Interview With Two Buddhist Teachers About Heavy Metta

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When I moved to Portland last year I felt pretty lost—most days felt like I was jumping out of a plane into the unknown. Everything was different: from the language used (UK-English is very different than American-English) to how medical care works (and I’m not even sure I’ve figured that out yet!). Finding my way in a new country coincided with my sobriety taking a new direction: I felt compelled to direct my own recovery in a new way—this meant leaving 12 Step fellowships. It was crucial however, to find an alternative community as support is a fundamental pillar of my recovery. I decided to try something new and I attended my first Refuge Recovery meeting. It was there I met Gensho Walsh who greeted me with his warm, friendly, and welcoming face. I felt like I had come home. From then on, I started to explore Refuge Recovery, mindfulness meditation, and Buddhist practices—such as Metta—to assist my healing and support my recovery.

It was in my pursuit of these practices that led me to a day with Vinnie Ferraro on coming home, at Portland Insight Meditation Community. And it was there I met Gary Sanders in real life; he too was warm, friendly, and welcoming—he gave me this big comforting hug that has stuck with me.   

Gary and Gensho have—even though they may not know it—been a great source of comfort, inspiration, and immense sources of knowledge for me not only in my recovery journey, but in transitioning to life in the US. I was super excited to learn that they were bringing their group, Heavy Metta, to the Alano Club. This group is a weekly insight and Zen-flavored meditation group which offers practices and teachings in mindfulness, metta, and compassion.

As empowered Buddhist teachers, Gary and Gensho offer something unique which acts as an additional support to anyone’s recovery journey. And, as men both in long-term recovery, they know that journey well. I interviewed them about this ancient practice and how it can assist the growth and support in in one’s recovery.

Interview with Gary Sanders and Gensho Welsh

Olivia: Tell me what Metta means and how that might help one’s recovery?

Gensho: There’s a natural human capacity to care, to be kind. It’s built in, it’s wired into being a mammal. Metta just means returning to that natural capacity, uncovering that natural capacity, allowing it to blossom. There are so many things in our life that obscure it, right? I’ve spent some time watching the news, and then what I’m practicing is contempt. You get really good at that. You could say I even practice phrases of contempt. It’s a practice. We’re constantly rehearsing emotional states. Metta is an intention to rehearse a different kind of emotional state, to return to our natural compassionate being.

Gary: The translated version, the word metta comes from the Pali language. Well, the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha are in the Pali language. So that’s where a lot of these Buddhist phrases originate from. So that word, metta, gets translated as most commonly as lovingkindness. But probably a better translation is loving friendliness.

One of the most prolific Buddhist scholars that’s alive now, who we affectionately call Tom Goeff, [Thanissaro Bhikkhu] has been translating it lately as “goodwill.” The practice itself is this methodical opening of the heart. Really, the intention is to cultivate this Boundless Heart with lovingkindness for all beings, which would include ourselves. The practice is offering these phrases of goodwill, of loving friendliness, to ourselves, to loved ones, to people that we’re not really connected to as an exercise to open our hearts up. We offer it to difficult people. That’s not necessarily with the intention of bringing difficult people to our lives, but it’s this intention of releasing the resentment in our hearts. Ultimately, we extend these wishes, these phrases of metta to all beings everywhere. It’s this methodical practice of opening our hearts more and more, letting go more and more of the resentment, of the contempt, of comparison, of judgment, of all that stuff. So, it’s an unburdening.

Heavy Metta

Olivia: What is the meaning behind Heavy Metta? And why did you decide to provide this offering to people in recovery?

Gary: I was first asked by a yoga studio—I’m friends with the owners of this yoga studio—who wanted to bring a dharma group into their organization. When I started it, I had another friend that lived here locally, Shelby Lee, and I asked her to co-teach it with me. She was the one immediately, she’s a therapist by trade and she’s really good at marketing. So, she was kind of pressing me, what are we going to call the group? Just the thing that kind of popped up was metta, and then PDX, just short for the abbreviation for Portland. And I just thought it had a good ring to it, and it is my favorite practice. It’s the practice that’s brought me the most transformation... so much more than that, that’s the simple way to explain it.

So, Shelby and I started Metta PDX and then after a while Shelby ended up moving out of the country, and Gensho and I, as soon as I moved up here to Portland we becamefriends right away. One of the things—other than being Buddhist teachers—is that we enjoy is going to concerts together. The kind of music that we tend to go see live are metal concerts: doom, sludge, grindcore, punk shows. When I asked Gensho if he would like to start co-teaching with me, since Shelby was leaving, we had to change the night because of both our schedules. Other than the change of night, I knew there was going to be a different vibe that would be there—a different energy and flow to it. So, I thought we should change it to the term heavy metta.

Gensho: We can’t take credit for that.

Gary: It’s been widely used within the informal Buddhist community. For many years I’ve been part of the Online Meditation Crew that started on Twitter. It’s a hashtag. Every time you meditate you post on Twitter: checking in, checking out. One of the early members of that was from Mexico. He did a really cool design that said Heavy Metta. He’s a Tibetan practitioner, so it had the hands, and it had the Vajra, and it had some of the Tibetan props, like the little knife, and the little bell thing or whatever. It was a cool image. Sharon Salzberg has used it—she is one of my teachers and a friend of mine. When it came down to changing the name, Gensho and I both loved the practice and we both loved heavy metal, and it just kind of was a natural fit.

Olivia: It wasn’t specifically targeted to people in recovery, it just so happened that some people in recovery decided to attend? Is that right?

Gensho: That’s right.

Gary: We’re both in long-term recovery and we’re both super plugged into the Refuge Recovery community here. So that would just naturally be a big audience for us, or part of our audience. Our friends and our community already. I think we both incorporate, in any venue that we independently teach in, I think we bring aspects of recovery into our teachings just because it’s part of our stories, it’s part of our practice. The fifth precept, for us, it’s pretty clear. But in some other Buddhist traditions and lineages, they rationalize it as moderation. But really across the board all the translations of the fifth precept are pretty clear: to abstain from consuming any intoxicants that lead to heedlessness. So, we follow that.

Olivia: It makes total sense to someone in recovery. I’m particularly interested in exploring how someone with no experience of a metta practice, or no experience of anything related to Buddhism or Refuge, would understand the benefits of a metta practice to their recovery?

Gensho: One thing I would emphasize is that it can be a component of your practice, but of course there are other things, like a community of recovering people, that are really important. It can’t stand on its own. But within the other kinds of supports that we have, a metta practice is, I feel it’s specifically geared toward my recovery in a way that other meditation practices might not be in that sense that I really damaged my heart: I really inhibited my ability to care about others; and I was so completely absorbed in my own suffering and hangovers that it just wasn’t there. So, I need to take an active step in that kind of emotional healing. That’s a big part of it for me.

Once we move through that, there are other kinds of meditations and other aspects of the Buddhist path that can also contribute to my recovery. But healing the heart is where it’s relevant in a lot of ways.

Gary: The interesting thing about the practice, like I said, it’s traditionally done in this methodical process of offering of these phrases or these wishes of metta to different categories of people in our lives, which includes ourselves, and for me, coming into recovery, my story was I just wanted to stop drinking and using. I had a very clear insight that I was creating my own suffering by the amount of drugs and alcohol that I took in. And then fairly quickly I also started to see how my compulsions and my obsessions showed up in other areas of my life, whether it was related to different processes, whether it was food or sex or collecting, or buying ... whatever it was, there was an awareness about that. But when I first started to do the metta practice I quickly found out how much I despised myself and the level of self-hatred I carried around, the level of resentment towards myself just astronomical. I was in denial about that for so long—that’s pretty common with the recovery community. A lot of us show up and we’re really unconscious about how much we’ve been beating the shit out of ourselves. Until we build some of that awareness, we just have no idea how much we spend in our minds just beating ourselves up over and over, replaying everything we’ve done and said. And of course, that judgment goes out to everybody else. We’re professional victims. Everybody else is at fault. It’s not me. It’s mom, it’s dad, it’s the boss, it’s whatever. So, there’s just this unbearable amount of resentment that we carry around. That’s obviously a very common term within 12-step, that resentment takes people out, as they say. So, I find anybody that I sponsor within AA, if they’re interested in meditation at all, and especially within the Refuge Recovery, if I’m going to mentor anyone within the Refuge Recovery community, I’m going to try the metta right away. Other people have other ideas. I have people that stick their sponsees and mentees with simple concentration practices right away. But I have found again and again that across the board, everybody could use this practice right away, in early sobriety.

This is the second part of an interview with empowered Buddhist teachers Gensho Walsh and Gary Sanders who lead a weekly Insight and Zen-flavored meditation group which offers practices and teachings in mindfulness, metta, and compassion.  I have been talking to them about the practice in more detail and how this ancient practice can support one’s recovery. Both Gary and Gensho are in long-term recovery. For a more detailed bio, please see below.

Heavy Metta

Olivia: How might a person in recovery practice metta, say someone in early recovery. I know we've touched on prescribing that, but how might they begin?

Gensho: You can begin with any... one of the points about this is that it is a practice that's accessible throughout a whole lifetime of meditation. You can start with metta as it is, any of the typical teachings or guided meditations on metta will do. Often, like Gary said, it's good to emphasize sending metta to yourself. That could be your whole practice at first. One thing I'd like to mention is that metta, once again, is a natural, built-in part of the human being.

Lovingkindness is throughout the AA program. I was just thinking about how much I learned about metta within the Big Book.For instance, step 10, my AA sponsor was really into step 10. It's kind of like a hologram of the other steps. It says, "Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear. When these crop up we ask God at once to remove them." When these pop up we ask God at once to remove them. We would walk through this step by step on the phone if I was upset, so he'd say, once you'd get there, you say a prayer, right? Please remove my resentment and fear. That's a phrase of metta. We could say "May I be free from resentment and fear."

We discuss someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone. Then we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help. My sponsor liked to say, “just visualize helping them”. That's metta. Visualizing helping someone is cultivating metta. And then the last phrase I love is just, “Love and tolerance of others is our code”.

When my AA sponsor taught me to meditate and we got to step 11, he basically taught me a theistic version of metta. You are imagining yourself in a bubble where your creator, your higher power, is just surrounding you with love and light. You just sit there for 10 minutes just penetrating your whole being with this love and unconditional regard coming from your higher power. That was metta teaching he did.

Gary: One thing just in terms of logistics of practice, or to help place out, one of the common things I hear when people are new to the practice, they'll say, you can do the practice just offering it to yourself to begin with. Some people will immediately say that sounds selfish. I shouldn't be thinking about myself, I should just be thinking about others. The thing is, you really have to be able to truly care for yourself, forgive yourself, love yourself, in order to be able to give that and offer that to anybody else.

The great sage of our time, RuPaul, says how the hell are you going to love anybody else if you can't love yourself. It's so important. And the methodical practice of offering that, in early recovery, you get resentments all the time. You go to meetings, you're going to get resentments. If you don't go to meetings you're going to get resentments. You get a sponsor, you get resentments. If you don't get a sponsor, you get resentments.

So, these are perfect objects of your meditation. Rather than spend more time hating this person or blaming this person or judging this person or whatever it is, this is a great opportunity to practice. I'm going to change my relationship with this. It doesn't mean you have to invite them over for tea. You don't need to sit down to a meal with them. They don't need to occupy your mind any more than they have already.

Loving kindness

Olivia: Let's talk about some benefits that someone might see with a daily practice—that could be the practice of metta or that could just be the practice of meditation.

Gary: The Buddha gave the teaching of metta (called the metta sutra) and it's very simple, it's like a one-page thing and it talks about wishing all beings to be happy, to live with ease, to be free from suffering, it goes through this methodical, big and small, great, medium, large, seen and unseen, all this stuff. Later, after he gave that teaching, he was asked what some of the benefits of metta were, and some of the benefits are that you will sleep better, you will wake easier, people and animals will love you, your face will become radiant, you'll die unconfused. 2,600 years ago, they talked about these benefits...

Buddhist practice isn't about taking anything on blind faith at all. We hear the stuff, we're instructed about the stuff, but the instruction is to practice this and find out for yourself. On my own personal journey of metta, I've experienced most of these things. There is a historical benefit they say that you'll be protected from fire, weapons and poison and honestly that's a metaphor. The Buddha talked about the 3 poisons: hatred, greed, and delusion. I'd like to think he was kind of talking about that. That it combats against hatred, greed, and delusion of all types. But for me, I completely changed my relationship with myself. This is the one thing I make such a dedicated practice at least offering it to myself that from this practice I've been able to feel comfortable in my own skin. I do sleep better, I wake easier, I don't live my life in my head in warfare anymore. I'm not in judgment of myself and others anymore. It changed everything.

Gensho: When my own teacher was first teaching metta and leading guided meditations on metta, she often used the phrase, "may I be free from fear and anxiety." Part of that is knowing people from other countries and comparing, what are they like and what are Americans and people in the west like? We’re so burdened with anxiety comparatively. So, she felt it was helpful to address that directly in the phrases. Of course, how much did fear propel my addiction? That's a big one. I haven't necessarily seen instant results, like we can't count on instant results from things like this. But sometimes you get instant results. A lot of my own fear I've experienced is my own hostility coming back at me. If I am full of hostility, and kind of like "aaaaah" it just is getting reflected on me, whereas if I get into a situation with a somewhat open heart and open mind, and actually cultivate kindness, that hostility isn't coming back at me anymore. so that can be an instant relief.

Gensho: One kind of instant relief is being free from my own projections.

Olivia: How it could be used in an overwhelming situation?

Gary: If you wanted to tie in some very simple phrases, which I use any time, if I'm feeling anxious, I'm feeling scared, I'm feeling nervous, angry -- I will match the intensity of my mental state that's going on, stories are raging or whatever, or the emotion is at a high vibration, I'll match that intensity with some simple phrases: I am happy, I am well, I am peaceful. I said it slow then, but (says it fast) and eventually I'll start noticing the intensity draining out of my body and the mind slowing down, and I'll slow the phrases down to match the speed of that vibration, so those simple ... I learned those from a little Sri Lankan monk many years ago and I still use them all the time.


Gary moved to Portland in the spring of 2016 from the Los Angeles area, where he was the founding teacher of SCV Mindfulness for over 5 years. He was empowered to lead Buddhist meditation and dharma groups by Noah Levine and Vinny Ferraro of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society and also helped found Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist based recovery program for all addictions, which has now spread worldwide. Gary was asked to join the teaching staff at Portland Insight Meditation Community by Robert Beatty and the PIMC Teachers' Council. His wife and daughters continue to be his greatest teachers.

Gensho serves as a Dharma Teacher with the Zen Community of Oregon, where he has regularly offered talks, workshops, and classes. He leads weekday morning meditation at Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple. He was empowered as a Dharma Holder by Chozen Bays Roshi and Hogen Bays Roshi in 2016. He has been applying Buddhist principles to his own recovery since 2002 and helped to launch the first Refuge Recovery meeting in Portland in 2014. He and his wife raised 3 children (now adults) in Portland, Oregon.


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Olivia Pennelle