The Life you Save may be your Own
Add meditation to your regular yoga practice!
of Giving and Getting
My heart for
in damning anticipation
Oh, When will I
I wrote the above poem when I was young, ardent and vibrantly full of life. I was an anguished girl of seventeen. My best friend had been killed in a motorcycle accident a few weeks prior. Those were different times: sans cellphones, internet and satellite tracking systems, no one could get a hold of me until after I returned. I was exploring Great Britain for the summer. No itinerary, just rambling for a few months with a rail pass. I had been out of touch.
Margaret Pearl Near was my best friend, my writing partner, and soon to be room mate. Our collaborations were seamlessly joined, all her and all me, She is the last person I wrote well with. All that summer I had imagined our reunion. We had planned to move together to southern Ohio, rent an apartment, find jobs and start our adult lives. She would be leaving an awkward situation in Indiana; I wanted to flee the big city, Chicago.
To say her death came as a shock to me would be an understatement. The over simplification of grief cannot be underestimated. I felt shattered. I never moved to Ohio. I moved to a farm in West Virginia, remote, two miles from the closest paved road. I avoided people, working with animals. I consider myself fairly articulate, nonetheless describing my emotion, even now, is daunting. For the first two years my grief was like a baby learning to use language. Saying, “I feel sad,” felt flat. “Agonized,” too dramatic, “numb” was close to true - yet not true enough.
English is a rich living language, absorbing slang and phrases and words from every far corner of the Earth, until it fails us. We find ourselves unfortunately separated from those who grieve due to an alarming lack of emotional vocabulary. Death isn’t the only experience that calls for depth of discourse. As we age, friends and family members experience divorce, illness, addiction and financial issues that often call for more expression then, (pardon the phrase) we can express. We want to push, we want to yield, to be supportive not enabling. But how? How do we navigate this dicey business of connection?
A practice I find helpful is meditation. If you are frustrated with the idea of sitting still, consider a Tong len or “tonglin” meditation. The focus required to practice makes it more accessible to a beginner. Don’t be fooled by it’s absence of adornment. This basic practice will build your emotional strength, increase your compassion, reduce stress and generally make you a more insightful human being.
How To Start?
Find a comfortable seat. Tradition dictates much, but practicality is more important. If being unable to stay in Lotus posture for more than few seconds is impossible, screw that - pick a position you can stay in. What’s more important than looking like a far Eastern yogi? Being able to keep your spine straight.
Limber people find Lotus, Swastikasana, Vajrasana, or Sukhasana appropriate. I say, sit in the manner that enables you to forget about sitting, and meditate. To begin with, you might use a chair, a zafu cushion, or a bolster.
Work towards having the strength and flexibility to sit traditionally. Learning to sit without chairs, or to squat when chairs are not available, will save you from low back pain. Squatting lengthens the spine and keeps the hip flexors open. Find balance between accepting where you are, and accepting that conditions, relations, and situations evolve.Eventually meditate in Lotus, but don’t avoid meditation because you can’t find that seat.
Twenty five minutes a week is good. Twenty five minutes a day even better. Give yourself at a minimum fifteen minutes because this is a practice that requires settling. In the beginning you may find the first 13 minutes were mind fluff and only the last two were valuable. That would be an error in judgement. The whole 15 were necessary to build momentum. The more often you practice the more raptly the mind transmutes. Soon the whole 14.5 minutes after you sit down are engulfed in this meditation, and you will naturally extend your practice.
Steady your breath into a regular rhythm. Don’t allow it to be constrained. Breath in and out through your nostrils. Let your tongue relax in your mouth, and your teeth part slightly. Release tension in your jaw. Inhale your grief or pain or unapproachable emotions, fill your chest cavity. As you exhale allow your good to leave your body and flood the space around you.
Expand your consciousness next to people you know personally. Imagine taking in their pain into yourself as you inhale, experiencing it fully, and exhaling out kindness, love and altruism. On the inhale you take on their troubles completely, but as you exhale you gift your own intrinsic goodness to the universe. This may be enough for your first few months of practice.
To what purpose?
This is a powerful practice to do for yourself when you are hurting, as a method of turning inside out. Rather than stewing in your own juice, the mind creates elasticity and freedom of thought. Both anxiety and depression can find expression through this practice. Those are the training wheels. Constant application elevates. You find yourself less concerned with the borders and boundaries of personhood and ready to practice for others.
Imagine a friend with cancer, or a loved one struggling with financial difficulties. Breathe in their rage, anger, exhaustion - whatever - and exhale relief, charity and holy warmth. Increase your circle of awareness to people in your periphery. Perhaps you know of a co-worker who is struggling, or a person you over heard in a restaurant.
Know that the air you breath is comprised of the exhales of all the species of this planet. What you exhale will be inhaled by others. What you radiate matters. What you give is accepted, somewhere, by someone whether you meant it that way or not - connection is inevitable. So be mindful, be thoughtful. Enlarge your tenderness with your strength.
This is not an exercise in learning how to be a doormat. Distance yourself from difficult people, and from that safe distance, inhale their cruelty, imbibe it, incorporate it and exhale out your purity of grace, your strength, your gifts. Consider your body as a catalyst, taking on suffering and converting it.
Traditionally this meditation is done for all the pain in all the world. You might take on world conflicts if you can wrap your brain around the individuality of it. Don’t create separation as you work towards dissolving boundaries, it’s counterproductive.
For example, once you decide you are inhaling the genocide of a race, you have forgotten the people, their faces, their hopes and dreams who died. You thereby minimize yourself, creating distance. The point to the exercise is to create connection by inhaling reality, which is why I recommend starting small - with experience and people you thoroughly understand. Don't be too grand for your own good.
This is the difficulty in “praying for peace.” Nice idea, but it’s lame, because it inadvertently creates distance. “World peace” becomes nebulous, undefinable, and therefore not something I have to change about my personal life. Tonglen is all about the personal life. Your personal life. What have you done for it lately? Have you ever met a ‘pillar of the community’ who is about to divorce her husband? ? Why the disconnect, so common in too many “spiritual” leaders? Because they get out of touch.
Tonglen or Tong lin is NOT an abstract meditation. It's as real as you are real, and will make you more real if you let it. If you suffer from addiction, underneath the layers of sadness, frustration and exhaustion lies a basic annihilation of Self. This practice, as much as it will connect you to community, will bring you back to your soul tethering it firmly to What Matters. It is a grounding meditation.
It's not like I relish thinking on pain, it's that I discovered (the hard way) that every thing I ever tried to evade, not deal with, shuffle, ignore - - ended up far worse when it Blew Up The Known World. . . .by contrast, when I held uncomfortable emotions, blowing good out of myself for others, my ability to perceive Truth increased. Very complex issues cleared. Understanding ensued.
I used to commonly hear blame-the-victim theories that included souls choosing their present lives, and tsunamis devastating people of the “wrong” religion, and other blather that enables the listener to NOT FEEL MUCH for the victim. Know this: Being callous isn’t good for you. It’s a loss of feeling. So while it may seem like a bummer to meditation on outrageous fortune, the results reveal the life save may be your own.