I had a wonderful evening sitting by the side of the Thames in London on Friday, just by Tower Bridge, dining out with family and friends. But then we went to see a play: Alan Bennet’s Allelujah! which is set in a hospital due for closure. It’s funny, it’s charming in its musical routines with the mainly elderly cast, and it’s challenging. It confronts us with our thoughts and feelings about old age, illness and death, and it packs a punch too – about the dangers of health privatisation, the effect of Brexit on NHS recruitment, and attitudes to immigration.
Despite the play’s obvious merits, it was the last thing I wanted to see. I’d spent the earlier part of the week visiting my mum in hospital (she’s out now – see photo taken in June on her 95th) and I’ve spent the last ten years becoming well acquainted with geriatric care, so two hours of being back again with a bunch of old folks in a hospital wasn’t my idea of a night out. But it was good because it forced me to look at the embarrassing fact that I find it boring and tiring to spend too much time with the elderly, the frail, the unwell. I try not to feel this way, I feel bad about it, and bad about admitting it to you, but I know from talking with others (and indeed from the characters in the play) that this feeling is widespread. I’ve spent the last fifty years visiting my sister who is chronically ill, and I’ve never managed to crack this problem. It’s not that one doesn’t care, it’s just that sitting beside someone who is unwell presents a challenge to a busy person or a restless mind.
I’ve decided to make a change. I’m going to start practicing the Loving Kindness Meditation that comes originally from Buddhism, although it feels supremely natural and I can imagine someone isolated on a desert island discovering the technique for themselves. In essence it involves starting with becoming aware of one’s love for oneself, basking in that for a while. Here’s how meditation teacher Steven Smith explains it: “Breathing in and out from the heart center, begin by generating this kind feeling toward yourself. Feel any areas of mental blockage or numbness, self-judgment, self-hatred. Then drop beneath that to the place where we care for ourselves, where we want strength and health and safety for ourselves.”
For some of us it might work better to start off by bringing to mind someone who makes you feel happy the moment you think of them, someone with whom you don’t have too complicated a relationship. However you start, you then you extend this feeling outwards to others, gradually moving outwards from close friends and relatives to ‘frenemies’ and people you have difficulty with, then outwards until your feelings of loving kindness reach all beings, the entire planet and even beyond. In the Buddhist practice you include prayers. Steven Smith suggests you start with:
“May I be safe from harm.
May I be happy just as I am.
May I be peaceful with whatever is happening.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I care for myself in this ever-changing world graciously, joyously.”
Then, he writes, “From yourself, move out spaciously into your immediate surroundings. Include every living being within this circle: ‘May all beings in the air, on land, and in the water be safe, happy, healthy, and free from suffering.’ Stay within your reach. As you feel your immediate surround fill with the power of loving kindness, move on, expanding the surround in concentric circles until you envelop the entire planet.”
In the tea session I use simpler wording, add a brief opening from Sophrology which helps us relax quickly, and I set the meditation in a Druid context – in the peace of the Sacred Grove, to which we return at the end, to ground our love and our presence in the Natural world and here on Earth. It takes 10 minutes.
I’ll paste in here a recording I’ve made of a longer version – 17 minutes – and another way of doing this meditation – a five minute practice led by Diana Winston, a Mindfulness teacher.