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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 slightly 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?

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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15 Responses

  1. I adore how you take any situation and help redefine how we may be thinking about it or offer a perspective we might not have considered. I learn a bit more about myself from what you write. I don’t know if that is ever an intention, to help us better see ourselves, but it is a constant takeaway I have when I read your writing,

  2. Can I just say wow. I love yoga and meditation and this is just a positive way to send vibrations to the situation while also meditating or praying. Beautifully written Lori thanks

  3. Beautiful. I’m so glad that you described this practice … my yoga teacher offers up something similar, but I’ve never known the origins. I will endeavor to join you.

    I had a harder time than usual with our closing mantra the other night: “lokah samasthah sukinoh bhavantu.” It had been a really awful day: the person who had harassed me out of a job had just been promoted to the university president’s underling, a position created just for him. Everyone was shocked, but no one stood up. And I did NOT want to wish him happiness and freedom. I wanted very, very bad things to happen.

    Thinking of this person as someone who was suffering helped me to be more gentle, helped me to finish the mantra, as much as it brought me to tears to do so.

  4. I think we often surprise ourselves — in both good and bad ways — when the shit hits the fan.

    It’s actually not fight or flight. Those are just the last two of a trilogy of options. Our body is naturally designed for freeze, flight, or fight. We freeze first, trying to blend with our surroundings, and I think we often emotionally freeze. Our second choice is flight. Or third choice is fight. It’s interesting that’s the preferred order for our brains, even if we can’t always take the preferred route and instead feel moved to jump to a different option.

  5. Such a helpful, thought-provoking post, Lori. My husband and I were just talking about this recently. I stay almost miraculously calm during times of crisis. I can picture police officers, firemen, etc., over the years shaking their heads and saying, “Oh, yes she does!” I don’t know if I developed this from experiences I had a young girl that were especially difficult; my older brother says I remember many disturbing details too well for having been so young. I wonder sometimes how I reacted back then or has it defined me more as a rescuer now. What I know for sure is I freeze last :). Like everyone else, it’s hard for me to fathom all the evilness in this world and I want it to be just a bad dream.

  6. This is such a beautifully written piece, Lori. It is a great reflection on the heroism of the men and women who risked their own lives in the immediate aftermath of the blasts to help others – and I doubt they even thought twice about it. It’s selfless acts like these that define us as a nation, as a people – and help bring us together in these times of need.

  7. I love your points of light, it is nice to try to think about how we can “Willingly take in suffering, and joyfully send out healing”

    Thank you for this post!

  8. Ahhh, good insights….thank you!

    Having just survived a challenging travel experience (stuck in O’Hare for 30+ hours with a nine month old) I can attest to the power of connection and generous kindness of strangers. Severe weather and the AA reservation outage on Tuesday meant that dozens of flights were cancelled, airport hotels were full, and everyone was cranky. I watched more than a few people explode in rage and stalk away. I didn’t behave particularly well myself and joined in the general grumbling on our plane when our flight, after a 12 hour delay and multiple boarding attempts, was cancelled. But where I normally would retreat into myself and hole up with a book, suffering miserably, this time I connected with others.

    Our daughter is nine months old and unquenchably friendly. She loves people, seeks eye contact, and smiles. In the middle of the widespread chaos and anxious crowds, so many people found relief and joy in seeing our baby playing with her toys, gurgling, chewing, drooling and smiling. When she cried, they sighed and said: I wish I could cry too. We had so many interesting conversations: the businesswoman from Newark, an adult mother-daughter on their way to a social work convention, a newlywed couple from Anchorage, two elderly women off to a grandchild’s wedding, and the baby on our flight who shared not only our daughter’s birth date but her birth place — they were born in the same hospital! When we ran out of formula (PANIC!!!), the airport ‘support’ refused to help, and the taxi couldn’t get through to the drugstore because the streets around O’Hare were flooded, strangers helped us get food for our baby. Now as I tell the story of our misadventure to family and friends, I can focus on all the negative — panic, exhaustion, fear, rudeness from airline staff — or I can focus on the positive. I find I want to do the latter, and that is new for me. It makes my heart glad and gives me hope that I can continue to live this way, embracing and savoring the good in the midst of the painful. Thank you for this reminder. 🙂

    1. Oh, my! Travel with a child is challenging under the best of circumstances.

      Love this: “unquenchably friendly.” What a special point of light your daughter is 🙂

      Welcome home!

  9. A belated thank you for this. I read it closer to the time you wrote it, but for some reason didn’t comment. Glad I got to revisit it tonight and appreciate it even more, now that we are a bit further out from the beginning of this tragedy. It’ hard to believe it’s been a week since they caught the second suspect.

    I love this:

    “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.


    This post, your perspective and you are remarkable too. xoxo

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