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Center for Action and Contemplation

Suffering: Week 1 Summary

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Suffering: Week 1

Summary: Sunday, October 14-Friday, October 19, 2018

My soul is sore when I learn how our people are tortured, when I learn how the rights of those created in the image of God are violated. —Óscar Romero (Sunday)

For me, to be a Christian means to accept that battlefield, to accept and to somehow participate in the mystery of death and resurrection in oneself and in the universe. (Monday)

The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers. (Tuesday)

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit itusually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and invariably, the most vulnerable, our children. (Wednesday)

I believe—if I am to believe Jesus—that God is suffering love. If we are created in God’s image, and if there is so much suffering in the world, then God must also be suffering. (Thursday)

The only hope of understanding [pain] comes as we align ourselves with a groaning universe committed to cycles of birth, rebirth, and the longing for a just order. —Barbara A. Holmes (Friday)


Practice: Tonglen

Today I share a wonderful meditative practice from Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön.

Tonglen is . . . the most effective tool for developing courage and arousing our sense of oneness with others. . . .

There are various ways that tonglen is taught, but the essence of it is breathing in that which is unpleasant and unwanted and breathing out—sending out—that which is pleasing, relieving, enjoyable. In other words, we breathe in the things we usually try to avoid, such as our sadness and anger [and suffering], and we send out the things we usually cling to, such as our happiness and good health. We breathe in pain and send out pleasure. We breathe in disgrace and send out good reputation. We breathe in loss and send out gain. This is an exceedingly counterhabitual practice. It helps us overcome our fear of suffering and tap into the compassion that’s inherent in us all.

The word tonglen is Tibetan for “sending and receiving.” It refers to our willingness to take on the pain of others we know are hurting and extend to them whatever we feel will ease their pain, whatever will enable them to stay present with the sorrows and losses and disappointments of life.

Practicing tonglen awakens our natural empathy, our innate ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Caring about people when they’re scared or sad or angry or arrogant can be a challenge; it confronts us with our own pain and fear, with the places where we’re stuck. But if we can stay with those unwanted feelings, we can use them as stepping-stones to understanding the pain and fear of others. Tonglen allows us to acknowledge where we are in the moment and, at the same time, cultivate a sense of kinship with others. When painful feelings arise, we breathe them in, opening to our own suffering and the suffering of everyone else who is feeling the same way. Then we send relief to us all. . . .

Tonglen isn’t just a practice to do on the meditation cushion. It’s particularly useful right in the midst of our life, wherever we are as we go about the day. . . .

Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. To the degree that we can open to our own pain, we can open to the pain of others. To the degree that we can stay present with our own pain, we can hang in with someone who’s provoking us. We come to see pain as something that can transform us, not as something to escape at any cost. As we continue to practice tonglen, our compassion is bound to grow. We’ll find ourselves increasingly more able to be there for others, even in what used to seem like impossible situations.

Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change (Shambhala: 2013), 80-81, 82, 84.

For Further Study:
James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life (Orbis Books: 2005)

Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change (Shambhala: 2013)

Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press: 2006)

Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 19411943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996)

Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017)

Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon Books: 1983)

Richard Rohr, A Spring Within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations (CAC Publishing: 2016)

Through the Year with Oscar Romero: Daily Meditations, trans. Irene B. Hodgson (Franciscan Media: 2015, ©2005)

Image credit: Tunnel, Anton Atanasov.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers. —Richard Rohr
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