Category Archives: Mindfulness

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?

Forgiving the world

We sit on the floor in criss-cross applesauce at the beginning of yoga class, and Jane instructs us to close our eyes and remember a time during childhood when we were hurt or scared, in order to find if there are areas in which we need to release and to forgive. Her soothing voice and evocative words take each of us back to address our own personal boogeymen, troubles that loomed large because we were so small.

This won’t work, says my inner voice.  I’ve already exorcised all my demons.

I open my eyes and peek around the room, surprised that my fellow classmates are going crimson in the face as strong emotions rise from their bellies. Something powerful is going on, and if I can surrender my thoughts to my emotions, I may have the chance to release something I’ve carried for a very long time.

Hah, that’s what you think! – comes a reply, also inside my head.

With an exhale I allow my hips and tailbone to feel heavy, to sink into the earth. With an inhale I lift my spine, filling the space between my vertebrae with, well, more space. In an instant

xray childI see Mommy and Daddy walking away. I see them through the droplets of the dank and cold prison they’re leaving me in, the plastic walls and ceiling I’m sealed inside, where I’m having trouble breathing. Don’t leave me! I’ll be good! I won’t scare you any more please just don’t leave me here! I scream and still they walk away. AGAIN. Every night they leave me here. EVERY SINGLE NIGHT! They leave me here in the care of my torturers who stab me with sharp things and make me bleed and hurt me over and over again. They leave me here in a wet and cold bed. They leave me here in a place where I get only icky food. They put masks over my face  thirteen times a day and it smells bad. I am suffocating. I am so afraid and uncomfortable and….ANGRY. I am so angry at all of them for putting me here, for leaving me here.

I hate this oxygen tent. I hate the nurse who give me shots. I hate the doctor who keeps adding days and nights I have to stay here. I hate all the white, and the smell of someone they call Auntie Septy. I hate my lungs for getting New Monya again. I’m mad at my parents for leaving me behind again. I’m mad that I’m so small and powerless still. I’m mad at my body. I hate my life. HATE HATE HATE HATE!

I am shocked to meet my hate-fueled (and scared) 5 year-old self. I am amazed that I could uncover all that in about 5 mindful breaths.

Now what?

We begin our sun salutations, stretching the sides and back parts of our bodies with forward folds and crescent moons, strengthening our cores with plank pose and chaturrangas, then simultaneously grounding and lifting in downward dog. Yoga is a practice of alternating currents, of balancing opposites to bring about wholeness: right/left, upper/lower, front/back, sun/moon, rising/melting, strength/stretch, inhale/exhale, tension/release.

Antao brownd, apparently, my past and my present.

As I move through the rest of the practice, I focus on my breath. With the inhales, I abide with that scared little girl I once was. I am acutely aware of the tension in her body, the balls of wadded up anger, of densely packed fear. With my exhales, I mindfully aim to dissolve those balls of heavy energy, some still residing in my body — mainly in my lungs and hips — using my breath and intention.

The oxygen tent is where I began laying victim patterns that would serve as my template for 30+ years. It was in that cold, wet, lonely place that I realized I was at the mercy of others, that I did not control my circumstances, that I was not the subject in my life but rather an object in others’. The doctors made me endure procedures that hurt, my parents made me swallow icky medicines and stay in fearsome places, my body continually disappointed me by not functioning as it should.

I do my thing: I look at this childhood scene through a rational lens. Of course my parents weren’t persecuting me. Of course it was as hard for them to leave me each night as it was for me to be left. Of course the doctors and nurses weren’t trying to hurt me; they were trying to heal me. Of course I wasn’t abandoned; people were there to make sure I was going to be okay. Of course my body wasn’t malfunctioning on purpose; it was doing the best it could.

But the 5 year-old on my yoga mat with me is not a rational being. I have carried her emotional energy of being scared, alone, abandoned, bereft, unwell. She’s pissed. Mad at those who left her, mad at those who poked her, mad at the body that put her in her predicament. She’s been having tantrums ever since, not having an outlet for her fear and anger.

With my teacher’s invitation to dig deep and excavate what lurks beneath my awareness, I am able to give the girl a voice. I feel my face turn crimson as the anger rises from my belly. Now that I know such a well of fear and anger is there, I can access it, breathe through it, release it.

And forgive. One breath at a time.

Image courtesy of Praisaeng / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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