When I spoke at a gathering at a funeral home recently, I shared three qualities that people tap into when they’re forced to deal with life-altering loss. They were courage, compassion and curiosity. And now, as I listen to the news about ongoing devastation and loss across the world, it seems timely to re-emphasize the necessity of compassion.
Compassion includes self compassion. Have you noticed that when we’re able to be compassionate towards others, it can help us be more compassionate towards ourselves? And as we become gentler to ourselves, kindness becomes our natural response towards others. It goes both ways.
And yet, if you take a look at what’s going on in the world right now, you can see that we’re at a crossroads. We fear loss, we fear death and we often fear eachother. Don’t you try to take away what little I have left, someone insists. And don’t give away what you have because you’ll be left with nothing, another voices warns.
When people are afraid and despair of finding a solution, compassion is not something that’s automatically seen as a go-to solution. And yet it’s one of the most powerful means we have of dealing with both our own suffering and the suffering of others.
Compassion is a response that says “you matter”. Self compassion says “I matter.” Both are true, and both need to be acknowledged.
The most common responses to suffering and pain are to shut down, to look away, to get angry, to close ourselves off. After all, if we’ve lost everything (or almost everything), we don’t really believe we have anything left to give. Or if someone else is suffering, sometimes, if we are willing to admit it, we’re secretly afraid their suffering will eventually visit us as well.
But there’s a deeper aspect of our being that knows love and kindness are the key to transcending suffering, despite how our minds might argue the point.
I want to share a simplified version of a compassion practice so you can discover for yourself that no matter how much suffering and pain is here, your heart is large enough to hold it all in love. And that includes holding the suffering of others as well.
This easy and kindly practice, called Tonglen, comes from the Buddhist tradition and means “sending and giving”. It’s designed to let us pause and put our natural compassion into action. At it’s most basic, with each in-breath we take, we breathe in the pain that’s felt and with each out-breath we send relief. And because we’re all in this together, we can do this practice for ourselves as well as for others. Tonglen can be done as a formal meditation practice or simply as an in-the-moment response. It can be applied to any kind of pain, including the pain of death, confusion, sadness, feeling lost or alone.
1. Start by taking a moment to soften and open your heart. Your eyes can be closed of focused softly in front of you.
2. As you gently and naturally breathe in, imagine taking in all the negative energy of the painful feelings through all the pores of your body, or into your heart, if you prefer. You can visualize sensations and images that are dark or heavy that you associate with those emotions as you breathe in. Then, as you breathe out, imagine or intend sending out positive energy - in whatever form or image feels right - like light, clarity or understanding - the same way you breathed them in - through your body or simply your heart.
3. Rest your attention on any difficult situation you are aware of. As you breathe in painful feelings (like sadness, for example), you can expand your compassion and breathe it in on behalf of everyone else who’s in the same or similar situation. As you breathe out, send yourself and them relief in whatever form seems appropriate. If you breathe in a sense of loss, breathe out a sense of comfort. If you breathe in despair, breathe out hope.
4. Once you’re comfortable sending and giving for yourself and those you can empathize with, begin to experiment with doing the practice for those whom you have little, if any, affinity: those who have hurt you or others, those who cause harm or sew discord. They, too, suffer from confused thinking and a narrow perspective.
And instead of feeling helpless or stuck, as you do this practice, you’ll find that you’ll have the resources to weather the storms of life with more grace and love in your heart. Try it for yourself. Try it for all of us. We're in this together, and if ever we needed it, it's now.
(Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash)