Crossing the abyss

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’re probably feeling some form of existential angst about the state of our world. Every day seems to bring another unending stream of ugly news. Sometimes I feel like crawling into a cave and pulling a boulder in behind me. Except that the cave – or any other refuge for that matter -- is really no escape. Because no matter how peaceful the cave, we will always find something to hate or complain about. (It’s too dark in here. Am I supposed to sleep on that? Where’s the bathroom? I’m bored. What, no Netflix?) That fact is that, unless you’re a monastic, it’s human nature to find reasons to be unhappy wherever you are – even when you think you’re having a good time. Actually, I’m not so sure about those monastics either.


For years now, I’ve been trying mightily to practice mindfulness meditation. In fact, I’ve made it as routine as brushing my teeth, which means I try to do it first thing in the morning. Without going into detail, let’s just say that in part, I meditate to clear and settle my mind so that I can face the day and whatever it brings with some sense of calm and composure. Because you can just bet that my hard-earned equanimity will be knocked off the rails as soon as I go online or watch the news or have a little parking dust-up with somebody in the parking lot. What usually follow are internal cussing and a rant about the stupidity and ignorance of all those idiots. Because I know I’m right and they’re just wrong, wrong, wrong.Now this is where my meditation practice is supposed to kick in with a gentle mental slap upside the head. I’m asked to step into the other guy’s mind, in which I would hear the same rant about my stupidity and ignorance. On the big picture scale, I am lumped in with all the people on the other side of an ideological or social divide – you pick the side. On a personal level as in the parking lot, I’m just plain stupid. And there you have it. We are squared off across an abyss of prejudice, judgment, hatred and self-righteousness, and never the twain shall meet, unless …

… as the Beatles said, “All You Need is Love.” Yes, it’s a great title for a song, but it’s also a high level belief that is absolutely true, in my opinion. The challenge is how do you make the abstraction real? And even harder, personal? One meditation teacher has the answer in a sound byte that would look great on a t-shirt: “The mind creates the abyss. The heart crosses it.”

I’m not making light of it. In fact, I would wear that shirt. It encapsulates a profound truth that sounds cool but is the hardest thing to do. If you want a little test you can do on your own, try the “loving kindness” practice. I must admit that this meditation practice has been the hardest for me, which tells me that it’s exactly what I need to do. Invariably, my heart finds it nigh impossible to cross the abyss.

In simple terms, the practice asks you to hold someone in you mind with an open heart, and wish him or her well as sincerely as you can. Some meditation teachers have you start loving kindness with yourself, because if you can’t love yourself, how can you possibly love others?

To help you along, the practice offers a series of phrases that you can use, or you can come up with your own. Here’s one version.

“May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm.

May I be as healthy and strong as I can be.

May I be happy and peaceful.

May I live with ease in this world.

May I love and accept myself just as I am.”

If this is too wordy for you, you might try the short version:

“May I be safe.

May I be well.

May I be happy and peaceful.

May I live with ease.

May I love myself.

May I be free.”

I like to add: “May I be free,” meaning “free from suffering.” That is actually the endgame behind meditation practice – letting go of all the things that cause you to suffer. Easier said than done. But that’s another conversation.

After offering loving kindness to yourself, the next step is to wish others well with the following phrases:

“May you be safe.

May you be well.

May you be peaceful and happy.

May you live at ease.

May you love yourself.

May you be free.”

To help you ease into it, you’re asked to start with someone who’s easy to care about, then work your way up from there. Here’s a short list of three:

Someone it’s easy to wish well (It could be a child like Blake in my case, your pet, or even someone like the Dalai Lama.)

Someone neutral (You may see someone regularly in the store or in your neighborhood that you don’t really know and don’t have feelings for one way or the other.)

Someone difficult (This one is hard, so meditation teachers advise that you don’t pick your worse enemy – start with someone you dislike or who irritates you, like the person in the parking lot.)

If this is easy for you, especially the difficult person, “you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” In case this quote doesn’t ring a bell, it’s the 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem about an English soldier in India and his Indian water bearer, Gunga Din, who saves the soldier’s life but is shot and killed himself. In the last three lines of the poem, the soldier regrets the abuse he had heaped on Din:

“Though I've belted you and flayed you,

By the living Gawd that made you,

You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

You see, I’m no Gunga Din. I get hung up on the difficult person. When I think of certain ones, I get visceral, physical reactions. A constricted chest. Heaviness around the heart area. Flushed face. Shallow breathing. And then my mind goes into blaming mode.

The place I’m trying to reach is stepping into the other person’s skin. What scares them? What hurts and disappointments have they suffered and are still suffering? And, even harder, what are their good points? I know there are some. And through this process maybe … just maybe … I will get in touch with their humanity.

That’s the challenge of loving kindness.

So, if Gunga Din can give his life for his abuser, surely we can find it in our hearts to forgive and even love those who would abuse us. Perhaps then we can cross that abyss.

Crossing the abyss

Is simple: Silence the mind

And listen to your heart.

Maya Leland 2014