“Train in taking and sending alternatively; put them on the breath” How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard.
I used to joke in graduate school that in my study of existentialism taught me that life is suffering and you need to suck it up but my study of Buddhism taught me that life is suffering and be compassionate anyway. My plan was to marry both.
I love the practice of Tonglen, that I was introduced to in the work of Pema Chodron. Now there is a very specific way of practicing Tonglen but Pema talked about “on-the-spot” Tonglen and I found that I liked that a lot and try to practice it when I can. The point of the specific practice, like any other practice, is to get it to become second nature to you so that when a situation arises, you have the skills.
Think about CPR. You will probably never need it but if you do, you will remember the chest compressions should be 100 beats per minute because you have had to get re-certified every year.
Conventional wisdom, when it comes to relaxation, tells us to breathe in and think of concepts like peace, love, compassion, relaxation, a warm hug, etc and breathe out negativity, stress, fear, etc. Tonglen actually teaches the opposite and it can be a bit counter-intuitive. Let me give you an example I have used in the past.
I hate going to the dentist. Hate is not strong enough of a word. I had dental appointments as a kid like everyone else. I also had two years of orthodontics. I hated the orthodontist’s and that I think that’s when I developed so much anxiety about it. I’ve had a lot of other dental work done and for me, there are few things worse.
When I had to get a bunch of dental work done while I was working for hospice, I “brought my patients with me”. What? Let me explain. Hospice is pretty terrific at helping patients with both pain and suffering through the use of an amazing group of professionals, medication, volunteer support, etc. But there is still so much pain and suffering involved in the dying process.
When I would go to the dentist, I would play music on my iPhone and I would focus on my breathing. As feelings came up — anxiety, fear, physical pain, achiness in my neck, etc I would breathe it in. I could imagine that my patients and their families might be feeling very similar things at that very moment and I would focus on being present to those experiences.
As I breathed out, I would focus on a warm, soft blanket, or the sound of my mother’s heart beat, or calm, relaxation, peace, etc. And I would say, in my mind, if I am going to experience this anyway, which apparently I was going to, let me experience it and give my patients a break.
To me this practice was similar to The Prayer of St Francis (Let me be light where there is dark, where there is despair let me sow hope, etc). Did I really take any suffering away from any patient or any family member? I don’t know. But, it was my intention that there should be something positive that comes from my suffering.
And this I try to remind myself every day when I wake up in pain. “Ok universe, if it is going to be one of those days, let my pain be for some benefit. Let me have pain so my mom doesn’t. Let me sit with these side effects hoping that it keeps someone else from having these side effects. And even if it doesn’t, let me send out, in addition, the intention of comfort, relief, or solace. For me, it helps give some meaning and purpose to something that I cannot avoid, my own pain. And who knows, maybe if there is such a thing as karma, I’ve helped someone else by sending out good will.
So today, I ask you:
- What are you experiencing right now?
- Can you imagine any one in the world having the same experience right here and right now?
- Can you breathe in the pain, darkness, dis-ease, frustration, depression (whatever it may be)?
- With your out breath, can you imagine exhaling something positive that another person could use?
- It could be warmth on a cold night for homeless vets. It could be deep, cleansing breath for an asthma patient. Maybe the idea of a trusted teddy bear for a fearful child.
May you have ease and comfort in your life. May the merit of all of the positive thoughts, feelings, and actions you have come back to you a thousand-fold.