There’s a story in the Zen tradition about a young meditation student who finds his teachers instructions to “watch the breath” dreadfully boring.
Sitting together by the edge of the river one day, fielding complaint after boring complaint from his listless student, the teacher finally has enough. Quick as a flash, he grabs the student by the back of his robe and shoves his head under the water. As the student struggles to free himself, the teacher firmly holds him down. At the last second, the teacher pulls the youngsters’ head up only long enough for him to grab a breath, whereupon he dunks the youth for a second time. The student struggles and bandies about. Again, at the last possible moment, the teacher pulls the students head out of the water and – GASP – dunks him yet again! Just as the student begins to cave, the master pulls him out of the water, sets him down on the bank of the river and calmly asks, “How boring is your breath now?”
I’ll break the news to you as gently as I can. Our physical yoga practice – the graceful Sun Salutations, the vibrant Warrior poses, the elegant Dancer poses, the backbends, headstands, and handstands – are all a total set up for seated meditation. Take a look at the 8 limbs of yoga and you’ll see they are really a ‘work in’ (as opposed to the popular notion of yoga as strictly a ‘work out’). They take us from gross to subtle levels of being. Many of us get so caught up in the superficial – the yoga abs, yoga booty, yoga biceps – that we lose the point of our practice altogether. Asana is just one of 8 pieces of the big, tasty yogic pie! When we hit the mat, we’re simply lubing the joints and taking a leaf blower to our minds so that we can sit for a time, be still, and watch our breath. Sound boring?
Have you ever been around someone who’s in so much pain, physical or otherwise, that you can practically feel their hurt from across the room? What an opportunity to practice!
Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and count every breath up to four. Then begin again at one. You’ll have thoughts fly in and out, just let them go; don’t get caught up in the storyline. Let them pass on through; if they’re important, they’ll come back to you later. When thoughts take us on joyrides, they’re usually stories of reliving the past (good or bad), or fantasizing about the future (good or bad!). Am I right? So when you catch yourself thinking, silently say to yourself, “thinking”, and allow that word to pop the thought like touching a bubble with your fingertip. Watch the thought dissipate. Then bring your concentration back to counting your breaths beginning again at one.
Let’s add some power.
With your eyes still closed, bring to mind that person who’s in so much palpable pain. Visualize her pain surrounding her as dark, gray smoke. As you breathe in, pull that dark, gray cloud deeply into your heart. Allow this pain and negativity to completely pollute your entire being. This is tough stuff; not for sissies. This pain penetrates deep, to the core of your heart. See your heart as a flower (pick a flower, any flower) that once it takes on board all the fear, pain and grief, it closes its’ petals, enveloping that dark cloud. As you exhale, the flower opens its’ petals and out flows a luminous golden pure light, moving straight to the heart of the pained person seated in front of you. The outbreath is the key to healing in this practice. This carries all the positivity, all the goodness, all the wishes for well-being and happiness you can muster. Breathe in her suffering and sadness, breathe out peace and well-being. Give her happiness, take her pain. After several minutes you may feel a noted change in your environment…and chances are real good you won’t get bored.
Welcome to the practice of Tonglen; Tibetan for give and take.
What will you give and take this holiday season?
Lisa Bracken owns and teaches at The Canebrake as well as at NSU. Have a Tonglen Holiday!