Thursday, August 27, 2009

Learning From Other Traditions

Last month, I spent a week at a retreat center in upstate New York. The center provides ample spiritual support for people of all faiths, and one daily offering was a meditation class, taught by Ji Hyang Sunim, a Zen practitioner. I had attended her class the previous year, and I was eager to return. Sitting with Ji Hyang each day at 5:30 in the tranquil sanctuary atop a hill became the center of each day for me, just as it had the previous year.

As part of each day's meditation, Ji Hyang read to us from the "Metta Meditation," a list of statements that, while simple, came to have a profound impact on me. The intent of the Metta meditation statements is to make us aware of what Buddhists call the "loving kindness" in us, around us, and filling all people and all beings. Although the word "God" is not used in Buddhist thought, I understand the "loving kindness" that is spoken of in these meditations to be what Christians call the love of God.

Ji Hyang started by asking us to cultivate loving kindness for ourselves, before moving onto others. She asked us to repeat these words in our minds after she read each line to us:

May I be filled with loving kindness; may I be held in loving kindness.
May I accept myself just as I am.
May I experience the innate joy of being alive.
May my heart and mind awaken; may I be free.

The Metta meditation went on to ask us to envision someone close to us, and to repeat the same affirmations for them. "May you be filled with loving kindness," etc. And then we envisioned others, people not so close to us perhaps, and, in turn, all beings, repeating the same affirmation: "May all beings be filled with loving kindness," and so forth.

For me, the most difficult part of the meditation was the second line: "May I accept myself just as I am." In the Christian tradition, and the Episcopal tradition in particular, we begin many prayer sessions with a confession. We confess our sins, against God and one another, and I have always believed that this is a good way to start a prayer. No matter how perfectly I try to live my life, I've reasoned, there is always room for improvement, and I can always say, without reservation: "I have not loved you with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself."

So, the Metta meditation caught me up short. Here I was being asked to accept myself, just as I am. Warts and all, sins and all, shortcomings and all. And to do it before I even confessed any of those shortcomings. When Ji Hyang would say, "May you accept yourself just as you are," I wondered why it was that I could not do that. Why was I harder on myself than she was?

Ji Hyang is a wonderfully gentle soul and I found myself returning to that meditation class, largely to hear her remind me to accept myself, just as I am. I didn't immediately understand why this seemed so profoundly difficult. Wasn't I supposed to look in the mirror and acknowledge what I had done, or not done, and promise to do better?

Weeks later, I realized that what Ji Hyang was teaching me, had been right there in front of me in the prayer book. And it was in the daily confession of sin, no less. Until she confronted me with her simple phrase, "accept yourself" I had never really noticed that we say, "I have not loved my neighbor as myself." Notice that the implication in this sentence is that we must love ourselves first. We must show compassion for ourselves, and accept ourselves, before we can know what it means to love our neighbor.

And this, of course, is how God loves us. God looks at us and sees us, with all our shortcomings, and in all our broken-ness, and loves us anyway. When we can finally see ourselves the way God sees us and can truly accept ourselves, just as we are, we can then move on to loving our neighbor as ourself.

Accept yourself, just as you are. Because God accepts you, and loves you. Just as you are.