On going soft in the head

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco — The homeless girl with love in her eyes.

It was during a balmy mid-afternoon in Central Oxford that I and my friend of some 20 years’ standing gingerly negotiated a crossing of the busy street that had first been lain a millennia ago during Saxon times — then a loosely set cobbled carriageway running northwards up from the ford of the oxen at Grandpont, some half mile or so distant along adjoining St. Aldates. The year was 1992 and a palpably self-satisfied, Thatcher-hewn metropolitan hum of affluence pervaded the air in equal measure to the oppressive diesel fumes belching from the buses and taxis that laboured and lurched their way along Cornmarket Street towards Carfax, twixt which our bodies wove, breathing in unnatural rhythms, yet mysteriously embracing the effluvium with bare arms and wide open hearts, unburdened neither by concerns nor the otherwise ubiquitously lugged, logo-laden bags of well-sated shoppers.

And then it hit me. Like Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, like Drury’s hypnotically corrective stick — ich liebe dich! I knew I was now in love, and that I loved my friend; I loved the woman who brushed past us so irritably; I loved, too, the arthritic elderly gentleman who froze with anxious eyes in deliberating the manner of his crossing, and I loved the carcinogenic particles pumping through my lungs out into the yielding air, the dumb dummies posing erect at shined panes with their cold, dead eyes and synthetic elegance, the chaos and indecipherable din of a gaggle of garrulous language students, of horns a-honking, of the lumbering bells of St. Michael’s tolling optimistically, and of ancient Oxenaforda’s silenced, illustrious past; yet I was not only in love, as love was now in me as I turned, looking at my friend, laconically offering, “I feel great”, at which, with pursed smile, he said, “You feel it too, do you?”

A religious may call it God’s Presence, though in these days of Rationalism I should deem it the cranial release of monoamines and oxytocin. I’m unsure what to call it, ‘Love’ seeming as polluted a term as was Cornmarket on that summer’s day 25 years ago. Most will know of this state by whatever name or none; Buddhists call it ‘Mettā’ (Pali) or ‘Maitrī’ (Sanskrit), ancient terms denoting ‘kindly, loving feelings of amity and benevolence’, the Aristotelian ‘Philia’ and Judaic ‘Chesed’ meaning the same. It’s a state of mind, my friend and I feeling it contemporaneously in empathic triggering of a brain region known as the Periaqueductal Gray; mirror neurons firing sympathetically, some might claim. It matters little; what counts is its vividly transcendent actuality, its negation of isolative self-consciousness. Most interesting, is it being a state susceptible to nurturing in Buddhist mental culture practices.

I’ve no interest in quasi-religious cosmologies or in ritualistically indulging spiritual performances of any hue; although I do enjoy evensong at nearby Wells Cathedral, imbibing both quietude and its glorious choral music as an uninitiated yet appreciative bystander. Still, there exist practices of mental culture advanced in ancient canonical texts that benefit us in contemporary life, easing burdens and providing solace; moreover, quieting our troubling, nascent neuroses and supplanting them with those feelings of Mettā — the amity and benevolence that so readily mirrors in encounters, be they with friend, stranger, or foe. Yes, foe too, as in the culture of Mettā we extend the feeling even to those to whom enmity is harboured, reorienting our former negative emotional predispositions. In our polarised, hate-drenched world, now moreso than ever I find this quiet mental skill an incomparable boon.

People are hurting; they are fearful in a world at its most perilous juncture since October 1962; greater still given AUMF and AGW. Our individual deep traumas arising from horrifyingly common sexual and physical abuses, and the acute stress disorders brought on by profound adversities or our innate neurological imbalances, must be addressed by professional clinical means. Mettā is not a cure-all or some nostrum for the naïvely credulous; rather it is an engaging of focused, potent feeling which conciliates an agitated mind, loosens nervously held tension, and eradicates discordant enmity. Buddhist psychology addresses the subtle absence of contentedness which pervades consciousness in varying degrees, ubiquitously so. We tolerate this just as we might static in radio reception, or the buzzing of our refrigerator. Mettā ameliorates this negative hum, softening our mind and social interactions.

Mickie his name was, the weaver betwixt buses, he of the mirror neurons, my fellow choker in the pack. After that day he began to develop the mental culture of Mettā so as to be able to auto-intuit that same sense of amity and connection whenever it was helpful. He dissolved his former self-centricity — an affliction common to us all — and others would quietly remark to him that something was different, he’d changed, in subtext asking what alchemy had caused this. Yet there was nothing in Mickie’s nature that isn’t present in others too; he’d simply learned to access the contentedness and amity lying dormant within humankind. I so admired him for cultivating his mind with Mettā, that faculty of intuiting a kindly benevolence which he gifted to others as much as to himself, they mirroring silently, unbidden. I think of it as him having gone soft in the head. If only I were wise enough, I would too.

Mettā very much: Marie Williams & Mickie Brough-T.