Tree in sunset representing stability, spaciousness and warmth

Guided meditation — Embodied compassion

By | Compassion, Spirituality

Guided meditation on stability, spaciousness and warmth  (9 minutes)

Many thanks to those of you who have been attending the Central Oregon compassion calls with me and Ruth Williamson for the past few weeks. As we’re all sorting out and settling into the reality of physical distancing and life during covid-19, it’s been good to connect and talk about what’s going on.

The meditation we did today is one I first learned from Kelly McGonigal during CCT teacher training in 2012. It’s a practice for contacting some qualities often associated with compassion – stability, spaciousness and warmth – in the body. I love this practice for holding difficult emotions or experiences.

Click here to listen or try it out.

For example, if you feel anxiety or off balance while watching the news, connecting with stability by feeling the support of the spine and feet on the floor can help.

Or, if you feel judgmental or angry in response to a difficult interaction with someone, it can help to pause and breathe or look up at the sky to bring space and perspective to the situation.

Or when you’re feeling lonely, far from loved ones, or misunderstood, it can help to connect to the quality of warmth and nurturing that’s often associated with the heartbeat.

Stability, spaciousness and warmth are just three examples of what compassion can feel like. Experiences of compassion can be vivid, pivotal moments, of no-strings-attached giving, heightened awareness, acceptance and an openhearted absence of judgement.

What qualities do you associate with compassion?

Empty chairs at St. Peter's Square depicting this strange moment in history, pandemic and need for compassion

Compassion and spiritual bypassing in the time of COVID-19

By | Compassion, Spirituality

Wow, it’s a strange time we’re living in! 

I hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy.

As we continue to learn about and experience upheaval, suffering, illness and disruption due to the global pandemic of Coronavirus, you may be feeling deep sadness, fear and anxiety. That’s what’s happening for me. These emotions come and go like waves. Here are a few resources that I’ve appreciated lately, that you might find helpful, too:

  • Eckhart Tolle and his partner Kim Eng have been sharing free video and meditation resources to address the fears arising in response to the pandemic.
  • Guided meditation with Byron Katie. And this “I complain about…” exercise.
  • Adyashanti’s beautiful letter.
  • This TED talk by Kelly McGonical is fantastic to watch/listen to/revisit in high stress times.
  • The Grief Recovery Method is an excellent book and program that busts common myths about grief and provides tools for dealing with it. Check out this article on dealing with grief due to Coronavirus.

What is compassion asking of us at this difficult moment in history?

Compassion is an awareness of suffering coupled with a willingness to relieve it.

Unlike related emotions and experiences like empathy and love, compassion is always and only a response to suffering. Therefore, at times of increased suffering, compassion gets activated in a big way. Compassion practices can help deal with grief, illness, loneliness, and anxiety.

I believe compassion is asking us to honor and attend to our own pain, fears and anxiety right now. And to take great care of ourselves and our communities by staying home. To reach out and take advantage of all the ways we can connect without being physically together.

Spiritual bypassing

Spiritual bypassing is also getting activated in response to Covid-19.

I’ve seen quite a few articles and posts on social media since the pandemic hit that encourage spiritual bypassing. As I understand it, spiritual bypassing is a kind of coping strategy that includes downplaying or dismissing the suffering people are experiencing with “spiritual” ideas or explanations — even to the point of expressing gratitude to the virus for the “global awakening” it’s bringing us. I find this response to what’s happening so troubling I almost don’t know where to start to address it.

There’s nothing good about suffering in itself, even though we may learn and grow through of our experiences of suffering.

Rather than meeting fear and anxiety with awareness, compassion and understanding, the spiritual bypass is a denial or cover up of suffering and fear (and other negative emotions) with positive thinking, and “high vibrations.” It can be subtle. It can sound nice, helpful and innocent.

James and I have been talking about spiritual bypassing quite a bit this week so we decided to record a video of him describing what it is and why it’s a problem.

Sometimes suffering is so big and overwhelming that it’s too much to look at in the moment. Just “staying positive” may feel like a good option. However, if we’re not willing to look at and integrate the difficult, dark and painful — if we think spirituality is simply a matter of transcending our humanity — our spiritual understanding is, at best, half-baked.

We recently watched this documentary about the 1918 flu epidemic in the US. At that time, there were those who suggested only “sinners” would get the disease. There were people selling cures, gadgets, remedies and contraptions that didn’t help. What I’ve seen lately are messages that look like shunning public health guidelines, and shaming others for reacting to this pandemic with fear — cuz that’s “low vibration” and such a bummer for the rest of us.

Messages like that don’t help.

It’s ok to be impacted by what’s happening. It’s ok to feel upset and afraid.

Have you been seeing spiritual bypassing lately too? Is this a new term for you? Drop me an email or message me on social, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

And please take excellent care of yourself and those around you in this challenging time.

💕

Image of a fire burning over logs to help visualize during Tonglen Practice.

How to do Tonglen practice

By | Compassion, Spirituality

Tonglen is an incredibly powerful Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice that increases our capacity to stay resourceful when confronted with the negativity or suffering of others.

Here’s how to do it:

Find a quiet place to sit and notice your breathing for a while with your eyes closed. Next, imagine someone you care about who is suffering. (Maybe you think of a friend who is grieving a loss or a colleague who is sick. Don’t worry about picking the ‘right’ person. You’ll benefit from the practice regardless of who you visualize.)

As you picture this person in front of you, imagine their suffering surrounds them like a cloud of smoke or a thick smog.

Then breathe in the smoke, allow it to enter your heart, imagining your heart as a bright light that purifies and transforms the suffering into ease, peace, relief and comfort. Breathe in the suffering, breathe out relief, light and peace.

Breathe in and breathe out, allowing the visualization to match your breath. Breathe in the person’s pain, allowing it to be transformed, breathe out compassion and ease. Practice for a few minutes with three targets – a loved one, a stranger and a person who is difficult for you.

Here’s another description of the practice from Ten Paths to Freedom:

“Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist practice of taking on others’ negativity willingly and purifying it for them for the benefit of all beings. The basic practice consists of becoming mindfully relaxed, visualizing another’s negativity as black smoke (or some other dark material), breathing it into your own Being (visualized as brilliant golden-white light in and around your body), purifying it, then breathing it back out as pure brightness and blessing for that person. This helps the world more than you could imagine, and it helps you awaken more powerfully than just about anything else. This visualization is compassion in action. Do it first with your loved ones and friends, then your enemies, if you have any. If you have no enemies, do it with public figures (such as politicians) who anger you. Do it with those you hate or perceive as ignorant or evil. Breathing in others’ negativity in this way cannot harm you , but can only help you and others. Because of the sacred tradition of Tonglen practice, by doing it you cannot take on more negativity than you can safely handle. Fifteen minutes of this practice daily is enough to give you full benefit.” – James Wood, Ten Paths to Freedom

And a few more tips

Tonglen is like a furnace, not a water water filter. It’s about transforming suffering, not collecting it. So when you breathe in the smog or smoke, it doesn’t stay with you. 

Letting go of outcome is essential. This practice is not about trying to get the person you’re visualizing to change or be different. Notice if you’re more interested in outcome than the moment. Bring enjoyment to the practice itself, for its own sake. 

Tonglen activates our spiritual nature as compassionate beings. It has been described to me as an ‘ego-reducing medicine,’ because it diminishes the narrow focus on self.

Rather than adding to the negativity on the planet, scattering it around like litter, with Tonglen we’re picking it up and transforming it into blessing and ease.

Tonglen can build courage, strength, and resilience. The way an athlete visualizes their race before running it, in Tonglen we’re rehearsing our readiness to help others when confronted with suffering. 

Enjoy!

Forest trees to symbolize the journey toward compassion

An alternative to breathing out the bad stuff

By | Compassion, Spirituality

Tonglen is one of my favorite compassion practices. I started practicing it in 2005 and have been teaching it as part of CCT since 2013. 

Tonglen is quite radical and counterintuitive at the beginning, and it feels amazing! Here’s an example of what I mean when I say it’s counterintuitive: I love attending group fitness classes, specifically Barre3, yoga, and CrossFit. At the end of many Barre3 and yoga classes, the teacher will suggest everyone ‘breathe out stress’ or ‘breathe out something you don’t want.’ 

Have you experienced this? While the motivation behind it is understandable, I often imagine everyone is breathing a cloud of smog into the room. It’s like being asked to litter sludge into the space around us. Where does it go? Who has to deal with it now that I’ve breathed out my stress and the things I don’t want?

In Tonglen, we learn to breathe in negativity, stress and pain and transform them into compassion and strength that we send out to others. It sounds dangerous, but with good instruction and training it’s incredibly powerful.

Tonglen is an ancient practice for reducing the tendency to self protect, scramble after comforting experiences and avoid negativity. It reinforces the desire to be a force for good in the world and boosts our courage, power, resilience and resourcefulness.

trees in snow and fog to inspire peace and calm

What does it mean to teach and learn compassion?

By | Compassion, Lifelong learning, Spirituality

Compassion can’t be taught.

It can be experienced, enjoyed, offered, noticed, studied, shared, remembered, cultivated and practiced.

Compassion can’t be taught because it is what we are. It arises naturally when we’re fully present with another.

Compassion is the awareness of another’s suffering coupled with a willingness to do something to relieve the suffering.

Compassion can’t be planned in advance. Attempting to plan out what I would do in x, y, z situation to enact compassion is a form of suffering. It’s a form of suffering because it takes me out of the moment, which is the only place where compassion can happen.

Compassion is a principle I can commit myself to, allowing it to have its way with me. It can look like saying no, staying still, not doing. It can look like saying yes, moving toward and helping.

Compassion isn’t defined by ‘doing’ at all. It’s better understood as a stance, a motivator and an attitude. I can reflect on compassion, choose it, make myself available to it, get out of the way and allow it to happen. Ideas about what compassion should look like, or how compassionate people do things, are not helpful. Comparing myself to others I see as “more compassionate” doesn’t help.

Learning compassion can be thought of as a process of remembering, practicing, living and being in alignment with our true nature, which is compassionate.

Book Recommendation: A Mind at Home with Itself

By | Book Recommendation, Lifelong learning, Spirituality

If you know me or have taken Compassion Cultivation Training with me, you probably know how much I love and benefit from The Work of Byron Katie. I’ve been practicing The Work, which is a meditative inquiry process, for about 10 years. I can’t imagine where I’d be without it!

Byron Katie’s latest book, A Mind at Home with Itself, written with her husband, Stephen Mitchell, includes powerful insights into the Diamond Sutra, and Katie’s description of – what else? What it’s like to live in a mind that’s at home with itself! Imagine if you loved and welcomed every thought that popped into your mind – even the judgmental and negative ones?

Katie explains, “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional.”

To give you a taste of how The Work works, here are a couple of videos of Byron Katie walking through it with people: 1) I made the wrong decision, 2) Why isn’t he vulnerable?

If you’d like to try out this powerful, super practical and compassionate practice, there are plenty of resources available on Katie’s website: thework.com. All of Katie’s books are amazing. A Mind at Home with Itself is one I’ll revisit over and over.

Enjoy!

 

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