Earlier I wrote about needing to tell a new story, a new narrative — one of communion and not separation. Yet as I listen to the news I feel as though I don't want to be in communion with some people. I want to be separate from them. I want to scream how can you do that? How can you believe that?
Within the course of just a few days this is what I heard in the news. A young woman who had become a social media star in India was killed by her brother who felt what she was doing brought shame to the family. He exercised his right to perform an "honor killing." I listened to an update about the so-called Islamic State forces near Sudan who had destroyed the village where the Yazidis, a minority group, lived. The men and boys were killed and the women and girls were taken as sex slaves. North Korea launched a ballistic missile which landed near Japan's waters. Donald Trump continued his harangue about Mr. and Mrs. Khan and has no intention of backing off or apologizing. He even called Hillary Clinton "the devil."
Similar headlines are repeated daily generating increasing toxicity within me. What can I do so as not to get sick? How can I foster a sense of communion with all peoples even when their behavior is repugnant? As I prayed I recalled a practice that I feel might be helpful. It is Tonglen.
When the "Engaging Impasse: Circles of Contemplation and Dialogue" process was being designed, process facilitator Jean Alvarez introduced us to this practice. This teaching has been made popular through the writings of Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, particularly in her book, When Things Fall Apart. The practice of Tonglen invites us to reverse our usual resistance to what we find painful by welcoming the painful experience into ourselves. Over the years I've used this basic concept in describing the dispositions of the heart that are needed to listen and speak from a contemplative heart. It is a way to become soft, spacious and welcoming.
Tonglen is counter-intuitive. Although the resistance to what is painful may make us feel justified and righteous it is actually making us rigid. It closes up our hearts. When we relax and soften our hearts, we discover the gift of compassion for ourselves and others.
In Tonglen you begin by being very aware of the situation or the person who is causing you pain. With your in-breath you breathe in the feeling of that pain. Chodron encourages you to be very concrete. Is your feeling one of a heavy weight coming down upon your shoulders? Or a red-hot searing iron being placed on your heart? You try to feel it and picture it. You allow the painful situation to touch you. But you cannot stop there for you must release such negative energy, so the second part of the practice is key.
You imagine what gift that person or that situation is in need of and you breathe that out. Again, try to be very concrete. If the gift needed is a respect for women what does that feel and look like? Might it be an image of people dancing in a circle? If it is for civility and truth telling, could it be the image of two or three people talking, exchanging ideas and expressing a willingness to say I'm wrong and to change? Picture it and feel it. Then with your out-breath release it for the person or situation you've chosen.
Breathing in the pain and breathing out a gift over a period of time — five to 10 minutes — can change how you cope with the painful situations you encounter. I remember during one of the early circles which took place at the time of the Iraq invasion, a participant shared how she was using this practice focusing on George W. Bush. She spoke of how hard it was at first and then how it got easier as she became aware that he and she breathed the same air, drank the same water, came from the same stardust. Something changed within her. It wasn't that she became passive in the face of the injustice; rather, her anger and resistance was no longer eating her up and so more energy was available to respond strongly and with clear intention to the situation.
I feel this practice helps me stay grounded in the reality that we are all connected. It frees me to be bolder in my response — to be clearer about why what is happening is unjust. It enhances my capacity to understand why it is occurring given our different developmental stages of consciousness. It helps me not to ignore my feelings or react to them in less than constructive ways; rather, it invites me to face into them and convert negativity into life-giving energy.
I offer this to you in the heat of the political debates. I invite you to try it as part of your prayer. Perhaps it will give you some insights as to how to move beyond the divide of separation and imagine new ways of acting on behalf of justice and living out of a narrative of communion.
When we see in new ways we will tell the story of communion.
[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]
To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.
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