Last Sunday was the memorial service for a longtime friend and member of the community where I lived for nearly 20 years. At the same time, we learned that the college-age son of another couple had been killed the night before in a car accident.
This is a time at which I am very grateful for Facebook, as it enabled friends from around the world to share the awful news and then extend their heartfelt love, prayers, and expressions of support and comfort to the parents, younger sisters, and devastated friends of this beautiful young man.
The forum was also an important opportunity for mutual friends to support one another in their grief. An insightful posting from a woman, who, several years ago, had lost her own 17-year-old daughter, beautifully synthesized what I have been trying to express these past several months in my writing. Here is part of what she shared:
Through the deaths of two husbands and a daughter, I have learned that 'Grief' is not just a feeling, but a skill. And though death seems an inconvenient time to practice, it is a time to begin to gracefully embrace something that we all share in common...
Her wise words touched me to the soul and also gave me a direction for my own sorrow and compassion for this loving family so cruelly torn apart. Regardless of how firmly we may believe in the ongoing nature of love and life, it is still so hard to feel anything but anguish at the passing of one so young, vibrant, and beloved by his family and friends.
So, I took to my meditation cushion with the intention of engaging in the Tibetan practice of tonglen on behalf of all those who are so tragically visited with sudden and dramatic loss.
Pema Chödrön is the real expert in tonglen, and I urge anyone interested in knowing more to consult her writings and recorded programs for more instruction.
Here are the basics of how, several years ago, I became acquainted with the practice, as my husband, Stephen, became increasingly ill with colon cancer (excerpted from my book, A Beautiful Death: Facing the Future with Peace).
I had been rereading Ken Wilber’s Grace and Grit and was intrigued by his description of a meditation technique called tonglen—a practice of “taking in and sending out” from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition whose focus is on extending compassion to all living beings. I decided to try it because Wilber said it had become an essential practice for him and his wife, Treya, during the last few years of her battle with breast cancer.
To begin, I seated myself for meditation, back straight, breathing naturally, noticing the breath going in and out until I felt myself enter a state of calm awareness. The next step was to visualize a loved one who was in pain—in this case, of course, Stephen. As I breathed in, I imagined all of his suffering in the form of a dark, heavy substance flowing into my body and traveling down to my heart.
The basic instruction is to rest briefly with that suffering in your heart, where you feel it being consumed. Then on the out-breath, you visualize all your own positive qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, and health being released out to the one in pain as rays of love, light, and healing energy. You try to see the other person as being released from his or her suffering, now surrounded in joy and a sense of well-being...
I have to admit to being a bit concerned—as are most people who try this technique for the first time—that willingly taking in the negative energy of another person’s illness or anxiety would make me sick. Apparently, this doesn’t happen. Instead, you stop recoiling from suffering—your own as well as that of others. You learn how to enter into pain, allowing it to flow into and through your heart, where it is transformed into compassion for all those who suffer and blessing for the one who is willing to hold that attitude for the entire human condition.
I did not attain such lofty awareness that night, but as soon as I felt the energy of Stephen’s suffering enter my heart, I knew its deepest cause: he did not suffer for himself, he suffered for me. His greatest burden in leaving me was the fear that I might flounder as he had seen me do so often, that my faith would be destroyed, and that I would be vulnerable without him to protect me. (pg. 117-118)
When a friend loses a loved one, most of us really don't know what to do or say. Often, there isn't anything for us to do by way of direct support because we live at a distance.
Even if we are geographically close, the early days of loss are such a tender time for families that our kind thoughts, prayers, and respect for their privacy are the best gifts we can provide.
But we still have an inner need to "do" something. We need a skill to help us be present with the feelings that are so powerful as to potentially overwhelm us. Tonglen practice answers that need while also offering a direct gift of compassion to those who suffer. We may not be able to confirm the efficacy of our practice, but I personally believe that it works.
Here is how my experience with doing tonglen for Stephen concluded:
I immediately got up and went into his room, where he was still awake. Sitting next to him on the bed, I touched his arm and said, “Is leaving me what concerns you most?”
“Yes,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. “I know how much you depend on me and I worry that you won’t be okay.”
“I will be, I promise,” I said and kissed him on the forehead. “I promise.”
Stephen and I were both more at peace after this interchange. Somehow it helped us come to a deeper acceptance of our situation. The fact that I understood his grief made it easier for him to bear. And tonglen became a skill that continues to help me with the losses that are always present as we walk our personal journey through life.
It is my profound hope that all those who mourn may be likewise comforted.
Copyright 2012 Cheryl Eckl Communications, Inc.
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