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Let’s Talk Heavy Metta for Recovery – Part II

In part one of this interview, we discussed Heavy Metta, a practice that has been a great source of comfort, inspiration, and knowledge during my recovery journey. This is the second part of my interview with empowered Buddhist teachers Gensho Walsh and Gary Sanders. Together, they lead a weekly insight and zen-flavored meditation group that offers practices and teachings in mindfulness, metta, and compassion.

I had the pleasure of talking to them about their teachings in more detail and how this ancient practice can support one’s recovery. Both Gary and Gensho are in long-term recovery. Here’s the conclusion of our insightful conversation.

Interview with Gary

Olivia: How might a person in recovery practice metta, say someone in early recovery. I know we’ve touched on prescribing that, but how might they begin?

Gensho: You can begin with any…one of the points about this is that it is a practice that’s accessible throughout a whole lifetime of meditation. You can start with metta as it is, any of the typical teachings or guided meditations on metta will do. Often, like Gary said, it’s good to emphasize sending metta to yourself. That could be your whole practice at first. One thing I’d like to mention is that metta, once again, is a natural, built-in part of the human being.

Lovingkindness is throughout the AA program. I was just thinking about how much I learned about metta within the Big Book. For instance, step 10, my AA sponsor was really into step 10. It’s kind of like a hologram of the other steps. It says, “Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear. When these crop up we ask God at once to remove them.” When these pop up we ask God at once to remove them. We would walk through this step by step on the phone if I was upset, so he’d say, once you’d get there, you say a prayer, right? Please remove my resentment and fear. That’s a phrase of metta. We could say “May I be free from resentment and fear.”

We discuss someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone. Then we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help. My sponsor liked to say, “just visualize helping them”. That’s metta. Visualizing helping someone is cultivating metta. And then the last phrase I love is just, “Love and tolerance of others is our code.”

When my AA sponsor taught me to meditate and we got to step 11, he basically taught me a theistic version of metta. You are imagining yourself in a bubble where your creator, your higher power, is just surrounding you with love and light. You just sit there for 10 minutes just penetrating your whole being with this love and unconditional regard coming from your higher power. That was metta teaching he did.

Gary: One thing just in terms of logistics of practice, or to help place out, one of the common things I hear when people are new to the practice, they’ll say, you can do the practice just offering it to yourself to begin with. Some people will immediately say that sounds selfish. I shouldn’t be thinking about myself, I should just be thinking about others. The thing is, you really have to be able to truly care for yourself, forgive yourself, love yourself, in order to be able to give that and offer that to anybody else.

The great sage of our time, RuPaul, says how the hell are you going to love anybody else if you can’t love yourself. It’s so important. And the methodical practice of offering that, in early recovery, you get resentments all the time. You go to meetings; you’re going to get resentments. If you don’t go to meetings you’re going to get resentments. You get a sponsor, you get resentments. If you don’t get a sponsor, you get resentments.

So, these are perfect objects of your meditation. Rather than spend more time hating this person or blaming this person or judging this person or whatever it is, this is a great opportunity to practice. I’m going to change my relationship with this. It doesn’t mean you have to invite them over for tea. You don’t need to sit down to a meal with them. They don’t need to occupy your mind any more than they have already.


Olivia: Let’s talk about some benefits that someone might see with a daily practice – that could be the practice of metta or that could just be the practice of meditation.

Gary: The Buddha gave the teaching of metta (called the metta sutra) and it’s very simple, it’s like a one-page thing and it talks about wishing all beings to be happy, to live with ease, to be free from suffering, it goes through this methodical, big and small, great, medium, large, seen and unseen, all this stuff. Later, after he gave that teaching, he was asked what some of the benefits of metta were, and some of the benefits are that you will sleep better, you will wake easier, people and animals will love you, your face will become radiant, you’ll die unconfused. 2,600 years ago, they talked about these benefits…

Buddhist practice isn’t about taking anything on blind faith at all. We hear the stuff, we’re instructed about the stuff, but the instruction is to practice this and find out for yourself. On my own personal journey of metta, I’ve experienced most of these things. There is a historical benefit – they say that you’ll be protected from fire, weapons and poison. And honestly, that’s a metaphor. The Buddha talked about the three poisons: hatred, greed, and delusion. I’d like to think he was kind of talking about that. That it combats against hatred, greed, and delusion of all types.

But for me, I completely changed my relationship with myself. This is the one thing I make such a dedicated practice at least offering it to myself that from this practice I’ve been able to feel comfortable in my own skin. I do sleep better, I wake easier, I don’t live my life in my head in warfare anymore. I’m not in judgment of myself and others anymore. It changed everything.

Gensho: When my own teacher was first teaching metta and leading guided meditations on metta, she often used the phrase, “may I be free from fear and anxiety.” Part of that is knowing people from other countries and comparing, what are they like and what are Americans and people in the west like? We’re so burdened with anxiety comparatively. So, she felt it was helpful to address that directly in the phrases. Of course, how much did fear propel my addiction? That’s a big one. I haven’t necessarily seen instant results, like we can’t count on instant results from things like this. But sometimes you get instant results. A lot of the fear I’ve personally experienced is my own hostility coming back at me. If I am full of hostility, and kind of like “aaaaah,” it is just getting reflected on me. If I get into a situation with a somewhat open heart and open mind, and actually cultivate kindness, that hostility isn’t coming back at me anymore. So that can be an instant relief.

Gary: One kind of instant relief is being free from my own projections.


Olivia: How it could be used in an overwhelming situation?

Gary: If you wanted to tie in some very simple phrases – which I use any time I’m feeling anxious, scared, nervous, or angry – I will match the intensity of my mental state that’s going on, stories are raging or whatever, or the emotion is at a high vibration, I’ll match that intensity with some simple phrases: I am happy, I am well, I am peaceful.

I said it slow then, but (says it fast) eventually I’ll start noticing the intensity draining out of my body and the mind slowing down, so I’ll slow the phrases down to match the speed of that vibration. I learned those from a little Sri Lankan monk many years ago and I still use them all the time.

Get to Know Gary and Gensho

Gary moved to Portland in the spring of 2016 from the Los Angeles area, where he was the founding teacher of SCV Mindfulness for over five years. He was empowered to lead Buddhist meditation and dharma groups by Noah Levine and Vinny Ferraro of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society and also helped found Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist based recovery program for all addictions, which has now spread worldwide. Gary was asked to join the teaching staff at Portland Insight Meditation Community by Robert Beatty and the PIMC Teachers’ Council. His wife and daughters continue to be his greatest teachers.

Gensho serves as a Dharma Teacher with the Zen Community of Oregon, where he regularly offers talks, workshops, and classes. He leads weekday morning meditation at Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple. He was empowered as a Dharma Holder by Chozen Bays Roshi and Hogen Bays Roshi in 2016. He has applied Buddhist principles to his own recovery since 2002 and helped to launch the first Refuge Recovery meeting in Portland in 2014. He and his wife raised three children (now adults) in Portland, Oregon.



Images Courtesy of iStock and Heavy Metta

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