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Breathe in pain; breathe out ease

I just got home from dropping my youngest daughter at school and am relieved to sit at the round table on my back porch. I've wiped the desert dirt from the red block printed table cloth and poked a nag champa incense stick into a silver pail full of dirt, collected stones, and a giant "mother of thousands" succulent. The air holds a coolness and my dogs wrestle in the back yard. I can feel the tension in my body rise as I begin to type, though.

After my daughter hopped out of my care with an I love you, I switched the radio from my her favorite pop station to NPR and tuned into a conversation about the horrific images coming out of Ukraine as the Russian military recedes around Kyiv. People in the streets with hands tied behind their backs, executed. I won't write more of what they described. Each of us has to decide what we're able to let in.

I pulled into my driveway and turned off my car; eased my seat back, pulling my knees to my chest in a hug. The voice on the radio shifted from a clearly disturbed reporter on the front lines to a war crimes official from past US administrations. Is what's happening genocide? Does it meet the legal requirements and if so what does that require of the nations of the world in response?

I realized I was holding my breath. As I inhaled deeply and exhaled completely, I remembered tonglen.

On Jan 14, 2022, Lion's Roar online magazine published Pema Chödrön teaching tonglen: “ 'sending and taking,' an ancient Buddhist practice to awaken compassion. With each in-breath, we take in others’ pain. With each out-breath, we send them relief." Not unlike an ancient letter to the Galatians recorded in the Christian scriptures that says "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."

Chödrön says, "Usually, we look away when we see someone suffering. Their pain brings up our fear or anger; it brings up our resistance and confusion." Most of us believe that turning toward our own pain or anothers' might overwhelm us. I have found that turning towards--with curiosity and compassion--actually eases the suffering, allowing the wave of pain to rise up and fall away as it naturally does. Pushing it away or, conversely, diving into it actually causes the overwhelm and tucks it away in my body to surface later as physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual dis-ease.

My belly pressed against my legs as I listened and breathed in the pain of the reporter in Kyiv. I breathed out ease. I breathed in more suffering as I let my mind circle back to the vivid images he had conjured. I had pushed them out before--an unconscious response to the nausea and tightening in my chest. I breathed out comfort. I breathed in the suffering of the people in the town 90 miles north of Kyiv where the images were actual people with families and friends. My chest expanded and my shoulders relaxed. I exhaled all the ease and comfort I could find.

I kept breathing and listening to the radio and noticing my body release. I turned the attention of my heart back to the reporters and NGO workers on the ground in Ukraine as they stream into the region, having just gained access since the start of the war. The voices on the radio--strained, serious, urgent--discussed genocide definitions and possible responses and I breathed. Suffering and pain in; ease and comfort out. Thank you for your time ended the conversation.

Now I'm here on my porch. I've fed my dogs and tulsi peppermint tea with magnesium steeps in my cup beside me. And still, the people of Ukraine are in a hell of humanity's making. I'm not holding my breath, though. I'm not holding the suffering in my own body, holding the hell inside me. I'm breathing in and breathing out. I hope I'll practice tonglen all day as I breathe and lead a webinar and feed my family. Maybe I'll even remember tonglen if (when?) my teenagers get dysregulated today.

Perhaps it only helps me not shrivel up on my little spot of earth on the edge of the desert. But I don't think so. I think it reaches out, brings more kindness and love into the world in some mysterious way. May it be.

1 Comment

Courtney Pinkerton
Courtney Pinkerton
Aug 26, 2023

Thank you for the gift of this. yes what a reminder of how we can hold yet not hold the pain of this world.

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