Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Ultimate Self-Help Tool 
and End to All Suffering

So in the dark place I visited last week - that place to which I might as well bring a toothbrush and extra change of underwear because I know I will visit it again -  I found that there was only one way to ease my pain. My brain tumbled and coiled, bit its own tail, spun like a top, sank deep into the muck of resentment, fear, and jealousy and then breached into the clear air of love and tenderness, only to splash back into the dark water again. It was like watching a lava flow, if the lava flow was also accompanied by the emotional equivalent of actually physically touching the molten, red rock.

As I drove into the tawny hills of the Napa Valley trying to escape my discontent, I noticed little flashes of clarity, like brief openings to the blue sky between the clouds of a rainstorm. In those moments, I was able to become present with my own tender heart, and to find the love and care for another that is always there, inside, glowing like a fireball in my chest.

I discovered that I could send love to the people I was eating out my own heart about. That if I chanted "I send you all my love", the pain would cease, briefly. It was the only relief I could find, but it was also hard to stay there. I wondered why I didn't just reside in that place, but for some reason I kept kicking myself out of it, returning to the dark fires of my tortured soul. But then I'd remember again, and I'd send my love again. During meditation, I started visualizing a white light coming from the heavens down into the center of my skull and through my body and entering the earth again. Then I visualized a beaming white light from my heart, shooting out in all directions, like a balm of love. I found myself sitting up straight on my cushion, the beam of light holding me up almost like an extra spine, and the white light from my heart throbbing with my pulse.

It's hard to send light and love to people you feel have wronged you. In thinking about my own experience, I'm aware that it's the "wronged" part that I cling to. The self-righteousness and indignation at being treated this way is what feels so painful. And I think that's true for most of us. If you suggest to a hurting person that the way past the pain might be to do the exact opposite of what our instincts tell us to do -which is to ruminate, stew, pick the scab, and seek refuge in anger and self-righteousness - you so often get the 'Yeah, right" response. It's like this is the hardest thing in the world to do. Like to suggest that sending love and regard and letting go of resentment is the same as suggesting that we aren't important enough to be treated well. But this clinging to hate and anger, self-righteousness and victimhood only hurts us, it doesn't hurt the people who have "wronged" us. I know how it feels to not want to let go of the sense that we are victims. It's a safe place to be and it feels good, in a weird sort of way, like playing with a loose tooth. I also know how it feels to, even briefly, drop that story and send love to someone I'm angry at. I know the relief from pain that accompanies this, even if I can't usually stay there for very long.

Tonglen is another technique that I often forget to use, but that works in those moments of intense anguish when I feel backed against a wall of emotional pain. With Tonglen, we breathe in the pain of all creatures who are feeling the way we're feeling - hurt, betrayed, angry, lost, sad, abandoned, frightened - and we breath out healing, love, and light to ease the suffering. It goes against all human instincts to take on more pain, but with this practice, we take it in in order to ease the suffering of others. It's the ultimate act of selflessness. But when we do it, we find that the pain is transformed into sympathy, care, and a desire to help, and instead of pain, we find that we are breathing in the connection we have with all beings who suffer. It connects us all.

So, in moments of pain, when every fiber of your being wants to lash out at others or yourself, disappear, escape, or lose yourself in helpless rage and self-destruction, can you:

1) Chant "I send you all my love" to one who you feel has wronged you or not treated you right?
2) Visualize a white light from the heavens coming into your heart, and your heart spreading that light out in all directions, like a nimbus of love?
3) Breathe in the pain of all beings who feel that pain that you feel, and breathe out ease, light, and healing?
4) Chant "May you be healthy/May you be happy/May you be wise/may you be free from suffering", changing the 'you' to 'I', and to the name of not only people in your life who you care about, but the people in your life to whom who you feel anger or pain?
 And if the answer to this question is 'No', can you look at that and discover where your resistance lies? We all must start where we are, but it's useful to understand just why we choose to suffer rather than ease suffering. I find this resistance in myself, as well. It's as if suffering feels so much safer than letting go, that we'd rather writhe in pain. Like touching a hot stove, feeling the skin burning, but choosing to keep our hand to the flame rather than snatching it away. I don' t know why we forget these lessons so often, but if I'm confident of nothing else, I'm positive that the Universe will continue to send us into situations that will remind us to keep letting go, letting go, letting go, until we Remember.

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