I have a dear friend, my first partner…the first man I was ever blessed to be in love with, and the first man I ever hurt to his core. We have, together, over the years been able to salvage from the wreckage and repair our relationship to where now it is strong, and solid, and with mutual respect and admiration. We have healed.
He is in need of great healing now, and is surrounded by an outpouring of love from family and friends as he battles a very aggressive, ugly, and scary brain cancer called glioblastoma.
In my journey of shaking hands with my shadow self, and becoming acquainted with my faults, my sadness, my self-loathing, my smallness, and then forgiving and healing that shadow self to become a man of integrity and compassion, I’ve committed to the Buddhist practice called “tonglen”.
Tonglen, as defined by Pema Chodron is “…a method for connecting with suffering-our own and that which is all around us, everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be. We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person whom we know to be hurting and wish to help. For instance, if we know of a child who is being hurt, we breathe in with the wish to take away all of that child’s pain and fear. Then, as we breathe out, we send happiness, joy, or whatever would relieve the child. This is the core of the practice: breathing in others’ pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open-breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever we feel would bring them relief and happiness.”
I wrote to my friend yesterday. I’ve committed to sending him an email everyday as he recovers. He lives in France, and my Seester and I will visit him when the time is right to do so. This is what I sent him, and I’m sharing it here as part of tonglen, with the hope that this practice may benefit others who are going through pain and suffering, too. *Which means all of us.
Hello. It’s me. I’ve been thinking about change, healing, transformation and other stuff, and I want to share something that I’ve learned.
It’s important to just show up. When I meditate, I don’t prepare myself ahead of time. I don’t have the zazen cushion, the bell, the altar. I don’t have my lotus position perfected and my hand mudras facing exactly 45 degrees toward Summer and Winter…in fact, most of the time when I meditate, I’m a hot mess…or I’m in a state of “Meh”…which means, “Okay, I’d reeeeeely rather not be doing this right now, and it’s DEFINITELY going to suck, and “motivation and mindfulness”–well, you can both kiss my ass because I have one cheek for each of you,” and I do it anyway.
It sucks at first, and yet, I still do it. I show up.
The best counseling sessions I’ve had with my clients are when I have no script to follow, no clear cut action plan, and certainly no net.
The best times I have with friends are when our regularly scheduled plans get derailed.
The times that are the most ugly and frightening for me are also the times when I learn the most, and have the best chance for survival…and for growth.
But it requires that I show up, face it, and say, “Okay, so now what?”
Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun I follow, and read/listen to fairly often. She talks about this idea of “Positive Groundlessness“. It’s that moment when you’re kicked out of orbit, or the rug is pulled from underneath you and you land on your bony tuchus. Positive groundlessness is what happens in the moments that follow. It goes like this: You have an awareness that you are in uncharted waters…that this moment is foreign…that this is dark and scary and there are wolves…and rather than the fight/flee/freeze option we usually choose, i.e. doing what we always do in situations like this to avoid pain and feel good again, we show up fully instead. We turn and face it. We look in the mirror.
In doing so, we are invited to become curious about this fear, the sadness, the unknown, the bad news, the diagnosis, the pain, etc. In doing so, we breathe. We show up and see that there are other things happening around us that are magnificent, beautiful, and in motion. And perhaps in doing so, we provide ourselves a fresh alternative, or a soft place to land, and we choose to respond differently in the face of pain, fear, and suffering than we have done in the past.
I never shared this with you, but it’s an example of the Positive Groundlessness I’m talking about. On 9/11/2001, when I was alone and walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, covered in ashes from the towers after seeing them fall with so many thousands of others, I felt something hit my pant leg. It was a pink post-it note…one of those “While You Were Out” notes with the space for a message and a phone number. It was blank. I knew it must have come from one of the fallen towers, blown across the river from lower Manhattan and come to rest, like some sort of butterfly on my pant leg.
I keep it in my Box of Special Things, along with all your letters and poems. That piece of pink paper is my reminder of Positive Groundlessness. The phrase “While You Were Out” has a different meaning. It reminds me to stay present…not to check out…not to go AWOL…not to flee…but instead to simply show up, fully, even if I’m a hot mess, and receive the moment. I encourage you to do the same, no matter what.
With so much love,