witness to their suffering with an open heart.
Before closing your loving kindness meditation, repeat the phrases, letting your heart guide you. Allow the words to flow slowly and your breath to be steady.
The beauty of regularly practising loving- kindness is that you will find yourself repeating the phrase as you go about your daily life. For example, the words come to mind when I am anxious about a medical exam, I observe a homeless person or I am angered in traffic. I repeat it when my husband and I have a difficult discussion. It flows in my thoughts when I walk by a baby in a stroller or watch a cat stretching. The loving kindness meditation will inhabit your consciousness in a way that is meaningful to your mind, body and spirit.
Kem McIntosh Lee is a 500-hour certified yoga instructor working in Atlanta. She loves all things yoga, working as a family and corporate photographer and hiking with her husband and dogs.