For those of you who have never meditated, the meditation is normally dedicated to something specific. We meditated on the concept that “everyone is our mother.” I’ll explain later.
The session started with an awkward sing-along to some clunky music for Buddha’s benefit. Then consisted of a talk on the Buddhist approach to love and relationships, about 10 minutes of meditation and questions and answers at the end.
Our teacher explained that love and attachment were different things. Love, she said, is wanting the best for the person you love. Simply wanting them to be happy. Attachment is wanting them to be happy but also wanting them to make you happy. Attachment is not unconditional. Whereas unconditional love doesn’t ask for anything in return.
So it would seem that in most of our relationships (familial, friendships, husbands, wives, boyfriends or girlfriends) we’re all clearly falling more into the attachment camp. This is bad apparently. We should love them unconditionally.
It seems to me like we’re supposed to love them calmly and almost objectively. Which would sort of make us separate from them. A separate entity rather than a team. In which case how does a family even work? How can you love someone who never does the washing up?
The teacher also explained to us that Buddhists believe that our minds and bodies are separate and that when we die our minds go on and on. Sort of like Christians believe our souls go on. These minds then go into other people and however many years or generations later these minds keep existing in other people. The idea is, with this in mind, that anyone we encounter anywhere could be our mother from another life.
I know, I was a little confused by this as well. But bear with me. It sort of makes sense. Not literally, but as a way of learning to empathise and feel compassion for people we don’t know, or for people who have done us harm.
We are supposed to think of them as our mother, as someone who nurtured us and showed us kindness. That way we can prevent anger in our own minds, which is essentially our objective. To remain calm and be kind to others.
It’s almost like Buddhists have come up with things to believe to help them be kinder to people and to refrain from anger or other harmful emotions. But they’re more upfront about the fact that even if we do not believe these things literally, we can use them as tools for greater control, compassion and presence of mind.
Our teacher used an example of a situation where she had been sitting on the platform at a train station in rural France when a woman came up to her and said, “Be careful, you’re about to step in that muck on the floor.” She thanked her and thought how kind it was of the woman to warn her (she is a Buddhist after all).
Then when she was on the train, she realised her purse was gone. One of the woman’s children had sneakily snuck around and grabbed it while our teacher had been checking her shoes and the bottom of her suitcase for the alleged muck.
She said in this situation she could have got angry. I certainly would have. At myself probably for being so stupid. But she didn’t.
She pictured that this woman was her mother. She said “My poor mother, she must have come upon very hard times indeed to have to resort to making her children steal from unassuming foreigners at the train station. She must really need the money more than I do.”
This didn’t mean she didn’t stop her credit cards and take all other necessary precautions – Buddhists are calm but they’re not stupid.
My actual mother had extreme difficulty with the concept that a woman who would steal from her, or a terrorist, or even a rat or lizard (she’s very afraid of them) could be her mother. She kept saying “but my mother just wouldn’t steal. She would never do something like that.”
The teacher started to get slightly exasperated as she tried to explain that obviously this person was not literally her mother, it’s a person who has shown us kindness in a previous life and that it was a way of trying to empathise with others. But my mum wasn’t having any of it.
“No, she just wouldn’t,” my mum repeated, shaking her head and still talking about her actual mother.
She wasn’t the only one who found this mother analogy difficult. My mother adored her own mother and really revered her. That’s why comparing her to a lizard or a terrorist simply wasn’t on. She wouldn’t entertain it. Even for the sake of empathy.
But it turned out a few other people had the opposite problem because they hated their mothers. One even said in front of the whole group that her mother was a narcissistic nightmare who had ruined her life and that’s why she was there. Her mother was also the cause of her not being able to hold down a job or a partner etc etc. She was a bit whiny and irritating really, (I’m clearly not managing the empathy yet).
But she wasn’t the only one. It turns out that for a lot of people, the evocation of your mother, does not inspire empathy or warmth at all. But anger, revulsion and disappointment.
The teacher tried to help us to understand that nobody was perfect but that at the very least, our mothers had given us life and cared for us long enough that we had survived beyond infancy. Which for human babies, she reiterated, was vital, and that without nurture and care during our first weeks and months, we would have died.
A smiley Irish lady who seemed to live at the Buddhist centre chimed in and said, “I like to think of it as people having different capacities for love. Some people have a bath full to give, while others have only a glass. But they still gave us all the love they could.”
This didn’t seem to satisfy the mother hating lady at all, she just raised her eyebrows and frowned.
After the session we had some tea and I asked the teacher,
“Is it wise to see the best in everyone, and think that they all mean us well? Especially if you live in a big city. On the tube for example…?”
“That’s not what I said.” she replied curtly. “We’re not to think that everyone means us well and no harm, we must be cautious and alert, but where possible we want to try to prevent anger in our minds and we can do this by seeing them as our mother. By learning to empathise with them.”
But don’t mothers generally want the best for us and mean us no harm…?
I thought they did.
Confused? Yes. I was too.
But overall, it was pretty interesting. Thought provoking.
So the next time someone bumps into you on the train, steals your iphone or is just plain rude. Try to imagine they’re your mother (from a past life). And see if you react differently.
Apparently you will.