After my second child was born, I was seized with an urgent desire for the world to be a better place. Since my children’s worlds revolved around me and their behavior would be modeled after mine, I realized that the improvements needed to begin within my own heart. I needed to teach them by example how to be strong in their kindness and good in their love.
When Clara was six months old, I read about the Theravada Buddhist tradition of cultivating a practice of metta or lovingkindness. I liked how the word “lovingkindness” reverberated in my breast and soothed my busy mind. I immediately embraced the concept of transforming love into action through gestures of kindness, and I began a quest to learn how to choose the higher responses of the heart rather than caving to the knee-jerk reactions of the ego.
Of course, that which initially seems simple and straightforward often turns out to be frustratingly tricky. I’d leap out of bed in the morning full to the brim with lovingkindness, only to let the little stressors in life drain me of my goodness, leaving me grumpy and impatient by bedtime. I’d redouble my efforts and commit myself to round-the-clock giving, but eventually I’d become spent and, at times, slightly resentful. It was especially difficult to know how often to turn the other cheek to those who took advantage of my good will, and sometimes I realized that my lovingkindness gestures were initiated less from the heart and more from the ego-need to always be the one giving the most. Lovingkindness began to feel like a koan that neither my head nor heart could figure out.
The turning point in my lovingkindness practice came when my younger daughter entered Kindergarten and I met Teacher Nancy. Teacher Nancy is everything you would imagine a Kindergarten teacher to be: rosy-cheeked, sweet-tempered, and buoyant with perpetual good cheer. As I dropped off Clara each morning, I’d watch parents and students alike flock to Teacher Nancy’s room simply to bask in her light. Soon I was joining the queue, addicted to the warm reassurance of Teacher Nancy’s lovingkindness.
During the months that followed, I came to think of Teacher Nancy as my spiritual guru–even though I was sure she’d never heard of Theravada Buddhism–and when Clara was promoted to first grade, I stayed behind. I hoped that Teacher Nancy would show me how to tap into my own eternal spring of goodness. That she could teach me how to infuse the world around me with lovingkindness.
For the next several years, I modeled Teacher Nancy carefully. I learned to share a kind word of encouragement and support with those I meet throughout the day, and to initiate friendliness rather than waiting for it to come to me. I practiced extending patience and compassion towards those who needed it the most, and I tried to remember to smile more than I frowned. Some days, it actually felt like I was making progress. My heart felt softer and more pliant in my chest than it did when my children were first born. But still, I struggled. I couldn’t master how to let my light be a balm for others without draining my own resources or feeding my petty ego needs. At times, it was so difficult for me to achieve that which seemed so effortless for Teacher Nancy that I wondered if maybe I had a learning disability when it came to matters of the heart.
Several years after I became her pupil, I mentioned to Teacher Nancy that she seemed to have such ready, easy love for the whole world. Her smile vanished and her face became somber. “But it isn’t easy at all,” she told me, shaking her head. As we stood in the middle of the playground, she shared with me that over the weekend she’d been in an especially low place. “I lay on the couch with my back to the world. I didn’t feel a drop of love for anyone or anything. Especially not myself. Do you know what I mean?”
Wide-eyed with surprise, I nodded my head vigorously. “Oh, I do,” I said. “I so know what you mean.”
Just then, several students from the upper class approached. Spotting Teacher Nancy, they ran up calling “Morning, Teacher Nancy” and threw their arms around her. Teacher Nancy smiled and addressed each of them–complimenting a daring hair style, asking about a newly born sibling, and wishing them luck on upcoming tests. When they’d received their fill of Teacher Nancy Love, they moved on, leaving us to finish our discussion.
“Keeping love in my heart is something I have to work on every day,” Teacher Nancy explained, as she patted my arm and smiled. “It isn’t easy at all.”
Our conversation was like a lightening bolt to my heart. Lovingkindness wasn’t something that was innate in some and lacking in others. Nor could lovingkindness be measured in how easily it flowed from the heart. After our exchange, I finally understood that what lay at the center of lovingkindness was brave and steadfast effort–nothing more and nothing less–and that cultivating a practice of lovingkindness was a lifelong opportunity to discover the hidden courage and determination within. That was the real lesson Teacher Nancy had been teaching me over the years.
My younger daughter just turned ten, marking almost a decade since I began my lovingkindness quest. Although there are still many lessons to be learned, my hope is that my gestures of love and kindness have left a path for my daughters to follow. That they will learn from me what I learned from Teacher Nancy: Lovingkindness is a commitment that must be renewed moment by moment, regardless of whether it feels like a gift to share or a burden to carry, and with each lovingkindness triumph as well as failure, we are given a chance to reaffirm our faith that this world can be a better place, beginning with each one of us. Even if it means returning to Kindergarten again and again to master the ABCs of a good heart.