This is a story about cake.
One recent Sunday, I had a most tranquil morning. I escaped the toy-strewn house, drove to the beach, sipped my coffee, watched the waves, and did just a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation, which is as many minutes of that meditation as I can stomach because it’s just so sappy — and it’s hard — but it works.
In loving-kindness meditation you generate positive feelings in your body and then radiate that warmth out into the world. You start by closing your eyes and silently sending loving blessings to yourself. Then you send them to someone who’s special to you, and then to a random person out there, and finally to someone you absolutely can’t stand.
Why someone you can’t stand? Because as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
And how true! Just imagine how much more peaceful the world would be if difficult and/or coldhearted people were walloped with a million daily currents of kindness and love.
But the real power of loving-kindness meditation lies in the fact that Dr. King’s quote applies to the hatred that stews inside of us, not inside of other people: Love can diffuse our hate, as well — only one emotion can hold at a time.
And this, friends, is why just a few sappy morning minutes spent conjuring tenderness for myself and other people will fill my spirit — and the day’s interactions — with a meaningful sense of compassion, pride, and sweetness.
So now, back to the topic of sweetness:
After indulging my inner Buddha at the beach I floated to Damark’s market, on the hunt for grilled chicken and avocados. Mellowing in the checkout line, smiling like a yoga-pantsed Cheshire Cat, I spotted in the pastry case a positively decadent chocolate cake. It was big, huge, covered in swirls of fudge, and topped with hunks of brownie. I bought it, because — Sunday.
Later that day, after dinner, I retrieved the cake from the car where I had left it all day long, because — lazy. I called the family to the dining table, set the cake down on the countertop, and was about to cut into it unceremoniously when I decided it was just too pretty not to be used in service of a celebration. So I stuck a candle in the center, grabbed a lighter, and brought them both with me to the table.
“We are gonna sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to someone whose birthday it is!” I proclaimed.
“It’s somebody’s birthday?” my son asked. “Whose?”
“I don’t know — but somebody’s,” I assured him.
“I dunno,” I responded. “Somebody’s. Think of all the people in the world. It’s probably a gazillion people’s birthdays today.”
The kids stared at me.
“They’re not gonna get it,” my husband warned, and this made me more determined than ever.
“Hang on,” I told them. “Let’s do the math.” I whipped out my phone and Googled “How many people are in the world.” The answer? Seven-point-seven billion.
I opened up my phone calculator but immediately decided I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to figure out how to enter the number 7.7 billion using the numerical keypad. “Hey, Siri,” I called instead. “What is 7.7 billion divided by 365?”
“Twenty-one million,” Siri spat, nonchalantly. I feel like she’s always looking down at me.
“See?” I asked the kids. “Seven-point-seven billion people divided by 365 days per year means that it’s just about 21 million people’s birthdays today.”
They just. Kept. Staring. “Can we eat cake?”
“Okay, fine,” I agreed, deciding that the singing and eating would buy me some time to figure out how I might nag them into understanding the concept. “Here we go,” I said, and set the yellow-and-white candle ablaze.
“Happy birthday to youuu,” we sang in mutually perplexed yet reverential harmony, “happy birthday to youuu, happy birthday to somebodyyy” — “to myselfff,” my son interjected — “happy birthday to youuuu.”
Pleased, we nodded to one another and cut the cake.
“Okay,” I began, “you know how we all have birthdays here?”
“Uh-huh,” they replied.
“Well, so does everyone else in this world. In fact, everybody else in this world not only has their own birthdays, they also feel things, and think things, and do things, just like we do.”
They considered this highfalutin idea.
“I bet that right now somebody is saying a bad word,” said my daughter.
“I bet that right now someone is pooping,” said my son.
“I bet that right now someone is hopping on their left foot and brushing their teeth,” I said.
I took a few moments to quietly contemplate the technical probability of that scenario, finally deciding there were likely about seven people in the world hopping and brushing as we ate, probably for a slim variety of reasons.
By the time I reached this conclusion, my plate was empty and my stomach was full — and so, as they say, was my heart.
By sending caring vibes out into the world my family had filled our meaningful slice of atmosphere with a joyous energy, while actively generating a sweet, celebratory warmth inside of us that transformed a lazy Sunday into a sacred and beautiful occasion, a new tradition.
I don’t know if sending invisible currents of kindness and love to another person directly raises their level of good cheer, but the practice unequivocally raises mine. And from this place of lightness, I’m more inclined to relate to others with a contagious air of calmness and peace.
And this, for sure, brings light into the world we share. Which means the good vibes I put out will reach my intended recipients one way or another, whether through the grand ether or in person, at the market, while I cruise the aisles grinning like a Disney feline, grasping a shopping basket full of chicken, avocados, and, every few Sundays, cake.
When we send blessings to others we get peace because we feel less helpless against the evils of the world. It’s a loving action so it puts us in a position of calm power, like that of a gentle, understanding parent who knows that their child’s most destructive impulses are really just tantrums of a spirit in pain — a pain that can be soothed by providing the most central need of all: loving kindness.
Within every one of us is an innocent child who feels things and thinks things and does things and, maybe most crucially, needs things too. And it’s probably the most difficult and coldhearted among us who have the biggest need of all for someone — perhaps a mom, her pragmatic husband, and their two utterly mystified kids — to hold them in their thoughts with love and kindness, to bless them, and to sing them happy birthday.
Marissa Friedes Cangiolosi, a writer and writing consultant living in East Hampton, blogs at mominsearchofself.com. Under the name Marissa Fallon, her story “Imperfect Creatures” is in a new book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Christmas.”