Opening the heart

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, writes about our bodhichitta, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “noble or awakened heart.” Chodron describes bodhichitta as our “soft spot,” the ability in all of us to feel kinship with the suffering of others and not simply view it from a distance.

She writes, “It is said that in difficult times, it is only bodhichitta that heals. When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is a time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself. In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things, the genuine heart of sadness.”

There is much sadness in the world. We read with horror of the killings in Norway, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, this country’s two wars, disease, famine, drought, heat-related deaths … it’s easy to feel overwhelmed these days with so much painful, distressing information coming in and a growing sense of helplessness about the possibility of positive change. It’s easy to want to look away, to protect ourselves, to think only nice thoughts.

After hearing about the shootings in Norway I picked up Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. I wanted to find some calming words that might help me let go of the anger and sorrow and allow me to move past a sense of numbness about more sad news.

Chodron says that “in order to feel compassion for other people, we have to feel compassion for ourselves.” The means to do this is through tonglen practice, a method for connecting with suffering—our own and that which is everywhere—by breathing in with the wish to take away someone’s pain, fear, or suffering, and breathing out with the wish to send healing, happiness, or joy.

Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have died, those who are in pain of any kind. It can be done as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot at any time,” Chodron says.

There are variations on the actual words of tonglen practice but according to Buddhist teachings it’s important to begin with ourselves because until we can love and take of ourselves it is so much harder to be of much help to others. My friend Nancy reminded me of one simple method, which is to say first to ourselves:

  • May I be well.
  • May I be happy.
  • May my heart be peaceful and at ease.
  • May I be filled with loving kindness.

Then we meditate about others and say the words—first to someone we like, then to someone we feel neutral about, then someone we love, and finally to someone we hate or whose existence makes us suffer.

By doing this last, Chodron says, we can “make the taking in and sending out bigger.” She says, “If you are doing tonglen for all those who are feeling the anger or fear or whatever that you [yourself] are trapped in, maybe that’s big enough. But you could go further in all these cases. You could do tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies—those who hurt you or hurt others. Breathe in their pain and send them relief.”

She acknowledges that this last part can be very hard to do, almost impossible, that it goes against the grain of our human responses of fear, anger, terror, revulsion, misery, or wanting to get revenge. But she says “the practice dissolves the walls we’ve built around our hearts,” and in the process, “we begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.”

We breathe in whatever the suffering is and breathe out—radiate out—relief and healing in whatever form we visualize.

  • May you be well.
  • May you be happy.
  • May your heart be peaceful and at ease.
  • May you be filled with loving kindness.

Summer is the season of the Heart in Chinese medicine, a time to open and expand Heart energy and welcome in peace—and feel more compassion for ourselves, for those in our immediate sphere, and for our fellow humans around the world.

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3 thoughts on “Opening the heart

  1. Well said. We must get back in touch with basic goodness. Opening one’s heart to the outside air and making it vulnerable can be a scary thing. But A true warrior is someone who  leads a revolution with their heart exposed to the raw elements of nature. Then he/she can come from a place of true fearlessness and not a cave or cocoon where violent fearlessness festers.  

  2. Wonderful, gentle writing that is a counterpoint to tragedy all around us.
    Thanks, Nancy, for your positive contribution to the world. You’ve given me a thoughtful and inspiring start to my day.

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