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  • Karl Thunemann

Invocation: Opening with ‘May I’

The catalog calls this "older woman meditating by the sea." What they don't know about "older"!

When my practice of loving-kindness meditation was in its early stages, I was eager to share it. So naturally enough I brought the technique to the meditation group my wife and I facilitate at the senior residential cooperative where we live.

It was a rough go. I started by explaining how the technique works. You pick a quality you would like to cultivate—say, being well---and you set it in a little meditation: May I Be Well. You repeat the phrase, perhaps silently or in a low voice, and gradually open your mind to what it means to be well.

why am I so loyal to “May I”? To me, it is not the opening of a question, but an invocation, opening my heart and mind to develop a much-desired quality

One older woman in the group balked at the formula of “May I.” Why should she ask for permission to be well when she already understood perfectly what it is to be well? She is well into her nineties.  So, as our group has little use for dogma, we set out in a mixed way to seek loving-kindness. Some of us said, “May I,” while others said “I am…”

I didn’t pursue this further with our group. If these women in their 80s and 90s felt they already understood what they were seeking, who I was I to erect a roadblock? But they left me to ponder a serious question: Why does it seem that all writers on loving-kindness favor “may I”?

And beyond that, why am I so loyal to “May I”? To me, it is not the opening of a question. It is not a game of Mother May I, but an invocation, opening my heart and mind to develop a much-desired quality. It seems axiomatic that these sought-after qualities contain elements that lie beyond my ready understanding. Knowing about them is not enough. And I don’t expect results from chanting this invocation once, or weekly, or even over several months. In loving-kindness, change and understanding emerge slowly, and not exactly as we might have expected.

I do have a list of subjects (right now I have nine, some of them so complex they cry out to be divided).  But I can’t stand by with a checklist as they sidle by, saying Yup, got this one, but that one still needs a bit of work. Change arises subtly from repetition, and one day is likely to seem much like the next.

The deeper I get into loving-kindness, the more I see that some disturbing ways of thinking and feeling appear to have taken up residence in me. It occurs to me that I should be grateful for these qualities, but how could I possibly feel grateful? Just framing this question invites me to regard these traits more dispassionately. Some are new; others are lifelong companions. Perhaps this calls for another formulation.  I remind myself, May I take my time.


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