“That's so meta.” ... From self-reflective to the Buddhist mettā (cultivating benevolence), “we can practice wild lovingkindness to extend beyond one being, beyond humanity.” Here, 5 mettā moment starters, plus a practice for reflecting on your wild connections.
“It’s not your fault,” my husband, Sean, comforts me.
“But it is my responsibility!” I declare.
We are standing outside our house, looking down at a stunning, vivid red cardinal who is … stunned. A few minutes earlier, he had flown with great aplomb into the picture window of my writing den. The moment I heard the *thump* my heart sank.
Grabbing my phone, I speed-dialed the local wildlife rehabilitator for suggestions. As I prepared to carry out her instructions, the cardinal perked up and hopped off into the tall grass. I sat vigil (hoping to avoid sitting shiva) in prayerful meditation. Twenty nervous minutes later, I witnessed him fly—albeit a bit wonky—on his way. I promptly bought “anti-collision” window decals. Father Cardinal helped himself, and now I would try to prevent future injuries.
As a former travel addict who is now consistently home due to the pandemic, I am reconsidering all my relationships with other beings. Like that Mama Mouse who moved into my Jeep’s glove compartment. Accidentally startling her, I spent days mentally wooing Mama back to her babies while Sean reminded me about potential car wiring repairs in our near future. As I enlisted Facebook friends for prayers and good vibes, a lively discussion commenced about humanity’s obligation to “other” beings.
The Paradox of Other
Humans have struggled with finding the right words for those with whom we share Earth, from animalkind, otherkind, and sentient beings to David Abram’s “more-than-human world” and Lisa Kemmerer’s “anymal.”
In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, ethologist Frans de Waal cautions us about our word choices: “Even the term nonhuman grates on me since it lumps millions of species together by an absence, as if they were missing something. When students embrace this jargon in their writing, I cannot resist sarcastic corrections in the margin saying that for completeness’s sake, they should add that the animals they are talking about are also nonpenguin, nonhyena, and a whole lot more.”
How we name often influences whom we are willing to care about. I have a fondness for mammals of the order Rodentia. Small, furry, and curious, they warm my heart. Yet, not all my friends share this love, deeming “rodents” as undesirable and unwanted.
For millennia, humans have been asking, “How far do we extend our compassion?” A survey of myriad spiritual traditions reveals a tool often referred to as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
And yet, when it comes to some beings, we are flummoxed at how to apply this guiding principle. We work hard not to project our anthropocentric views. And, at the same time, we must avoid anthropodenial, which de Waal describes as “rejecting humanlike traits in other animals or animal-like traits in us.” Admittedly, doing unto any being is not an easy task.
Embracing Our Nature
If you are anything like me, your shelf overfloweth with books on forest bathing, rewilding, animal meditations, and wilderness practices. Most encourage us to ditch our phones, grab our packs, and head out to connect with “nature.” We act as if this nature is some thing of which we are not a part. And, yet, many of our spiritual traditions suggest that is not the case. As theologian Carol Wayne White suggests, “Humans are relational processes of nature. ... We are nature made aware of itself.”
We are nature. We are animal. We are wild.
This is our meta-awareness.
For the Greeks, meta meant “beyond.” For gamers, it is an acronym for “most effective tactics available.” On social media, “so meta” can describe something that is self-reflective. And, for those of us who dabble (or immerse) in Buddhist practices, mettā encourages us to cultivate benevolence and lovingkindness. Shantideva proclaimed in the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra (A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life): “Even the thought to relieve living creatures of merely a headache is a beneficial intention endowed with infinite goodness.” Shantideva was so mettā.
We can practice wild lovingkindness to extend beyond one being and one headache to reach all sentient beings who are suffering from loss of habitat, illegal wildlife trade, the threat of extinction, and other distress.
Our wild relationships do not require us to go anywhere. With all apologies to John Muir, the mountains are indeed calling, but right now some of us cannot go. Luckily, we don’t need to crest Yosemite or bathe in the forests of Japan to get in touch with wildness. Instead, from our ecological location (a helpful term coined by ethicist Daniel Spencer) we observe, reflect, and expand our circle of compassionate connection.
At my eco-location, Father Cardinal frequently returns, always noticeable by his distinct bobbling flight pattern. I watch him for a few moments, silently offering May you be healthy. May you be free from suffering. Mama Mouse seems to have moved on, but I expect we haven’t seen the last of her or her offspring. After all, they were born to be wild. ♫
Here are 5 mettā moment starters:
- Morning mettā: Start each day with these words, first for the living beings around you and then extending out to all life forms: May you dwell in safety. May you be happy and healthy. May you be free of afflictions. May you be at peace.
- Curiosity identified the cat: When we are knowledgeable about the species with whom we share our location, the less we see them as strangers, and the more we can extend compassion. Download the Seek app from iNaturalist to learn more about the other living beings near you. Or check out Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdNET, a Shazam!-like app for learning “who sings what.”
- Lectio terrestris: Take your reading outside in the lectio practice Belden C. Lane describes as “a richly interactive reading of the Earth itself with the expectation of being changed by what we read.” My favorites include The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman and Kindness for All Creatures: Buddhist Advice for Compassionate Animal Care by Sarah C. Beasley.
- Prepare a lifeline: Search for “wildlife rehabilitator near me.” Read about your area’s resources. Then enter useful numbers in your phone contacts so they will be easy to locate if needed.
- Seek the wild in everyone.
Reflection: Wild Connections
1. Grab a journal and pen.
2. Identify somewhere that supports contemplation, where you can be undisturbed for a few minutes.
3. Take a deep breath. Continue to inhale and exhale slowly for a few minutes, gazing gently at your present environment or ecological location.
4. Next, contemplate this statement: You are one of over 7.8 billion humans among 8.7 million more species of life on Earth.
5. Ask yourself the questions below, reflecting for a few minutes on each. Write anything that pops into your mind. Avoid editing or judgment of what arises in your mind.
- Which animals did I observe in the last week?
- Who are some animals that I was not present to, but supported my lifestyle?
6. Take a deep breath. Breathe deep.
7. Now ask these questions, and jot down your thoughts:
- Are there any animals I might like to spend more time getting to know? Who might I want to extend more compassion?
- How can I embrace wildness?