During the endless looping of limited video during yesterday’s Boston Marathon tragedy, I first fixated on the 78 year-old runner who dropped to his knees at the moment of the explosion. Hours later I was relieved to know he was OK. In the dozen or so times I saw his inevitable crumble, he had become an acquaintance to me (one-sided, yes).
Both riveted and repulsed and against my better judgment, I kept watching the loops. At one point, something kind of cool happened.
Instead of watching what individuals did, I began to see the people on Boylston Street as an organism. One very big organism. If I slighlty blurred my eyes and watched the scene, it was almost like being in biology class and watching a cluster of cells under a microscope being attacked by a foreign agent. Or watching a well-trained army on the battlefield, acting simultaneously as separate entities and also as a unit.
As the video looped I kept expecting the explosion to cause people to scatter, the organism to diffuse itself.
Parts of the organism do scatter, as I suspect I would, but after the initial scramble we see the organism turn inward toward itself. It’s amazing, really. People running toward danger. People overriding their innate flight response in order to help other people. We see first responders — police, fire and National Guard personnel and paramedics who have been trained to fight rather than flight. We also see race workers and volunteers, journalists, observers and exhausted runners setting aside, in the blink of a moment, their own fears in order to aid strangers.
Choose: Flight or Fight | Self or Other | Inner or Greater
I try to imagine myself in such a situation and how I might react, though this isn’t an answer I can arrive at hypothetically. Would I help? Or would I flee? Would I choose well? And what does “choosing well” even mean?
I’m split. On one side is my connection to my inner circle, my family — urging me to get the hell away. In my mind’s eye I see my children, hear my husband and my parents and sisters telling me to follow the human instinct to stay safe, to run from harm and toward safety. To fulfill my obligations to them by sticking around for many more years in a healthy and contributing way.
On the other side is my connection to the greater circle of humanity. If I saw someone bleeding, dazed, hurt, broken, and I was afraid for myself, if I worried I was not up to the task of aiding and that I would possibly be taking away something precious from my own loved ones — would I still be able to choose to help?
Such a huge decision that hundreds yesterday made in a snap. This is why those people, those parts of the organism’s nucleus in yesterday’s loop, have been on my mind today.
Even in times of darkness within our organism, there is light, so much light.
How can people willingly, mindfully face fear for the sake of others?
How is it that mere mortals are willing to walk toward darkness, to let it possibly envelop them? Do you think you’d have it in you?
As with Newtown, I wondered what I could do from the safety of my home in Denver, Colorado. How could I willingly and mindfully take on some of the pain and anguish? How could I walk into the darkness and maybe even transform it through the power of intention?
As then, the way to do this from the safety of wherever you are perched is with a practice called tonglen, which is is a Tibetan word meaning “taking and giving.” Practiced mystics do this on behalf of all humanity.
Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says that tonglen is a way to ”use what seems like poison as medicine.” It “reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others and also we being to take care of ourselves and others. It awakens our compassion and it also introduces us to a far larger view of reality.”
How to do this simple process?
Willingly take in suffering, and joyfully send out healing.
1. Get yourself into a meditative state, while sitting, lying down, hiking in nature, walking or while creating art or music or dance.
2. Become aware of your breathing for a few moments. Follow your breath in and out of your lungs.
3. Tonglen breathing has three parts for each breath:
- For your inhales, imagine you are breathing in all the suffering there is. Allow this suffering to open your heart center further and awaken your compassion for all who deal with it. Ask God, Jesus, the Divine, your spirit guides or whomever to bless all the suffering that you accept into your heart. This is the opposite of the avoidance of pain — it requires the welcoming of it.
- At the top of the breath, pause for a moment to allow your heart center to transform the yuckiness it holds. Hold that intention.
- For your exhales, imagine the suffering energy being cleansed and transformed by your heart center and sent from your lungs back to the world. Only now what was dark is now light, what was gunky is now clear. Envision this metamorphosis as performed by your open and aware heart center. You willingly take in suffering, and joyfully send out compassion and healing.
- Keep up the three-part breathing, mindfully. Fill up your room, your home, your neighborhood with this magnificently pure, love energy.
4. Flow and transform for 5, 10, 20 minutes. No hard rules — just do it as long as you can stay focused on bringing in the “bad” and sending out the “good.” Don’t worry about doing this “right.” Make the practice yours and play with your heart center’s own transforming power.
I practiced a few moments of tonglen this morning and will do so daily for the foreseeable future. I envision a wave of people doing the simple and private act of tonglen, of willingly taking in grief and horror, of holding it in a moment of transformation, and of returning to the world the energy of peace and love.
Will you join me in being an off-site helper?