Category Archives: Meditation

Boston’s darkest day: a thousand points of light

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.

organism of light at boston marathonInstead 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.

Remarkable.

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?

Do something

Isn’t that what we all want right now, to DO something, something that will soothe the Sandy Hook community, something that will prevent future tragedy, something that will make us and others feel better, safer?

We’ve seen horrors like Newtown’s play out, all too often, and we can predict how things will go for the next few days and weeks. There will be a call to do something financial — donate to the families, to the Red Cross, to a musical act that will perform a fund-raising concert. There will be a call to do something political, with discussions about gun control and mental health funding. There will be a call to do something local, to see if we can make our schools and churches and malls and theaters and stadiums and other areas we gather any safer.

And still we will feel helpless, as if there’s nothing really we can do, nothing to really make a difference.

But we can if we go hyper-local. I mean hyper-hyper local.

I’ve written before about big peace and small peace:

A child asked at bedtime, “Mommy why is there war? Why can’t there be peace in the world?”

“Well, to have peace in the world, we need peace in our country.

“To have peace in our country, we must have peace in our city.

“To have peace in our city, we must have peace in our neighborhood.

“To have peace in our neighborhood we must have peace in our home.

“To have peace in our homes we must have peace in our hearts.” *

So then, the thing we can do — the only thing really that there is to do, is to cultivate peace within. But how?

I’ve also written before about the powerful practice of tonglen, which harnesses the transformative energy of the heart using simple awareness.

The transformative power of the heart centerWhat is this practice? “Tonglen” is a Tibetan word meaning “taking and giving.” Practiced mystics do this on behalf of all humanity.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher (who attended prep school in Connecticut), says, “Tonglen 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.”

1. Get yourself into a meditative state. This can be done while sitting, while lying down, while hiking in nature, while walking (have a labyrinth nearby?) , or while creating art or music or dance. Do what allows you to lose yourself.

2. First 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 just a moment to allow your heart center to shift and transform the yuckiness it holds. Hold the intention to do so.
  • 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 Chakra. 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.

5. Pat yourself on the back for setting aside some time to be conscious and still.

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 the 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?

*vignette paraphrased from a story told by my Teacher, Ethel.

Image: painting by Lisa Marie-Olsen, used with permission

Balance: Heaven on earth

Earlier this week we celebrated a time of balance, the moment in which the earth is midway on her path between solstices. Even the word equinox, equal night, denotes balance.

The precise time of the spring equinox was 11:14 pm where I live, so I didn’t mark it with much fanfare. However, 10 hours later, a friend from yoga class accompanied me to a local labyrinth on a hill.

I walked a labyrinth years ago on the autumnal equinox. I am lured to labyrinths as a walking meditation. With a winding path, you don’t really know how long the journey is or how you’ll get to where you’re going. You know only that if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will experience it all. The labyrinth itself leads you through and you don’t have to make any decisions other than to move forward (unlike with a maze).

As I walk I find myself wanting to look ahead to the next turn. Each time I gently bring my mind back to the one step I’m on. I find balance everywhere. I’m certain, though I haven’t counted, that the number of left turns is equal to the number of right turns. Some the time I’m walking the inside of the labyrinth and some the time I’m walking the outside of it. I am alternatively inhaling and exhaling. The earth and I are in this exquisite and fleeting moment of balance.

And I am aware of it.

The morning is chilly, about 40 degrees (4° C). Still, I remove one of my jackets and take a perch at the center of the labyrinth on a tree stump. I decide to offer up tree pose with half lotus. Nothing too difficult, but fitting in with the morning’s theme of balance and calm. My friend snaps a photo.

vrksasana

I was surprised later when I saw this photo by the joy on my face. I thought at the instant my friend clicked the shutter that I was fighting amid the shivers  to stay balanced on the stump. But clearly I was in heaven. Rooted yet rising.

Did you do anything special to usher in spring? (Or, for my southern hemisphere friends, autumn?)