Sunday, December 28, 2014

Breathing Out Compassion

"Meditation Garden"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Now that we have come to the end of 2014, the media is saturated with stories about the significant events of the year gone by. This morning's NewYork Times featured a very gripping "photo essay" of 2014 - January through December captured in sometimes tender, but more often sad and horrifying pictorial reminders of the memorable events of the year.  

As I made my way through the various pictures I was struck by an awareness that there was certainly a good deal of pain and suffering in our country and our world this year - racial and political division, homelessness and poverty in a nation of staggering wealth possessed by so very few people, passenger airlines shot down or lost at sea, wars in Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Syrian refugees, beheadings by Islamic militants, untold sickness and death in the wake of the unchecked Ebola virus. 

As I reviewed those pictures I was also reminded of the fact that throughout last year, every time I heard those month-by-month reports about division, suffering, war and violence I was moved to compassion while at the same time feeling somewhat frustrated at being unable to do anything to alleviate the pain. I also recall many conversations with people who also expressed a similar frustration when confronted by so many stories of profound suffering, and feeling so impotent to do anything about it.

So this is what my year-end meditation has focused on this morning. Is there anything I can do to bring some light into all this darkness?

In one sense I suppose I can do my part to live a life of day to day compassion, and that my everyday living will bring some peace to the chaos. I might also do what I can to work for justice and peace, perhaps volunteer at our local soup kitchen or donate to the food bank. And all these acts are indeed ways in which I or anyone can indeed do our part to help alleviate suffering. Yet somehow I look at those pictures of last year and I am still haunted by them and still left feeling frustrated that I can do little more than feel a sense of compassion- perhaps secretly glad that the same suffering isn't happening to me and mine.

I suppose that I could also "pray" for all those people who have had so many hard times in 2014. But I must say that I resist praying for people in the traditional way of prayer. I resist putting out petitions to a distant, powerful God who sits on high and determines what requests "He" might answer and which ones "He" will deny. 

This morning I was also reminded of a very powerful form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation known as "Tonglen." It is a simple and yet powerful meditation consisting of "mindfully" breathing in and breathing out. What makes "Tonglen" different from other forms of meditation is that, when you become aware of the pain of others, you intentionally breathe in their suffering,  and then, moved to compassion, you breathe out a healing energy. 

Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodron,  explains the practice of "Tonglen" meditation in this way:

You breathe in a feeling of hot, dark and heavy - a sense of claustrophobia,
and you breathe out a feeling of cool, bright and light - a sense of freshness.
You breathe in completely through all the pores of your body,
and you breathe out, radiate out completely through all the pores of your body.

As I reflect on this year's end, I  realize that in the year to come there is indeed something I can do to help alleviate the pain of the world whenever I am confronted with it. Every day I can breathe in the hot, dark and heavy suffering and breathe out the cool bright light of healing and compassion. This is something every one of us can do.

I think I just made a New Year's resolution.   



  1. That's something Paul. Just today I made the determination to begin a continuing meditation routine, daily. Today you write about the same topic.

    As for the type of prayer you mentioned. I stopped believing like that a few years after Santa and the Easter Bunny became understood as elaborate hoaxes.
    For some reason I have a ridiculously firm hold on the notion there is a God and I think that is why instead of giving up after rejecting the notion of a 'vending machine' God I assume I'm not understanding it right.

    That provokes me to look further.To uncover the basis of this notion and see into the mysterious fellowship of God with his / her creation. But the way another Paul has said no one has seen heard or imagined, It has never entered into the mind of man. I want to see into that.

    In the Christian belief system the Christ Event works like the 'rosetta stone' enabling insight into the mystery of word and deed, 'flesh and blood'. It was was said in the old testament that the spirit or life was in the blood. The incarnation and the words spoken he called seeds but were what we in the 21st century know of as memes he set loose in the field of consciousness are he said Spirit and life.

    I wonder if 'real' praying is more like meditation on those themes. I remind myself I am spiritually benefited and spiritually harmed by some teaching and it is better not to be harmed. The biggest part of 'real prayer' ls to remember the Lord knows what you need and to rejoice in the unknown saying 'Thy will be done."

    It's all a mystery and I'm going to look into into "Tonglen" meditation you mentioned. My resolution for the next year is to find some way of meditation. So your article shows how persistent memes like new year resolutions are. They generally end up in failure and nothing is changed. Yet every year the majority of us are 'thinking' like that for the next year. Maybe it's not a synchronicity that I was thinking of resolutions and you were too. Maybe its more like a rush hour traffic accident.

    Anyhow happy New Year

    1. I eagerly look forward to your wise and insightful comments in the year to come. Much peace.