Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Writing Love Letters to yourself ~ Practicing "maitri"...

"I write you letters by the thousands in my mind."

~ Ludwig von Beethoven ~

I have always loved this quote. I used to be an avid letter writer in the days when we all wrote long letters. Twenty pages to a dear friend was nothing, with pressed flowers, perfume, quotes on tiny bits of colored paper tucked in, sealing wax on the back of the envelope, written with a dip pen and a bottle of ink. Oh, how I miss those days, when letter-writing was such an intimate act, not like a phone call, or especially e-mail, which is ephemeral. A letter you can hold in your hands and read and reread, tie in a bundle with ribbon, like the lady has done in the picture above, and dream dreams of friends, loved ones, or your long lost beloved, and open carefully the old, worn, oft-read pages, feeling and even smelling your loved one, the handwriting on the page, a reflection of the soul. I suppose these entries that I write here are my love letters to you, to all of you, heart to heart, soul to soul, dipping my pen in the ink as I go...

Beethoven wrote the above to a woman he would only name as his "Immortal Beloved," and the letters are so beautiful they take your breath away. There was music in the letters, as there was in the man.

Friends laughed at me when I finally got on the internet, and began using e-mail. I was probably the last person on the planet to do so, and I had published a 100 page quarterly called "The Contemplative Way ~ Slowing Down In A Modern World," in which I wrote that I would never sell out to the internet and do this curious "e-mail" instead of writing real letters. (Having now created several websites and numerous blogs and getting sometimes hundreds of e-mail a day, I will never hear the end of my statement back then.) It was published through my little "Blue Hibiscus Press," for the beautiful Hibiscus Syriacus, 'Blue Bird,' that rare blue hibiscus, blue as the sky with huge blooms and magenta in the throat. That plant came to me the summer I "came down" with Bell's Palsy.

I had the worst case three doctors had seen. Ninety percent of people with Bell's recover within three months or so. Fifteen years later I am still more than a little marked by it. To this day, despite medical care, acupuncture, alternative therapies and more, I am cattywompus and lopsided and my left eye droops a little when I am really tired. I felt like the Phantom of the Opera. It's a terrible thing to look into your mirror for the first time with one side of your face pulled down as if by weights. Freakish. And then my little plant was delivered. My garden was my refuge and my solace that summer, and she bloomed quickly, and when I felt my ugliest, the beauty of this flower so astounded me I started a small press and began publishing my quarterly. I called the plant, "Miss Blue."

It was only a year ago that she died out, having survived, for a decade, being dug up and planted in a half barrel after I moved when separated from a long marriage. I couldn't leave her behind. She saved me that summer, and once more I began to believe in beauty. Gradually, she made me believe in myself again.

It came to me, just the other day, that what that blue hibiscus did for me is what I have now dedicated my life to, the teaching of maitri, the Buddhist teaching of loving-kindness and compassion. But the root of the teaching is that you must first have it toward yourself before you have it to give to another. You must love yourself, find beauty in your Self -- and inner beauty is the most important kind -- you must have compassion for yourself, and, for me, the practice of maitri came together with that blue hibiscus, and old fashioned letter writing, but this time I felt a wonderful way to achieve the root of that teaching was to take the time, once a month, to write yourself a "love letter."

Start with Dear ________ (Your first name...) and write it as if to a person you love dearly. When you don't write in first person, you distance yourself enough so that you can see yourself from a more objective perspective. I realize that this is an awkward, uncomfortable thing to do, at first, but if you can make yourself do it the first time, and put it in a lovely envelope, and tie a ribbon around it, adding to the letters each month, and perhaps keeping them in a special box or basket, one day you will have many letters. On your hard days, the days when your self esteem is low, or you don't feel your worth, your beauty, and the loveliness of your inner self, you can open them up and read the letters.

Make it a very special time. Have a glass of wine, a cup of tea, or whatever you find relaxing and soothing. Light a candle. Meditate for a few minutes before you start, relaxing your whole body from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, slowly, slowly, and open your eyes only when you feel ready. Then open the first letter and read them all, or as many as you need to to remember what a beautiful, loving, kind, compassionate person you are, and in that mode, think of one small way that you might share those feelings with another. When you reach out to a person with loving-kindness, you not only help them, you strengthen your core, you believe, more and more, in yourself, and you have more and more to give.

You can start the letters with "I write you letters by the thousands in my mind..." and write about your good qualities, precious memories, how someone else loved you and how they expressed those feelings. Write about the things that you love, that bring you joy, like flowers, a walk in nature, a bubble bath, taking a child for a walk (they see so many things that we miss...) and anything else you can think of. Now, bring more of those things into your life. Write your favorite quotes on little slips of pretty, colorful paper and stick them in the envelope. Perhaps pressed flowers or fragrant herbs from your garden. Include, if you like, photographs of people you love, or places you traveled that brought you great happiness, or put in little drawings of your own. It's okay if they are lopsided and childlike, they are you. Feel very tender toward the child still inside you. Write you dreams for the future, and then work on concrete ways to make them real, one baby step at a time.

You can take all month to write this letter, adding bits and pieces and memories and flowers and quotes and all the love you can muster. Be gentle with yourself. If you have trouble with this exercise start with one kind thing you remember having done, one compassionate thing you've done for another, one kind act, and they may seem very simple, small things, but once you start writing you will remember more and more, and each month you will build on those. You may close the envelope with sealing wax, with a prayer, with a promise to yourself that when you break that seal and read that letter, you will continue to practice maitri toward yourself, and let all of the memories lift you up, and be at peace.

Love yourself. Build on that love. Find ways to give to others around you, which will reinforce your connection to your inner beauty. Make it a spiritual practice if you choose. Make it what you need it to be. Then tie the ribbon back around it, put it in your box, basket or other holding place, and always remember they are there and how they made you feel reading them. Ride the waves of that love, and keep the river of love ever flowing, inside, and then out, inside and then out, in concentric circles, all around the world. After awhile you won't even have to think about it, you will be living maitri, and you will never be the same again.

Love yourself. I do. Now begin your first letter. I write you letters by the thousands in my mind...