“In Case No One Told You Today”

“In case no one told you today”

In case no one told you today:

– You’re beautiful

– You’re loved

– You’re needed

– You’re alive for a reason

– You’re stronger than you think

– You’re gonna get through this

– I’m glad you’re alive

– Don’t give up

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Possible Author – Live Life Happy
www.livelifehappy.com

Victor

I arrived at this hospital yesterday. When checking in, I told them I had been feeling suicidal. Someone put me in a wheelchair and brought me up to the 4th floor: the psychiatric ward. Someone else went through my belongings and found a pair of draw-string pants and pulled out the thin, cotton strip that would cinch around my waist. Did they really think I would kill myself with that?

Then, I was shown to my room with a single bed, the only window looking out at a drab grey building. I was told someone would check in on me every fifteen minutes. Instead of this unnerving me, I felt a great sense of relief. I felt safe for the first time in what seemed a long time.

The next day, I meet the other patients. There’s Andrea, who has obviously either been here for some time, or has come here before. She shows me “the ropes”: where to do laundry, where to shower, what time meals are. She rooms with Jasmine, who appears to be about Andrea’s age and it’s clear they have formed a friendship. One time, I hear a commotion, so I poke my head out of my room. Jasmine is in a wheelchair and Andrea is pushing her hard and fast down the corridor. They are both laughing and whooping it up and I find myself smiling a much-needed smile.

Then there’s Oscar with his droopy mustache and shuffling walk, who hangs out often with the waif-looking Toby; the two of them often having private conversations.

And then there’s Henry, who is wall-eyed and Asian, whose black, untended hair stands straight up. He can’t bear to look anyone in the eye and his whole body language is apologetic. He exudes both sweetness and confusion.

Victor is the only patient I am afraid of. He exhibits that kind of behavior that you see on the street that you want to avoid. He stands in a corner and argues with someone – someone the rest of us can’t see. Sometimes his voice becomes louder, turning to rage. Because I am so very anxious, and because there often seems to be no orderlies around, my fear escalates. I wring my hands; will he become violent? Will he unleash his violence on someone here? Me, even?

The other patients and I keep our distance from him. We all, excluding Victor, gravitate to one another, forming a kind of short-term family, while he remains a loner. I don’t know about the others, but I want it to remain that way.

But on my third day here, something changes that.

We are all gathered in the community room, including Victor. We take our places – Victor in the corner arguing, the rest of us sitting around the table, loosely interacting.

The TV is on, as usual. Today, someone has put in the DVD “Ghost”, which we look up at occasionally. Then the famous scene comes on with Demi Moore at the potter’s wheel, while Patrick Swayze comes up from behind, puts his arms around her, his hand joining hers. Then the familiar song, “Unchained Melody”, by The Righteous Brothers starts up, enhancing the scene.

Suddenly, Victor stops arguing. He turns from his corner and walks towards us and looks at the screen. He listens for a second, then opens his mouth and starts singing. His voice is full. His voice is tender. His voice is full of feeling. He knows every word, and every word is pitch-perfect. His gaze, usually hard and glazed over, becomes bright and clear, his blue black face is beatific and glows with an inner light. He is angelic.

The rest of us watch him, our jaws dropping. We are transfixed. We can’t believe what is happening. We know we are experiencing some sort of miracle.

And then the song stops – and when it does, Victor’s demeanor changes, and he turns away and goes back to his corner, resuming his argument.

For a full moment, no one says anything. We are stunned into silence. For a full moment we drop our roles (and our guard) and fall into that silence.

And then the moment passes. Patrick Swayze removes his arms from Demi Moore. Andrea and Jasmine look at each other and giggle. Oscar and Toby exchange glances. I bite my nails, my nerves returning. Henry hangs his head, as if embarrassed to be alive.

∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗

Now, looking back at that incident, I realize many things. The first, most obvious realization is that music has the power to heal, if only for a few minutes. Everybody knows this, to a degree. If I’m feeling funky, I can, for example, listen to Al Green’s “Belle” and my whole mood shifts. When his beautiful, soulful voice enters the room and for some time afterwards, I feel uplifted, changed.

The second realization is that for as long as “Unchained Melody” lasted, Victor was no longer “other” – someone to be feared and avoided. For those few minutes, he became a part of our weird, dysfunctional family. He became a part of us, and we were a part of him.

For years afterwards, I thought about that incident and wondered about Victor: How did he get that way? Why was he so angry? Was it purely a “chemical imbalance”? What was his life like before he came to the hospital? Did he live on the streets? Does he now? Did he ever fall in love, have a family?

Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I only know he is my brother of sorts. I know his metamorphosis made me believe in miracles. I know I want beauty to be always a part of his life.

And, wherever he is today, I hope he is singing.

Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers/Produced by Philles Records (1965)

Belle by Al Green (producer, 1977)

∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗

No Separation

 

If you think you are

not the drunk at the post

office reeking of alcohol

and loneliness, you got

another thing coming.

Pain is pain.

Nobody wakes up one day

and decides to be homeless

and carry around a bottle.

What happens in that space

between the precious baby

and the stumbling man?

If there’s one thing I know,

even though at times it

may seem otherwise,

is that there is no such

thing as “us” and “them”,

and until we realize that

there will be no peace.

So lend a hand, a smile,

some money, sign a petition,

say a prayer, tip higher

if you can.

Each act helps us yield

to the simple truth that

there is no separation

between me and you.

No one is going

to come along

and save us from our

own undoing but ourselves,

interconnected reflections

of each other, each of us

a part of the holy web.

                        ~ Maluma

 

 

Cari

Cari Looking to the Right (2)

I walk into Cari’s room. The lights

are dim and the TV is on. When she looks

up at me from her recliner, I notice she is

squinting.

“Oh. Migraine”, I say, keeping my

words to a minimum.

She sighs. “Yup”.

“Again”.

“Yup”.

“I’m sorry. I’ll be quick. I want to let you know a caregiver won’t be coming today, after all”.

“Oh. Who was on”?

“Liza”, I say.

And then I quietly leave the room, closing

the door gently behind me.

As I return to the living room, I reflect on our relationship. Cari and I met through a mutual friend. I had heard she had epilepsy, too, and I really wanted to know how she managed.

I had a lot of compassionate friends, but I knew it would be different if I met someone who dealt with the same issues that I did. I wanted to know: how did she cope? Did she have seizures often? What kind? Did she take meds? Were they under control?

We eventually got together and shared information, and shortly thereafter, became friends. The friendship turned into attraction and we fell in love. A year later, we exchanged vows in a wedding ceremony in our front yard.

When I knew we were falling in love, when I knew this was a relationship I wanted to pursue, I realized at some point we would need help (I had learned in the first few months of knowing her that she had other health challenges, including debilitating migraines, chronic sinusitis, and what eventually culminated in arthritis throughout her body, due to past injuries and years of playing sports. On top of that, she occasionally walked in her sleep!). At first, this help came from friends who were willing to step in when we were both down for the count, mostly to do needed errands. But I knew as we aged, we would need more assistance.

Evening is my favorite time of day, because it means that Cari will come out of her den and we’ll watch TV together for a couple of hours before the caregiver shows up for the night. One of our cats (Reggie) curls up between us as we watch our favorite programs. It’s family time for us.

I love this ritual. We may not talk much, but that doesn’t matter; her presence is really all I need. She gives me something that no one else can, because she understands what it is like to live with chronic conditions and because some of those conditions overlap.

Over the past 25 years, we have seen each other through seizures, pain, emotional ups and downs, struggles with doctors, changes in medications and even menopause. We have figured it out. We get each other. And that gives me incredible comfort, and that is what has kept us together.

There are times, though, when one of us becomes insecure and wonders: Am I too much for her?

Here’s my response when it’s she that feels this way:

 

My Rock

 

You are my rock

not my hard place.

I lean back on your

solid stone so I can

feel the sun on my

face and the breeze

on my skin.

You are an artist.

You take the pieces of me

that are broken

– shattered shards –

and make them into

stained glass

the light singing through

all of the colors

not leaving even one of them out.

Cari and Maluma Peaceful (2)

 

Book Excerpt “I Am…”

The following is an excerpt from I Am, I Am, I Am – Seventeen Brushes with Death – a Memoir by Maggie O’Farrell. She had many brushes with death and this excerpt is about her recovery from encephalitis. Her description of recuperation is brilliant.

“Writing about this is hard, not in the sense that it is a difficult time for me to revisit. It’s not that it’s unwieldy or painful material to think about or mould into sentences and paragraphs. It’s more that the time I spent in hospital is the hinge on which my childhood swung. Until that morning I woke up with a headache, I was one person, and after it, I was quite another. No more bolting along pavements for me, no more running away from home, no more running at all. I could never go back to the self I was before and I have no sense of who I might have been if I hadn’t contracted encephalitis as a young child.

The experiences you live through while gravely ill take on a near-mystical quality. Fever, pain, medicine, immobility: all these things give you both clarity and also distance, depending on which is riding in the ascendant.

I recall my encephalitis, in its most acute phase, in flashes, in staccato bursts, in isolated scenes. Some things are as raw and immediate as the moment they happened; these, I can inhabit as myself, in the first person, in the present tense, if you like. Others I have almost to force myself to confront and I watch them as I might a film: there is a child in a hospital bed, in a wheelchair, on an operating table; there is a child who cannot move. How can that child ever have been me?

Of its aftermath, the rehabilitation, I have a stronger sense. The coming home from hospital, the weeks and months of being at home, in bed, drifting up and down on currents of sleep, listening in on the conversations, meals, emotions, arrivals and departures of family life below. The visitors who came, bearing books and soft-toy animals and, once, a man from over the road bringing a basket of baby guinea pigs, which he let loose in my bed, their tiny, clawed, panicked pink feet skittering up and down my wasted legs.

Convalescence is a strange, removed state. Hours, days, whole weeks can slide by without your participation. You, as the convalescent, are swaddled in quiet and immobility. You are the only still thing in the house, caught in stasis, a fly in amber. You lie there on your bed like it draped stone effigy on a tomb. As the only sound you hear is that of your own body, its minutiae assumes great import, becomes magnified: the throb of your pulse, the rasp of hair shaft against the cotton weave of your pillow, the shifting of your limbs beneath the weight of blankets, the watery occlusion when eyelid meets eyelid, the sylvan susurration of air leaving and entering your mouth. The mattress presses up from underneath, bearing you aloft. The drink of water waits beside your bed, tiny silvered bubbles pressing their faces to the glass. Distances that used to appear minor – from your bed to the door, the stretch of landing to the loo, the dressing-table to the window – now take on great, immeasurable length. Outside the walls, the day turns from morning to lunchtime to afternoon to evening, then back again (O’Farrell, 2005, p. 226-228).

 

 

Another Conversation with Dieuwke

Dieuwke, one of my nighttime caregivers, settles herself in the rocker next to my bed, as I sit up and pull the covers up around me. She tells me about her lunch date with her friend. I always like hearing her stories and look forward to them.

“She had this insight about herself”, Dieuwke says smiling. “She realizes she’s pretty tuned into the broader aspects of reality”, she spreads her arms out wide. “She meditates regularly for long periods of time, she can have all these revelations, and can be quite psychic. But the practical things in life, she’s not so good at”. She pauses and rearranges the blanket around her knees.

“You know, it’s funny – I was just thinking about the same sort of thing just today”, I start.

“How so”?

It seems to me that there are 2 realities going on at the same time. There’s this boundless dimension of reality you could say, and then there’s this concentrated, detailed reality. It’s hard for me to put into words”.

Dieuwke nods and looks at me intently as I sit up straighter.

I continue, “I can relate to your friend. I meditate, contemplate, I ponder about the Big Questions in life, but I have a harder time focusing on getting things done, even when I’m feeling ok”. I laugh “I can get these great ideas about what I want to write about in my blog and jot them down. But then the work of it is harder for me – the writing and re-writing, the editing. I’m not as fond of that as I am about the initial idea. I have to get my head out of the clouds and my feet on the ground”. I look at Dieuwke, who has a slight smirk on her face. She knows this about me already. She looks like she’s about to speak, but I put up my hand to stop her. “Wait a minute. There’s more”. Dieuwke raises her eyebrows.

I go on. “How does this understanding of the vastness of being help when we’re in the middle of great difficulty? When we feel like we can’t go on? When the pain, whether it’s emotional or physical, is just too much? For that matter, how does that kind of awareness help when we’re organizing our closet, cleaning out the fridge, or other kinds of chores”? I pause again. “I’ve been thinking awareness is kind of like a Maglite”.

“A Maglite”?, says Dieuwke skeptically. “Yes, a Maglite. If you twist it one way, the light becomes broad, like the vastness of the universe, but you can’t see the particulars around you. If you twist it the other way, you can’t see the bigger picture. To get things done in the physical world, you have to minimize the beam”.

Dieuwke tilts her head, considering this.

I continue. “Let me give you another example: I continue, “when I drive my car, I have to focus on driving, not the wonders of the Infinite, or else… I don’t know, I’d run off the road. Or, if I have to have a difficult conversation with someone, I can’t just focus on The Realm of Unlimited Possibilities – I have to say something”.

Dieuwke nods slowly (taking this in), but I see I need to say more for her to grok what I’m talking about.

“I remember one time when I had to go to my neurologist. I knew it was not going to be an easy visit, and that I needed to talk to him about a medication I was taking, so before I went into the office, I got very centered. When he came in, he already looked cross and in a hurry. I brought up how I wanted to handle my medication situation and he started to raise his voice, and even got a little angry. But, I immediately narrowed my focus – twisting the Maglite to one end, you could say – and stood my ground. I was not going to be intimidated! I was very, very tired that day and my stress level had been high or weeks, so I really had to use my energy wisely and not get distracted by his attitude, or veer off course. I didn’t back down, but I also didn’t retaliate. And although in the end we didn’t agree, and I had to go to another doctor who could better serve me, I felt good about how I handled myself. If the Maglite had been twisted the other way, I would’ve probably gotten scattered and spacey and maybe given in to how he wanted things to go down”.

Dieuwke responds, “Well… it’s like you said. The Maglite has the same power, whether you twist it this way or the other. It comes from the same source. My feeling is we have to be skillful about how we use that power. Every situation requires something different. It’s not really that there are 2 realities. There’s only one”. She nods, as if agreeing with herself. “Some people have an easier time in the physical world. Other people seem to have it easier in the unseen world. But, they’re both the same world, really – they just seem different. We all need a certain balance. Some people think that the physical world is pretty much all there is. Others pretty much dismiss the physical world, thinking it’s insignificant”.

I feel satisfied with this conversation and am starting to feel sleepy. I scooch down and get my entire body under the covers and position my pillow under my head.

“We’ve figured it all now, I’m sure of it. We finally got enlightened”, I say, and smile.

It’s about time”, Dieuwke says. We both chuckle and I close my eyes.

 

 

What do you think?                  

sunlight beaming on green trees
Photo by WARREN BLAKE on Pexels.com

            

 

My Offer to You

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An excerpt from my poem “Savior

… “a small bird whose body

I could not see, saved me.

I sat in my recliner

with all my complaints,

when this tiny chirp

burst into the air.”…

 

Excerpts from my poem “Breakthrough

…”go through this messy and blessed life

thinking we can clean it up

and make it orderly”…

“and we don’t have a lot of say in the matter.

But there is one thing we can do

when grief sails by”…

Preparing to Greet the Goddess

Do not think of her

unless you are prepared

to be driven to your limits,

to rush forth from yourself

like a ritual bowl overflowing

with sacramental wine.

 

Do not summon her image

unless you are ready to be blinded,

to stand in the flash

of a center exploding,

yourself shattering into the landscape,

wavering bits of bark and water.

 

Do not speak her name

until you have said good-bye

to all your familiar trinkets —

your mirrors, your bracelets,

your childhood adorations —

From now on you are nothing,

a ghost sighing at the window,

a voice singing under water.

~ Dorothy Walters

Memory

I go to the hospital with my mother, scheduled for an EEG (electroencephalogram). Up to now, I’ve taken two EEGs and they have come up normal. This one is set up differently: the night before, I was instructed to sleep only a minimum, to be awakened at a certain time. Now at the hospital, lab technicians hook me up: small electrodes pressed into my skull, so I feel (and perhaps look) like a big pin cushion. Wires attached to each electrode go from my head to a graph, which records my brain waves. Then, they give me something for sleep and I nod off. As soon as I fall asleep, they wake me up, then begin their testing: flashing lights rapidly, in my face and telling me to breathe in a quick, shallow way, like a dog coming back from a run. Then, more flashing lights and continue with the breathing. I feel panic rise up in me, like a deer whose hoof is stuck in a fence and feel myself begin to leave my body. I grip the armrests of my chair as firmly as I can, willing myself to stay here, then fake the breathing I am told to do, knowing if I continue, I will surely seize.

After the test is done, they show me some of the results – the ink depicted the brain wave spikes so high that they’ve jumped off the page and onto their white coats.

I leave the building clutching my mother’s hand, so disoriented that I can barely walk out of there.

For many, many years afterward, I refuse to take another EEG.

Retreat

I am lying on this couch

looking out the same

window for too many years.

Or maybe it’s too many years

that my brain has been

like this: broken china

left on the floor, upswept.

The same redwoods outside

this window stand vigil,

silently witnessing me

as they have done for

too many years.

I withdraw now a little

from this sometimes

too painful world and

think this is what it

must be like to die –

a gradual retracting,

that final removal

from this body that

for now, sustains me.

~ Maluma

Introduction to Tonglen

The following is an excerpt from my “book” that I wrote years ago.

Introduction to Tonglen

         There are times when, in the midst of recovering from a seizure or getting out of bed after another sleepless night when not only do I feel I can’t face one more minute of my life, but I ask the question many of us ask at some point in time: Why this senseless suffering? What good can come from this? At times like these, it can feel that all I am is an embodiment of suffering taking up space in the world. You may feel this way at times as well, or perhaps you come to these kinds of questions when hearing a news story about war or some other facet of brutality. For me, the Buddhist practice called “tonglen” provides an answer. Tonglen takes that feeling of senseless suffering and gives it a purpose: transforming it into compassion.

Tonglen (a Tibetan Buddhist practice) means giving and receiving in Tibetan or exchanging oneself for another. I find the latter a more accurate description, as one of its benefits is developing empathy. When I am having the most difficulty with my health, tonglen is a meditation practice that has helped me greatly, over the years.

When we practice loving kindness meditation, we tap into that part of ourselves that truly cares about our well-being and that of others. When we practice tonglen, we use that same desire for well-being and deepen our capacity to care. Tonglen, above all else, develops compassion.

But just what is compassion? As Sogyal Rinpoche says in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1992), “True compassion is the wish-fulfilling jewel, because it has the inherent power to give precisely to each being whatever that being most needs, and so alleviate his or her suffering, and bring about his or hers fulfillment”. It may not always be easy for us to experience this valuable and precious quality, for we may have guarded our heart well, thinking that by doing so, we can protect our self from pain and suffering. And, just as we discovered in loving kindness meditation, we may also feel we are undeserving of any kind of tenderness; in part perhaps, because we may feel that on some level, we brought this illness upon ourselves. This way of thinking couldn’t be further from the truth. Because of feeling unworthy, we are more in need of compassion than ever. As people with chronic illness, we have also been on the receiving end of toxic responses, such as fear, pity, shame and judgment (some of which may come from ourselves). These experiences can spark a disconnect with others, bringing with it a feeling of isolation and loneliness. Compassion, on the other hand, is a shared connective experience that brings with it a deep understanding. When we are touched by compassion, we feel seen and accepted. Compassion, and in turn, tonglen practice asks of us to instead of turning away from our pain and suffering, to come towards it, feel it, and in fact, embrace it with the utmost love and attention and with the express desire and intent to transform it. Just as we found in loving kindness meditation, at times it takes great courage and effort to practice tonglen, because it asks of us to not only acknowledge our pain and suffering but know it intimately.

         The Practice

         Preliminary information to practicing tonglen may be found in the “Loving Kindness Meditation” section of my Loving Kindness, Part II blog posted on May 5, 2019.

There are many ways to practice tonglen: The methods I present here are what I consider the most suitable for those of us with health challenges. In some places, I’ve made modifications. If you want to further explore this valuable practice, I recommend you read Sogyal Rinpoche’s descriptions of it in his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying or Pema Chodron’s in The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (2002).

To begin, get in a comfortable position and start with the basic meditation techniques of becoming aware of body sensations and listening to sounds. Then pay attention to breath, becoming aware of its movement throughout the body. Then, for a brief time, note your thoughts and feelings. Become the observer, allowing your body/mind to become expansive as these thoughts and emotions move through you. Align yourself more and more with that expansiveness.

Maintaining this vastness, bring your awareness to your mood. Are you anxious or depressed? Are you feeling irritable because of pain? On the inhale, breathe in any difficult mental or emotional states to your heart, allowing them to dissolve. On the exhale, breathe out calmness and compassion for yourself, cleansing the quality of your mind. It may be that you are only able to touch your hurt or sorrow or pain for a moment here, a moment there, and that’s okay. You may not be used to being so tenderly attentive with yourself, but luckily, you can practice this technique again and again, and by doing so, become more familiar with it. If you have a hard time opening to this self-compassion, you can also start with loving kindness meditation and/or the “jump-start” (see below for quote from Loving Kindness, Part II post) techniques that precede it; remembering you are worthy of love, a time when someone was kind and helpful to you, and then proceed with this practice.

“Traditionally, we begin these phrases with ourselves, then move on to others, building up loving kindness in our hearts. But, although the idea of showering ourselves with loving kindness may seem simple enough at first glance, we may have difficulty with it. We may not be used to such gentleness with ourselves. If this is true for you, or if the words become mechanical, take time to recall an incident where someone was kind to you. It can be as simple as someone letting you into the flow of traffic, or a gentle tone someone used with you when you felt out of sorts. Connect with that feeling and then begin the phrases that work for you”.

I find that by offering compassion to these vulnerable parts of oneself is what’s been needed all along, and if you’re at all like me, you never knew that, or need reminding. There’s a sadness that can come with this awareness – a sadness that we’ve separated ourselves from our own love for a long, long time. What we’ve always yearned for – true understanding – we can best receive from ourselves; for who knows pain better than us? By practicing self-tonglen, we are coming back to our own heart. We are coming home.

For the next stage, you can use your physical symptoms to bring about a transformation: On the inhale, breathe in some physical difficulty and visualize it dissolving in your heart. On the exhale, send that ailing part your love, compassion and healing. Keep this up for as long as you want, or can, and move your awareness throughout your body, the same way. Again, you may be able to do only so much, but that’s okay. Your physical symptoms may remain much the same as when you started, but has your attitude softened? You can add another component to this stage if you wish: any pain you experience, imagine all the people who are experiencing the same pain, and when you inhale, take in their pain as well, and then let it dissolve in your heart. On the exhale, breathe out tenderness and understanding and any other calm that comes to mind and send it to all those people. You can also become creative here and send an image instead, if that makes the practice more intimate. A blanket to snuggle in or a warm hug by a loved one might be good images to send, for example. Sometimes when I include others who are in the same emotional and/or physical boat as me, I feel less isolated, less like I’m the only one on the planet that feels this way, and any loneliness I have begins to diminish or fade away. This may happen to you, too. It’s also possible that the opposite is true – that including others’ pain feels overwhelming. If that’s the case, just come back to doing the practice for yourself or breathe in that feeling, letting it dissolve and breathing out calm.

Because there’s such an intricate relationship between the emotional and the physical, you may want to include both of these steps in one. Also, if you have symptoms like I have sometimes, where much of the body is affected, you can do tonglen for the entire body as a whole. I encourage you to be creative here and throughout the practice. There are probably ways to practice that have never occurred to me that will occur to you. Trust your instincts. This practice may bring up deep sadness and you may want to cry. Please give yourself permission to do so; there is no need to be completely formal about this and tears can be so cleansing.

You may want to stop the practice right here and that’s fine. But, if you’re up for it, you can go to the next stage, which is similar to the one for loving kindness meditation, where we practice for others. Envision a loved one, someone dear to your heart, who is going through some difficulty. On the inhale, breathe in their suffering, whether it be cancer or the heartbreak of divorce, depression or a bum knee, and allow their pain, their struggle, to dissolve in your heart. Besides their suffering dissolving, allow any judgments or fears to dissolve as well. One time, when I was practicing tonglen on someone who was sick, I saw that I had judgment towards her, because at the time, she was still smoking cigarettes. I saw how this judgment blocked my compassion for her and I breathed that in, too. You may fear that by breathing in someone else’s illness, despair, suffering, that you will become depleted in the same way they are. Breathe in this fear, too, and allow it to melt within and dislodge from your heart, remembering to breathe out compassion, peace, etc.

At any point in practicing tonglen for others, you can include, just as you did for yourself, all others who are experiencing the same sort of suffering. For example, if you are doing tonglen for your mother who has Alzheimer’s, you can include all others with the same disease. By adding this piece in, we begin to expand our focus of awareness, causing our hearts to expand as well.

If you still have energy, you can move on to the next stage. Visualize someone neutral in your life; this time someone who you noticed is experiencing some difficulty. Perhaps it is the receptionist at your doctor’s office whose hand is in cast or the bus driver who seemed grumpy one morning and go through the same routine: inhaling their discomfort, letting it melt, exhaling and sending them love. If you can’t think of someone neutral who you know is suffering in some particular way, consider any neutral person – there is probably some difficulty in that person’s life, even if minor. Remember, just as in loving kindness meditation, part of the reason we do this practice in its entirety, is to awaken our heart to all people; not just those that are like us or believe the same things we do.

Then, we turn to a difficult person to practice tonglen for. Again, this can certainly be someone you know, but can also be someone in public office you disagree with or a group of people you don’t know. I have actually used my partner’s health insurance company, who has consistently denied payment on expensive medication that they have repeatedly said they would cover. When I did this practice for them, I saw how angry I was and how that anger hardened my heart, cutting me off from love. What good was hanging on to it doing for me? Although difficult for me to do, I was able to soften my heart and send them some of that soft-heartedness (soon after, they sent a letter saying they finally approved the coverage. Coincidence? Hard to say). Again, perfection is not the goal here – but being aware that we all have our areas of prejudice, fear, and judgment that are difficult to open to and to do the best we can to awaken compassion to those parts.

Instead of practicing tonglen for a difficult person, we could practice for a more difficult scenario, in order to build on our compassion. This might mean someone who is dying, or someone in constant pain. By practicing tonglen for a severe situation, we strengthen our compassion muscle, which is the gift of this practice. By imagining the most difficult suffering and bringing it into our heart on an inhalation, we are able to dissolve our deepest fears about suffering in general and can offer as we exhale, our most tender and heartfelt wish for the well-being of this person or persons in this mental or physical condition.

The next stage of the practice is to imagine all the people you have included up to this point and breathe in their suffering and breathe out compassion, imagining all of them well and whole – similar to the same stage in loving kindness meditation.

After you have finished with this aspect of the practice, you can move on to the other phases – for those in your hometown, country, and the world. The length of time you spend here depends, as usual, on your energy level and the time you have set aside for practice. When you are finished with this last part, bring your mind back to the vast awareness you experienced at the beginning of your practice.

If you have explored the entire practice, you have included all beings into your practice. In doing this, one can see that we all suffer in some way, that as human beings, this is something we all share. Tonglen puts us in touch with universal suffering in other ways, as well, as we begin to see that “my” suffering and suffering in general, all have the same component, whether it comes in small disappointments like losing our car keys to ongoing, grueling pain. Understanding this can have the effect of making us feel less alone and walled-off in our misconception that we are the only one that feels the way we do.

There are days when my suffering seems so great that the practice of tonglen seems insurmountable. You may find this is true for you sometimes. On those days, I don’t formally practice, but try to distract myself with other activities, if possible. However, I like to keep in mind the concept of tonglen to help inspire me and remind me that all suffering can serve to open my heart and awaken me to compassion. One way I do this is, I write the word “tonglen” on a piece of paper and put in on my fridge. That way, when I walk into my kitchen and see my sign, my body and mind immersed in the chaos of great difficulty, I can, for a minute, shift my awareness. And it is my profound belief that this makes a difference, not only for myself in the moment, but for great suffering everywhere. When we keep in mind the concept that all we are is energy; something scientists proclaim and something we see glimpses of in meditation, when we can shift even a little bit of suffering, we are adding a little more peace and clarity to the world.

Many practical and spontaneous ways of doing tonglen present themselves regularly to us, if we pay attention. As a result of our practice, we begin to see how we can be more connective in the world than perhaps we’ve been in the past and how that benefits us. We notice too, how often we shield ourselves from others’ pain and how we can change that.

There are times we can do tonglen spontaneously, using our own suffering, along with others’. I remember one such time when I was detoxing from a strong medication that had ceased its effectiveness for anxiety and insomnia. It took over a month to complete this process and most of that month it seemed every minute of my waking day was extraordinarily difficult, but the nights were even worse. I got very little sleep and my anxiety was off the charts.

All this was happening at the same time Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I watched a lot of TV during that time, because I was capable of little else, and the images I saw of all the poor, abandoned people left me feeling even more disturbed. I felt surrounded by suffering with no sense of relief. Seeing their struggle and pain only seemed to increase my own. On one day a certain story in particular haunted me: A makeshift hospital was created at the airport for some of the victims of Katrina. Because of the large number of patients and the under staffing of volunteers, a place was set aside for the most stricken and the least likely to live, while the ones who had a better chance at survival were attended to. This horrified me when I heard it and when I couldn’t sleep again that night, I remembered this story and it filled my heart with dread. How could it be that these people were left alone to die without the comfort of friends and loved ones? I tossed and turned, wondering about their own despair – what was going on with them now? What was going on in their minds at this exact hour? At the time, I was hooked up to an oxygen machine, set up as a result of a sleep study that showed I have mild sleep apnea. I laid there with my disturbing thoughts, listening to the machine whose rhythmic push-pull of air was somehow soothing – like a giant person next to me, breathing. Then I remembered tonglen and its basic teaching of breath, and that any suffering could be used to transform into compassion. Bit by bit, I chipped away at the claustrophobic, emotional state I was in. At times, waves of panic or despair would wash over me. Most of the time I was unable to concentrate on both the breathing and the transformation of pain to compassion, and many times the intensity of feeling was so great, it overtook any of my efforts. But now and then, I felt some relief from my emotional agony and also felt this remarkable connection with the people at the airport who were also lying there, perhaps facing even more despair. “My” suffering and “their” suffering began to blur and merge until they were indistinguishable from each other. I felt we were in the same room, doing the best we could and somehow, that felt comforting; I wasn’t all alone with my desperate thoughts and feelings. I also had the sense when I felt this connection strongly, and felt the depth of my compassion, that I was somehow enabling them to cope and open to this tenderness, as well. Although I still managed only a little sleep that night, something in me had changed and softened, and this had to do with my ability to meet such difficulty with the depth of tenderness it needed in order to transform.

I have noticed after many years of practicing tonglen, how it sparks in me, not just spontaneous responses like the above, but active ones as well. As an example of this, one day I went to a local store to pick up some items and saw the husband of a woman who had worked there for years, had suddenly died of a heart attack. Because I live in a small town, I knew that they had been childhood sweethearts and had been together for probably forty years or more. I imagined his suffering was great. In the past, prior to doing tonglen, probably because I had no real connection with this man, except a passing nod of recognition in the store from time-to-time, I most likely would’ve tried to avoid him, feeling awkward in his presence, because of his pain. Instead, I felt a confidence arise in me and I approached him. I looked into his eyes and spoke from my heart about his loss and even reached out with my hand. He immediately took my hand in his and spoke from his heart. I felt a true connection in that moment, and when I left, I felt something important had taken place between us, even though (or maybe, because) we were practically strangers. I believe my practice gave me the confidence to reach out and take action, which only deepened my sitting practice all the more.

This story speaks to the idea of compassion in action. We may question whether doing tonglen meditation is enough – is it really bringing about any change, except within us? Shouldn’t we be doing something more to affect change? As with loving kindness meditation, we may never know the effect we have on another, although I certainly believe there can be one. When you think about it, the same holds true for actions. We may never know how a kind word we say may affect another. Just as we may never end up telling a teacher how they changed the course of our life, others may never tell us how our efforts have impacted them. I do believe however, if we are moved to do something for another, and it’s in our capacity to do so, we might as well act on those impulses. A word of caution here; make sure you’re not acting from a place of guilt or martyred sense of duty. That’s not true compassion. In other words, if you offer your cousin a place to stay indefinitely, and then resent him, neither of you is truly benefiting from this act. As people with chronic health challenges, we particularly need to make sure our energy isn’t drained, as it can take a toll on our bodies. Sometimes we may be moved to do something for ourselves on the physical plane, like reaching out for support, or seeing a new practitioner, but even if “all” we do is self-tonglen, we are doing something very powerful. By changing our inner world, we create meaning in our lives that may not have been there before.

However we practice tonglen, whether for ourselves or others, whether in a formal practice or in spontaneous fashion, not only do we find a purpose for our suffering by developing and strengthening our capacity for compassion and empathy, but we uncover our true nature, which includes this aching tenderness and with it an awareness of the preciousness of life itself. In this way, our lives are infused with meaning.

Synapses and a Few Words More

         Tonglen: breathe in suffering, allowing it to dissolve in the heart of compassion

Breathe out compassion, peace, and tenderness. Start with self, then a loved one, a neutral person, someone (s) you’re at odds with, all of the above, your town state, country, world

Consider this: true compassion leads to true happiness and the awareness of our true nature.

Consider this: we can only begin to relieve our suffering by knowing it intimately, not ignoring it.

“Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allowing ourselves to move gently towards what scares us. The trick to doing this is to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion; to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance.” ~ Pema Chodron

TheUnbroken

There is a brokenness

out of which comes the unbroken,

a shatteredness

out of which blooms the unshatterable.

There is a sorrow

beyond all grief which leads to joy

and a fragility

out of whose depths emerges strength.

 

There is a hollow space

too vast for words

through which we pass with each loss,

out of whose darkness

we are sanctioned into being.

 

There is a cry deeper than all sound

whose serrated edges cut the heart

as we break open to the place inside

which is unbreakable and whole,

while learning to sing.

Rashani