This is the ninth post of twelve in the Exploring Mindfulness blog series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. This post addresses Chapter Fourteen. Participants are encouraged to practice mindfulness meditation daily throughout the twelve weeks, even if for five minutes at a time. (3.5 min read)
In my seventh post, Inward, I addressed the inward aspects of mindfulness. In this post, I address the outward expression of mindfulness toward the world as a whole.
Ten years ago, I had a dilemma. I discovered a support group that clearly offered what I needed to help me with something with which I was struggling. At the same time, I felt a strong resistance to joining—particularly fear. I feared exposing myself; I feared that the people wouldn’t be like me, and I feared what I might find out about myself. At first, the other members didn’t seem like me. But they were genuine and welcoming and encouraged me to stick with it for several of the weekly gatherings. I took their advice. During the group, they shared their failures and things they were ashamed of, which were painful to hear. But their stories didn’t drag me down, because I felt compassion for them, and this made me feel compassion for my own failures and shame. These people who didn’t seem at all like me began to seem just like me.
I thought of this while reading Chapter Fourteen. Pema explains that it is only the kinship with the suffering of others that heals us in difficult times. That was certainly my experience in the group. When I went to this group, I gave up on trying to solve my problems alone. And the focus of the group was on sharing pain; it wasn’t about finding solutions. In Pema’s words, “This is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself.” This experience is called bodhichitta, which is Sanskrit for “noble or awakened heart”.
The teaching holds that the noble heart is present always in everyone like butter in milk and oil in a seed. But we are conditioned to avoid pain, so we brace ourselves, dissociate from others’ pain, and forget. This becomes what Pema describes as “like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart”.
A recent event happened that penetrated the armor of people throughout the world. Like many, watching George Floyd die needlessly on a street in Minneapolis made me feel horror. Watching the bystanders, whose pleas failed to reach the police, made me feel helpless. Watching this as the latest of a long line of videos I’ve watched beginning with Michael Brown five years ago made me feel despair. Between the death of Michael Brown and George Floyd, I provided therapy for a black teenager. He saw himself in these black men. In one session, his mother, a strong and capable woman, collapsed into tears as she exposed her worst fears about her son’s future. Her fear is the fear of all black mothers. And at that moment, I felt the fear as if he were my child, and I felt closer to them. In a moment like that, the illusion of separateness disappears. The noble heart is rescued from prison in a moment like that.
But I can just as easily forget the pain of others and fall back into the illusion of separateness. I am grateful for the protest and hope that some improvements will occur. But I am also thankful that they have made it more difficult for me to return to amnesia, because, though I am active in the cause of social justice, my resolve weakens at times due to compassion fatigue and due to getting caught up in my own life.
Pema describes the antidote for the armor that “protects” us and makes us separate. She writes,
When we breathe in pain, somehow it penetrates that armor… This heavy, rusty, creaking armor begins to seem not so monolithic after all. With the in-breath the armor begins to fall apart, and we find we can breathe deeply and relax. A kindness and a tenderness begin to emerge. We don’t have to tense up as if our whole life were being spent in the dentist’s chair.
The practice of tonglen is a method for penetrating the armor and awakening the noble heart of compassion. Pema writes,
Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone can be free of pain. Whenever we encounter happiness in any form, the instruction is to breathe it out, send it out, with the wish that everyone could feel joy.
Tonglen has been the most important practice for me. When I feel compassion, I feel more alive and less afraid.During more difficult times when I’m afraid that others’ pain will be overwhelming, I ask myself, “Would you rather feel pain or be separated from humanity? Most of the time, I choose pain.
This exercise is not a sitting meditation. Tonglen, at its core, is a mindful practice for which the opportunity arises in everyday life. Pema describes a sitting tonglen practice in Chapter Fifteen, which I will relay in my next post.
When during your day you hear a news story that involves suffering, a friend tells you of an illness, or the checkout person at the grocery store is tired and grumpy breathe in the experience of their pain and breathe out the wish that they can be free of pain.
When you see a child chasing fireflies, hear an old friend telling jokes, or watch the long shadows on the landscape at sundown, breathe out your happiness with the wish that all beings will experience joy.
Thanks for participating!
ॐ I bow to you,
Next Post: 7/5/20 will focus on Chapter Fifteen through Seventeen
To find out more about the series or to participate in the discussion, go to Welcome to the Exploring Mindfulness Series.