Most Sunday mornings, I head out to dance in the garden. I cruise through mid-town, cross the American river and turn left on Northgate. Right there, beneath the overpass, week after week, I pale at the jumble of broken down tents, piles of rubbish, scattered outhouses littering the landscape of the river’s edge. The people living here are lean and dark, downcast eyes, shoulders to match. I look. I breathe. I let in. My Sunday practice for more than a year now.
It would be so much easier to put on my trusty blinders and speed through in my red car, deep in much more important thoughts. Why would I let in this horrifying specter? More evidence of all the suffering on this planet. It is so deeply ingrained to turn away. How else can we make it through each day? Each week, in this same location, I surrender to another way.
Buddhism 101 encourages us to use breath as prayer. Invites us to begin by actually inhaling the suffering into our bodies. Thich Nhat Hahn puts it so well:
It is the compost that helps the roses grow.
It is the mud from which magnificent lotuses emerge.”
Tonglen is a simple practice that offers us an on-the-spot choice in the face of suffering. We have opportunities aplenty: our own misery for starters. The challenges arising in the lives of our loved ones. When the tonglen muscle is strong we can use it whenever we are present with hardship. Try it for a moment right here in the ease of your seat. If you have the front page of the newspaper handy…suffering is there. But any heartbreak memory will suffice. Empty of your breath and then sip in a few inhales specific to this suffering. Let it in.
Aaah, you have felt the catch. Tonglen isn’t effective unless we fully let in the hurt. Darn it. It is so culturally entrenched to resist, to turn away. But if you find yourself able to let some in, consider this: your magnificent body knows what to do with that world of hurt. Your body actually knows how to compost. Your body is not afraid of mud. Your body actually thrives in it. Your body can washing machine churn and be a cleanser of suffering.
And once your body does that, your exhale emerges as prayer. For what? You choose. A prayer for healing, for transformation, for an end to suffering. Out there on Northgate my exhale prayer becomes a plea for all beings to be safe, for each person living there to have enough to eat.
This poem by Gregory Orr has always touched me:
If nothing shatters it.But then you wouldn’t
Understand poems or songs.
You’d never know
Beauty comes from loss.It’s deep inside every person:
A tear tinier
Than a pearl or thorn.
It’s one of the places
Where the beloved is born.
Because we all have that shattered place deep inside, that tear tinier than a pearl or a thorn. And when we are ready, we can breathe it to life and find out what beauty is ready to come from this loss. These bodies know how. There are lotuses just waiting to emerge from the mud. There was a time twenty years ago when I absolutely got that I was not one of the “some say you’re lucky” ones. And I got to work in the mud.
These last few weeks I have been deep in it. There is never an end to it. If there was, I would cease to understand poems and songs. In this moment, I am feeling lucky indeed. Lucky to have lived a life liberally sprinkled with suffering. When loss is on my doorstep, I eventually open the door wide and breathe it in. It is so often the birthplace of the beloved.
I long to practice with you. We can meet on the mat or the dance floor or up in my studio one-on-one. Until then…breathe it in, compost it, let fly your prayers on the out breath.