Saturday, April 4, 2009

Metta, Meet Mister Softee

n Thursday, I ventured to the Jaya Yoga Center to hear Sharon Salzberg, who was making a rare Brooklyn appearance. Salzberg, a big name on the Buddhist circuit, is best known for teachings on “metta,” or “lovingkindness,” and I enjoyed listening to her.

As Salzberg sat quietly in a chair beside her microphone, waiting for the event to begin, she was startled by the sound of a Mister Softee ice cream truck. The windows were open to a balmy evening; the truck was rolling slowly down Eighth Avenue, endlessly recycling its jangling tune.

(It would linger again at the close of her remarks—the evening’s bell of mindfulness.)

Salzberg threw back her head and laughed—at first, she said, because she thought that the jingle was on someone’s cell phone, and then because it brought back fond memories of a Manhattan childhood. (I had one of those, too—I seem to recall my father wishing he had a rifle, so he could go down and shoot Mister Softee with it.)

Like Pema Chodron and several other Buddhist speakers I’ve heard, Salzberg has a lively sense of humor. Unlike Chodron, Salzberg does not appear to favor the monastic life. She can make wry remarks about switching to “the metta channel” while in a fit of rising irritation over a slow line at Whole Foods.

Salzberg said many interesting things, but I liked her idea of meditation as a kind of skills training in both mindfulness and compassion.

She said—I think—that the scientists who are now busy wiring the brains of meditators have discovered that different centers light up with different types of meditation.

(Mindfulness meditation seems to mean bringing your focus to a single object of concentration, like the breath; compassion meditation involves exercises in which you send wishes for health and well-being to friends and enemies in ever-widening circles.)

Apparently the research is indicating that compassion can be cultivated.

Salzberg expressed surprise that this was news to the scientists, but for a long time it would have been news to me. I’d always imagined that compassion was something that arose spontaneously, not something you could work at.

With either form of meditation, you may increase the odds of taking a moment to examine the wisdom of your initial thoughts and impulses. As Salzberg put it, quoting a fifth grader, “mindfulness is not hitting someone in the mouth.”

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