Reading: “The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water” by Mary Oliver
The call came from a friend who I hadn’t heard from in a while. She had had her eye on a job that made her a little nervous but that nonetheless she was excited about. We had talked about this before. She wasn’t sure at first whether she wanted to move, but as time went on she felt the urgency for a change increase to the point where I knew she had a lot of emotional energy invested in it.
The news was disappointing. She hadn’t gotten the job, and even worse wasn’t even sure it was for the right reasons. From the feedback she received she felt they had read things into her background and discerned things about her that weren’t true. So, not only had she lost the opportunity she sought, but the whole process had unsettled her and shaken her confidence. She wondered about how she presented herself and even whether the whole trajectory of her career had jeopardized her options for the future. It was a rough place to be in.
Listening to her, I felt badly, but I was also aware that her tale triggered something a little like panic deep inside me. In a sense it unearthed my own experiences of failure and rejection and all the terrible feelings around them, and I was aware of a small, frightened voice inside me telling me to flee.
But I kept my head. I didn’t find some convenient reason to end the call or jump into “fix-it” mode – offering all sorts of prescriptions for what went wrong and what she should do about it. When a pause came in the conversation, I simply took a breath and invited her to go on.
Frustration and disappointment are part of the warp and weft of our lives, but none of us wants to spend any time with them. They bring us real pain, and we’d just as soon avoid them. Yet, that impulse to flee also serves to isolate us, to disrupt or break the very connections that feed us most deeply. And what is more it disconnects us from ourselves.
So, how do we find the strength not to flee, to remain present, to stay open even when the going gets tough?
Today I want to organize my answer to that question around my understanding of a Buddhist practice that continues to fascinate me the more I explore it. It’s called “Tonglen,” and it translates literally as taking in and sending out. It’s a practice centered in meditation, but the course it follows is different from the way we often understand meditation to work.
Meditation is centered in the breath, and usually in meditation we imagine breathing in energy and vitality and breathing out bad feelings or anything we want to get rid of. In tonglen it is just the opposite: we imagine someone who we know who is suffering and with the inward breath imagine taking their suffering in. Then, with the outward breath we send that person peace and good feelings. In other words, we breathe in what we want to avoid and breathe out what we’d like to keep.
Hmm, you think. Now, how is that a good thing? Why would I want to take that ugly stuff in? Some Buddhist practices even invite the practitioner to imagine it as dark smoke.
Well, to begin with another person’s suffering is not our own. There is no way we can feel it as intensely as she or he does. But taking that suffering in is the beginning of compassion, literally feeling with another. When we sit with another person’s suffering, we don’t belittle or dismiss it. We honor it and affirm the person who is enduring it. It’s not nothing. It’s real. And it matters. That moment of communion alone can make a huge difference in how that person experiences his or her suffering.
Also, because this suffering is not ours we have a perspective on it that it can be hard for the person experiencing it to have. For them, it can seem all-encompassing. It fills the screen, so to speak. But we see the suffering in the much larger context of what you might call the “spaciousness” of this person’s life. We know the inherent goodness of this person, her gifts, his capacities, the larger story. And so we can send him or her the good wishes we truly feel – happiness, joy, peace.
And, of course, this process need not be confined simply to our interactions with others. We can apply it to ourselves as well, though that holds challenges of its own.
Buddhists diagnose the fact of suffering as the chief ill that besets us, and they note that, rather than confront it, many of us devote a great deal of energy to escaping or avoiding it. Our goal is to protect ourselves from unpleasantness. So, we become well practiced at denial and escape.
The problem is that neither strategy is especially effective, and each has the effect of removing us from the world around us, from people we love and even from our true selves. The fact is that there is a crack in everything. The world will go its own way regardless of our wishes, and every one of us is fragile and flawed. So, rather than run from our pain, why not accept it – or, who knows, even embrace it?
That sounds good. Very compassionate, to be sure, and yet, let’s face it, a little scary. None of us really wants to spend much time with that which brings us pain. We want to be happy, happy, and we fear that dwelling on the hard stuff may just bring us down, possibly even to a place from which we can’t get up. And then there’s the shame that we sometimes attach to what brought us pain. Who needs to go there?
Yet, here’s the amazing thing. Sometimes when we own our pain, when we sit with it without judgment, without beating up on ourselves, we find that our capacity to endure it, to walk, as it were, next to it, is greater than we thought. We can even learn to extend some compassion to ourselves, not in a self-pitying way but in a way that acknowledges the pain as what it is, that acknowledges the wound it has given us, but still appreciates that the pain does not define us.
And just as that is true of us, it is true of others, too. It can help if we remember that there is nothing unique about the suffering we endure. The circumstances are ours, but pain is a universal experience. And this can be a point that opens our hearts. We soften our judgment against ourselves and others once we dismantle the shields we created to protect ourselves from our pain and instead accept it.
What’s more this acceptance makes us more available to be of comfort and support to others. Acceptance of our pain gives us a strength of sorts grounded in the realization that we need not be defined by our wounds. Instead, we are defined by our goodness, and that goodness that opens a broad spaciousness in our being, spaciousness that can hold and release the pain of others and respond to them with loving kindness.
Mary Oliver makes this point in the poem we heard earlier comparing our sorrows to water lilies with their roots sunk in the pond bottom, in her wonderful image, “the mud-hive, gas sponge, reeking leaf yard, swirling broth of life” that send skyward on tall wands fists with beaks of lace that tear the surface of the water and break open over the dark water.
Our wounds, in other words, can be our gift. They can be the agent that opens us to deeper living and to deeper compassion with others, that help us break through habits that paralyze our lives.
So, in tonglen meditation we take in the suffering we experience or that others experience and hold it, not belittling it or dismissing it, but honoring it, acknowledging it, not as the whole story, only part of the story we are living.
And then, with an eye to the wider truth of our lives, the deeper beauty within us, we send a wish of peace, that we, that whoever we are with or whoever we are holding in our hearts will take in and experience a sense of the beautiful spaciousness of our, of their lives.
This is framed in Buddhist practice, but it also resonates deeply with my understanding of our tradition as we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. When we suffer, we have a sense of ourselves diminished, as a little less worthy than we had thought we were before. The gift we can give to ourselves is to help each other see the beauty, the wholeness that remains within us despite the circumstances.
We don’t distract ourselves with imagined ways of evading or escaping the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we help ourselves understand how they are nested in a larger truth of our lives. What had seemed so scary or shameful was not as big, as overwhelming as it had seemed, and from that perspective we find that a way forward presents itself that is true to our heart.
Part of what we can do as a community is to help each other see that way forward through our compassion. We accept that pain is a part of life, something that we will each encounter, but that it does not define us. So, we can be available to each other, accepting without judgment, making room, offering space, until we are able to tear through the surface of our sorrow and break open.