by Amy Soucy
“May this practice be of benefit to all beings…”
(Warning: You may encounter some brain science in this blog!)
One of my favorite teachers, renowned meditation teacher Sally Kempton, often prefaces or ends her instruction with this compassionate dedication. You may have heard it yourself, in similar form, as Metta (lovingkindness) meditation. When we recite a Metta prayer, we’re acknowledging the compassion that is already within us, and like a healing light, consciously shining it on ourselves, our communities and families, and on the world around us (even those we perceive as our enemies).
It’s always intrigued me though, because I like to know how things really “work,” this idea that the simple act of sitting quietly in meditation or mindfully practicing asana could have some impact on anyone other than me or my own body, my own healing and personal growth. For so many years, as a neophyte yoga student and fledgling teacher, I was hell-bent on shining that light inwardly. I was on a serious quest for self-knowledge and relieving my own suffering. That was certainly the priority implied by many of the teachers, healers, and scholars I encountered. Whether body-centric, emotional, or philosophically focused, this was a common theme: “Go Inside, all will be revealed… and healed.”
The first time I heard Sally Kempton use this dedication, following a guided meditation that focused on the heart center, I felt a pang of recognition, along with a sense of relief. Relief that there could be a small possibility of selflessness involved in this act of inner exploration and self-reflection. That it was not only for the betterment of my own human experience, but could maybe offer some benefit THROUGH me, through my efforts. Let me put it more bluntly. What I really thought was, “Yay, it’s not about me for a change. Thank GOD!”
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing at all bad, or even selfish about focusing on one’s own healing and spiritual growth… it’s the oxygen mask metaphor, right? I suppose that had to be my focus at the time, particularly as a younger woman with many more blind spots and self-destructive habits to overcome, and a lot of searching to do. And it did offer me a generous amount of relief and healing, both physical and emotional. I’ve witnessed the same healing trajectory in so many of my students, through their internal efforts.
As my practice changes though, I am much more interested in bridging the divide that separates ME from YOU, my individual human experience from the ongoing experience of the students I teach and the people I engage with in the ordinary, everyday whirl of life. I’ve spent a vast amount of my life in my head, so to speak, and now I wish to engage, connect, empathize with my fellow beings.
According to author Dr. Daniel Siegel though, it’s normal and necessary for us to both go inside and to engage outside.
Siegel, a Clinical Professor of psychiatry at UCLA and Executive Director of Mindsight Institute, affirmed the necessity to reflect AND connect quite beautifully in a recent TEDx talk called “Mindfulness and Neural Integration.” He says that both reflection and relationship stimulate growth in crucial areas of the brain. Reflection, or “time in” as he refers to it, develops the cortex, or what he calls the “outer bark” of the brain. The frontal cortex (right behind your forehead), which allows you to talk about and manage your own emotions, also lets you pick up what’s going on inside someone ELSE, what we sometimes call “tuning in” to them. The pre-frontal cortex then takes all these things and pulls them together, integrating everything, allowing you to be fully present with yourself and the other person.
He closed by emphasizing that when you have reflection and relationships that are caring and connecting, you stimulate the growth of the integrative fibers in the brain. Integrative, connective, “to yolk together…” sounds like your brain is doing yoga all the time, huh?
The “tuning in” to another, or relating – simultaneously being aware of my own AND your experience – is the piece that fascinates me the most. It’s how I understand empathy, not just as a concept, but as a real, lived experience. How the reflective, internal process of my personal practice helps me relate and respond to the outer world, AND how it makes me feel less like a solo agent making my way among the many, and more a part of the whole design. An individual piece of the puzzle, yes, but one that fits harmoniously into the larger landscape.
In mundane terms: WHEN I practice I am generally patient enough to take a breath and stop myself from rudely glaring at the person that shoves their way onto the train before me because I can relate. Unfortunately, at times I’ve also been that pushy person. And WHEN I practice, I am (usually) centered enough to respond with equanimity and kindness when tested, prodded, even pushed by the teens I teach (not to mention the 1st graders), because I am aware of the many ways I’ve tested and pushed.
So back to the Metta prayer: “May this practice be of benefit to all beings,” and how I think it really works (my humble opinion of course). It’s a funny thing, but even after practicing yoga for 15 years, and teaching for ten, I’m still learning that I am one of the “beings” who benefit, and it is that deep, internal reflection (where I begin my practice) that allows me to stay present and grounded when I find myself relating to others in less-than-ideal circumstances; and that allows me to reach for and enjoy fulfilling, sustaining interactions.
Mostly though, I think that when I dedicate my own mindfulness practice to both ME and YOU, I’m reminded of this one world we share, a world that benefits greatly when we are reflective, more aware, kinder, more connected, and more compassionate.