Tuesday, 26 July 2011
Tonglen in the Lady chapel
It's an open secret that whenever I get a chance, I slip into the Lady Chapel for a few minutes at lunch to light a candle and say a quick prayer.
This afternoon, unusually, I was on my own, so I decided to try something different. As I've mentioned recently, I've been reading Pema Chodron's When things fall apart and The places that scare you (with a strong preference for the second) - and the first was on loan the minute I finished it. Brilliant, brilliant books - and they've totally transformed my spiritual practice.
There are different ways of using the practice, but the structure is always the same: you stop and find a moment of stillness/spaciousness; then you explore and work with the texture of the feeling you are going to breathe in - which is most often a negative, such as fear, anger, doubt, claustrophobia - whatever is there; you begin with yourself or someone you love; you make the circle bigger: yourself ==> someone you love ==> someone neutral ==> someone difficult ==> all beings. You breathe in the pain and breathe out spaciousness (or anything that would be healing/calming - I've been known to breathe out coffee, as did one of Pema's students, and chocolate!)
You can do it for your suffering and difficult feelings at the moment, initially breathing in your feelings, exploring them, holding them in maitri - or loving kindness and compassion for yourself - and then breathing for all those feeling like you at the moment and expanding the circle. You can do it for another's suffering and all those like them. That is classic tonglen.
But you can do it for all or any of the following, known as the four immeasurable truths - Love, compassion, joy and equanimity - these are the classic phrasings, though I've been known to change them. Use what holds the essence and works:
May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression and prejudice.*
*I actually think that living our lives fully requires passion, so I specify it as 'passion that gives rise to aggression'.
Today, for me, smouldering over Glenn Beck and other things, Door #2 - 'free from suffering and the root of all suffering' was the right answer.
God was clearly smiling down on me, as when I got to Taylors, there were plenty of pastrami and emmental sandwiches left, so I grabbed one and headed into the cool semi-darkness of church, and the deeper sub-darkness of the Lady chapel. I didn't light a candle and stand or even pace as I prayed, as is my usual wont. I sat down and started to breathe.
May I be free of suffering and the root of all suffering.
*Squirm* I absolutely HATE praying for myself. And I DO mean *HATE*. Three breaths was pushing it, four was too far, but I stayed with it.
May he be free of suffering and the root of all suffering.
A good friend I'm really worried about. I could have stayed with that one for ages, but did it till it felt complete and moved on to neutral:
May the people in this church at this moment be free from suffering and the root of all suffering.
No resistance, only slight connection, but a disinterested kind of well-wishing. Ok, that's where I am, but need to work up from there to feel more engaged. But where I am is fine. Now for the toughie:
May Glenn Beck be free from suffering and the root of all suffering. No, edit that, may Glenn Beck and the Tea Partiers be free from suffering and the root of all suffering.
Resistance but managed to slip past it. Just as I was feeling spiritually smug, a voice whispered, 'It's easy when it's abstract. Pick someone you know.' Allah damn it. Just when I thought I was home free...ok, you pussy, woman up. Who's it going to be? Ah, yes. Someone who reminds me of a controlling mother.
May SHE be free from suffering and the root of all suffering.
NOW it was hard to breathe, the resistance and tension were so high, but I kept pushing - gently, in keeping with maitri, more like stretching, but I finally broke through - and found a compassion for her fear that I'd never expected to find. I'd always known she was afraid, but now I ached for her in her fear, rather than hardening in response to it.
Then I lined us all up and said it for us all together, spreading to Oxford, the South, England, the UK, the world and all beings.
Finally, I stood up and lit a candle to Our Lady. I have NEVER felt so grounded in my own centre, in my own strength. For the first time, I fully understood Kris' words to Talia in Mercy Lackey's Arrow's Flight:
"Ground and centre, greenie!"
In that moment, I fully knew what it felt to have slightly overlapping versions of yourself with fuzzy edges snap into one, with sharp, crisp boundaries. I knew nothing could shake me.
Then I turned around and nearly started laughing - not 5 steps away was a parishioner I find very difficult, because I perceive her as a mother who is 'too good' in the sense of 'this is what good is, let's be it' - and I experience her as very controlling through that 'I'm so good' way. She sets my teeth on edge. I smiled as I passed her and I thought, 'Come on, girl, breathe. Or colloquially, 'SUCK IT UP, BABES. THIS IS YOUR PRACTICAL.'' So I started breathing for her - and it wasn't easy.
Fifteen steps later, I passed by a regular asking for the sacristy key. As I'd just seen the sacristan go up the side with the above parishioner, I poked my head through and said, 'X, the sacristan has just gone up the side.' I got told, in no uncertain terms, to piss off and got totally blanked as he passed me. Normally, that would have led to annoyance, but I knew that was just the way he is, and what I'd done could have been seen as controlling rather than helpful. So now it was time to start breathing for him, as well.
Out the church door and into the sunlight, with an uneventful walk back to the office, also a church. And as soon as I sat down, who should sail to my desk but yet another difficult customer.
By now, I knew the laughing Buddha was glancing cheekily in my direction and was finding it hard to keep from giggling myself. There was no question that Our Lady was laughing richly, Joseph's lips were twitching, and Jesus was grinning like a boy who had just put a whoopee cushion on Mum's favourite chair, as the Father and Holy Spirit looked down and said, 'If you're gonna talk it, hon, you gotta learn to walk it.'
Ain't that THE spiritual truth? Being real?
And so, as I continue to breathe in and out for all of us, this time from Stephen Cope:
May you be protected and safe,
May you feel contented and pleased:
May your body support you with strength -
May your life unfold with ease.