I've been thinking lately about how long it takes to become wise. A few weeks ago, I was driving around with a friend, and we were talking—as friends do—about our troubles. I was talking about a rift I had recently with another friend, and how it had been causing me to suffer for many months.
I am a person who likes to fix things and who hates losing people, and I was forced to face the truth that there was nothing I could do to fix this relationship—in fact, all my attempted fixes had only made things worse. This kind of interpersonal failure just kills me, and I couldn't let it go. I kept spinning the story in my head at all hours of the day. Anger, sorrow, confusion, regret—you know the ingredients of that stew. I couldn't fix the situation, but I couldn't drop my thoughts about the situation either. I was stuck in the seventh circle of brain-hell, with no way out.
Focusing on Love
My friend said, very simply, “Have you tried using your meditation practice to focus loving thoughts on that person?”
Well, uh, no.
Actually, hell no!
The last thing I wanted to do during my daily meditation practice was to think about this person. In fact, a lot of my daily meditation practice had become fixated on trying not to think about this individual, because those thoughts were so distracting and upsetting. I was trying my best to forget this person, so why would I want to focus loving thoughts on him? (Plus, after what he did?! How outrageous the behavior was?!)
My friend went on: ”Try it, Liz. Try sitting for 30 minutes a day and really focusing on the happiest memories the two of you ever shared. Think about times when you two had real joy together. Let your heart fill with love, and then focus all your love on him. Repeat prayers for his well-being. Send him all your light. I guarantee it will change things. It will definitely change you, because right now this relationship is only existent in your head, so it will cure the anger and sorrow that dwell there. But it might even—on some distant molecular level—change him. You may never know it, but it might work on him from afar. But at the very least, it will bring you relief."
Not very likely, thought I.
All I could imagine was that it would make me even sadder because I would be focusing on happy memories and love. Why would I want to focus on happy memories of somebody who is no longer in my life? Why would I want to remember that I loved someone who had hurt me? What a bummer that would be! Just a hard reminder of what has been lost ...
But I made a decision to try it for a week.
Healing from Within
I thought focusing loving thoughts on this person would be hard and painful. But strangely, it wasn't. It was, actually, immediately relieving.
First of all, it wasn't hard to find happy and loving memories of this person; I had always adored him. (If I hadn't adored him, I wouldn't have been so sad and angry about losing the friendship.) Focusing all my attention on those good memories brought a sense of sweetness—not sorrow. Whenever my thoughts turned to my loss or anger, I would just return to the beautiful memory and say, "We are going to focus on this now." And then I actively sent him the warmest and most loving thoughts I could, along with hopes for his happiness and peace.
You guys, it worked. It started working in two days!
Did it save the relationship? No. My friend and I are still estranged, and there is absolutely no action for me to take to fix that reality. Sometimes there is no action to be taken in the physical world. Instead, I worked on fixing my heart and my head—changing my interior relationship toward him (which is the only one I can control, after all.). Fast forward to today and the sad, obsessive thoughts that were haunting me all day have subsided, replaced with a sense of peace and good will.
Loving-kindness meditation: It actually works!
Wisdom Seeps in Slowly
But here's the crazy thing: I should have known! I should have known all this already. I've spent years and years and years studying heart-opening meditation practices, and trying to become a student of ahimsa and compassion. I went all the way to India to study this stuff in an ashram under the tutelage of a great master. I meditate every day. I even wrote a book about this stuff!
But when I really needed all those teachings—really needed to put them into living practice—I had completely forgotten them. And it took my civilian friend (who is not a monk, or a teacher, or a saint) to gently remind me of what I should already have known. When she said, “practice love," I finally heard it—or finally remembered it.
This example makes me think about how slowly wisdom seeps into us. How many times we have to hear the same lessons again and again until slowly, slowly, slowly, we finally are ready to absorb them.
Wisdom is like water dripping on the stone that is our heart, working on it every day, patiently wearing it down, patiently trying to get through. It might not get through to us today, tomorrow, or this decade—but it keeps working on us.
Slowly we will get there.
Keep letting it in.