Estrangement and the Power of Metta September 30, 2021 08:51

white door against dark space

If you prefer to listen to this month's blog, please click here. 

I wanted to write about small, everyday blessings this month--like the well-fed sparrows outside my dentist's office window, and the sprawling branches of the catalpa tree that, over time, have grown to block the view of heavy traffic on I-465. 

It's not unusual for me to start writing about one topic for these blog posts, and then switching gears to something completely different. However, this month's pivot was particularly surprising...and a bit painful.

I happened to catch a segment on this week's CBS Sunday Morning about people who had been estranged from family members. The people who had been interviewed for the story desperately wanted to reconcile, or did, eventually, reconcile with their family members.

I have been estranged from my biological father for nearly thirty years. The separation occurred right after my daughter was born. I don't regret this separation, and I have no desire to reconcile or reconnect with my father. I don't know if he is alive or dead, and, honestly, I don't really care.

My mother passed away a few years ago. After my step-father died, and she moved to Michigan, our contact was sporadic--limited to just a few phone calls a year. She had battled mental illness for much of her life, and as she grew older, her conversations were often rambling, incoherent, and increasingly angry on her part.

I had experienced a great deal of psychological and verbal abuse from her growing up, so when she did eventually pass away, it was a bittersweet relief for me. I could finally release the pain and shame of a difficult relationship, and I was also relieved that she was no longer suffering.

Recently, I have become estranged from my half-sister as well. We grew up together in the same home with our mother and her father (my step-father). I was four years older than she, and we were not very close as kids.

After her father (my step-father) died, she became more distant and angry. Visits and phone calls between us became increasingly more tense and uncomfortable. Finding common ground became more challenging. Eventually, she deactivated her Facebook account, which was a key source of connection for the two of us, and when she reactivated it a short time later, she didn't include me. Honestly, I felt relieved.

She and her family were invited to attend my daughter's wedding recently. They weren't able to attend. Again, I felt relief.

It's not polite to write these things. As a Buddhist, I am supposed to constantly generate bodhicitta (lovingkindness, compassion, and altruism) toward all sentient beings until we're all liberated from suffering. I'm supposed to keep an open heart for everyone.

Obviously, I have a long way to go. I am a flawed human being, and sometimes, the best I can do is to love some people from afar.

I'm also leaving out a lot in this blog post. There are painful and deeply rooted reasons why I choose not to stay in contact with my father. I never felt safe with him, and I didn't like being alone with him when I was a kid. These feelings intensified when my own daughter was born--and the separation felt like a welcome release for me. I felt like I was protecting her.

I choose to believe that my mother did the best that she could. She had suffered severe physical, sexual, and verbal abuse in her own home growing up--she also sustained a severe head trauma in a car accident when she was a teenager.

These events set the stage for her own struggles with addiction, mental illness, and motherhood. She struggled, suffered, and, in many ways, couldn't let go of the people and circumstances that had caused her great pain.

The separation from my sister makes me sad. I still send her emails at Christmas and on her birthday--and she does the same. However, that's about the extent of our communication, and it's very brief and superficial. Our separation was like a slow-moving storm that picked up momentum gradually over the years.

We did not grow up in a healthy, loving home. Our lives and interests were vastly different. In recent years, I found myself holding my tongue and walking on eggshells around her in order to keep the peace--to avoid an argument or her sudden outbursts of condescending rage. Being around her became increasingly stressful and uncomfortable.

I survived my family of origin, and I eventually walked away from them in order to thrive in my own life with my current family. I'm close with my husband and daughter. Being in tune with my own emotions, thoughts, and actions, and choosing to distance myself from the cycle of abuse rather than actively participate in it, or witness it, is my best stab at skillful means right now.

Lashing out, or reacting out of ignorance, anger, and fear only perpetuates cycles of suffering. I'm still working on generating bodhicitta for all living beings, and I haven't given up on keeping an open heart.

I have much to learn, and I have much to purify in my own practice. Perhaps in a future life I will be able to remain peaceful and compassionate while living in the middle of an emotional storm--to deal with anger, cruelty, and abuse--to keep an open, boundless heart without needing to distance myself from the abusive person or situation. One day, I aspire to be able to do this with grace and dignity. I'm not there yet--far from it. The best I can offer for now is to continue to practice, and one practice that is extremely helpful is Metta--or Lovingkindness Meditation.

 sparrow perched on broken chicken wire


 Metta, also called lovingkindness meditation, is the simple practice of directing positive phrases and well-wishes to ourselves and others. Practicing metta can make us feel less isolated and more connected to those around us. It also fosters self-acceptance, and it can alleviate tension, depression, and anxiety.

The good news is, you don't have to be a Buddhist to practice it--it's a secular practice for everyone, and you don't have to practice it seated on a cushion. It can be just as effective in "real world," crowded environments--like waiting in line, sitting in traffic, walking around the neighborhood, etc. If you're using this practice in a crowded setting like a store or while commuting, simply focus your attention on the people immediately around you. Silently direct your chosen phrase or phrases to those who are in line, or in traffic, with you.

For a seated practice, you can specifically choose who to focus on.

So--if you like, we can practice metta together. I invite you to go ahead and find a comfortable seat (you may lie down as well, if you prefer). 

1. Begin by taking a few deep breaths to clear your mind. Then, when you're ready, silently direct the following phrases to yourself:

May I be filled with kindness and compassion.

May I be safe from all dangers.

May I be happy and feel at ease.

May I be well in body and mind.

2. Next, visualize loved ones you know and care about deeply. They can be friends, family members, neighbors, or colleagues. As you think about these dear ones, silently direct the following phrases to them:

May you be filled with kindness and compassion.

May you be safe from all dangers.

May you be happy and feel at ease.

May you be well in body and mind.

3. Now shift your focus to those who are strangers to you--these are people who you don't know personally, but you do come into contact with them. You also don't have any strong positive or negative feelings about them--it's more of a neutral association. For example, a UPS driver, a waitress, a clerk at a convenient store, a flight attendant, etc. When you're ready, silently direct the following phrases to these individuals:

May you be filled with kindness and compassion.

May you be  safe from all dangers.

May you be happy and feel at ease.

May you be well in body and mind.

4. Now imagine those who do tend to evoke strong negative feelings for you--those who push your buttons and who are challenging, difficult, or annoying to be around.  When you're ready, silently direct the following phrases to these people:

May you be filled with kindness and compassion.

May you be safe from all dangers.

May you be happy and feel at ease.

May you be well in body and mind.

5. Finally, silently direct the following phrases toward all beings in the universe:

May you be filled with kindness and compassion.

May you be safe from all dangers.

May you be happy and feel at ease.

May you be well in body and mind.

 This practice is a wonderful antidote for feeling disconnected, anxious, or agitated. It's also a practical way to cultivate kindness, compassion, and forgiveness toward ourselves and others.

I may not have written about the sparrows flitting around the catalpa tree outside my dentist's office window this month, but I hope this month's article was helpful for you in some way. Until next month-- let's keep practicing. 


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