For example, if your friend is very anxious about something that may happen, you breathe in all that anxiety and accept it for what it is. The “out” breath is where you imagine a feeling of peace, serenity or whatever you feel you want to send to that individual to relieve them of their burden of suffering. The interesting part of this exercise is that often your own feeling of anxiety may rise up inside you which you can then breathe in for yourself and breathe out the compassion for self and others who, at that very moment, are experiencing that pain.
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I like the tonglen approach because, as a mother, I always felt compassion for my children. I felt their suffering and tried to support them to the best of my ability. As a mother of five, I have a bit of experience in this department. I wish I had known about tonglen when my children were small because I believe it would have helped to make their lives better. Rather than feeling that every time they experienced hardship I should rescue them or intervene, I would have trusted that they had the inner capacity and resources, and my support to take care of their own problem.
Our children deserve to have us be the most educated that we can be in terms of helping them to grow into adults who can realize their full potential. That means that they are adults who know that life is a mixture of experiences, including suffering, and that, rather than having happiness as the ultimate goal, seeing it as a fragrance that infuses a life of service for the betterment of the world. Suffering then, becomes a meaningful experience, meant to help us evolve and become more conscious. We can then meet it head on instead of using distractions to avoid it.
Since we started with Victor Frankl, let us end with an account that he has left us from Man’s Search for Meaning. This example of Frankl’s idea of finding meaning in the midst of extreme suffering is found in his account of an experience he had while working in the harsh conditions of the Nazi’s concentration camps:
“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.
I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.
For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
Your comments and thoughts are welcomed.
Shirley Barr is a member of the Baha’i community and lives and works in Cornwall, Ontario. She can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org