You are Here

When I spend time in prayer and meditation, sometimes I go very deeply into a place that allows me to imagine or experience profound insights. Often when I meditate, I imagine Jesus sitting directly across from me, so close that our knees could touch.

One day, I was sitting at our home altar, candles and incense lit, breathing slowly and deeply and imagining again that Jesus was sitting across from me. I have always been moved by the story of the woman who had been hemorrhaging  for years and who knew, if she could simply touch Jesus’ cloak, she would be healed. I sometimes hold my hand out, eyes closed, and imagine feeling the coarse fabric of his cloak as well. I held out my hand on this day, and to my surprise, Jesus took it and placed it on his heart. Looking compassionately into my eyes (though they were closed), he said to me, “You are here.”

“You are here.” In his heart. In God’s heart. You are here. You are loved. You are enough. “Do you understand?” Looking into the deep wells of his eyes, I said, “Yes.” I felt joy! I felt included. I felt warmth. God’s heart beating with love…for me! Experiencing such unconditional love is life-changing. I ended my prayer session, blew out the candles, and rang the bell and stood up to go about my day.

Later, as I was doing household chores, I could hear my upstairs neighbor arguing with his mother and stomping around. I looked exasperatedly up at the ceiling thinking, oh, brother, not this again! That lazy young man needs to get a job and stop mooching off of his mother!

Suddenly, as if seeing Jesus again, his hand to his heart, I heard someone say, “He is here also.” The upstairs neighbor is in Jesus’ heart also. “Do you understand?” he asked. Thinking of the great compassion I knew from his eyes, I thought, yes, I understand. Jesus, God, loves this young man with every ounce of the same care that he holds for me.

Now, as I go about my days, when I look around at the people I see on the streets, in shops, at church, in my family, those whom I love, those who irritate me, those who differ with and from me, it’s as if Jesus is standing beside me on the sidewalk saying, “They are all in my heart. Just as you are. Do you understand?”

That’s why my heart is growing softer, day-by-day. How can I harbor ill-will, anger, and irritation for those others who live in Jesus’ heart just as surely as I do? That doesn’t mean that I go soft to the point of lying down to injustice, to unfairness, to evil. But it does ask of me to go about these tasks differently. It demands that I treat all people with dignity, with love, even if I disagree with them. We are all in his heart.




What can we do?

Thinking about all the suffering in the world can make you feel helpless and overwhelmed, especially if there is nothing you feel you can do to change anything. You can lessen the overwhelm by engaging in typical stress-relief techniques, breathing slowly, exhaling your feelings of stress. Breathing in, breathing out, releasing tension. This type of practice helps to alleviate your suffering, but you remain uneasily aware that the world’s suffering continues.

The Buddhist practice of tonglen turns typical stress-relieving breathing techniques upside down. If you are seeking a practice to help alleviate outer suffering, you should try it. I first learned about tonglen from reading Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s book The Places that Scare You. Tonglen “refers to being willing to take in the pain and suffering of ourselves and others and to send out happiness to us all” (55).

When I first read about tonglen, I thought, but isn’t it harmful to yourself to “take in” suffering? Won’t it make you suffer as well, which is just adding more misery to the world? Ah, there’s the miracle! Instead of causing you to suffer, tonglen practice produces the miraculous alchemy the ancients sought of turning lead into gold. You breathe in suffering, transform it, and breathe out peace–for others and, curiously, for yourself as well.

For example, imagine sitting comfortably in your place of prayer and contemplation. You are thinking of the victims of America’s most recent mass shooting. You imagine the anguish of their families and friends. Sitting with the grief, you allow it to wash over you; you breathe it in–a deep, long, slow breath. Now, here’s where the alchemy occurs. With that breath of suffering inside you, you transform it into compassion, love, and relief for the families and friends as you exhale. On the molecules of that out-breath, you send into the world intentions of healing and the release of suffering. Suffering into peace.

Of course, engaging in this practice doesn’t mean you have solved all the world’s problems, but if you believe that intention, like prayer, changes things, then you are indeed contributing to the world’s well-being. Tonglen is in a sense similar to intercessory prayer: you are asking for relief for someone. It is different in that it involves this physical act of the intentional in- and out-breath.

If you believe in God, you could easily integrate tonglen into your intercessory prayer practice. As you breathe in the suffering, as the breath sits in your body, as you form the intention of release from suffering, your mind turns this intention over to God on the out-breath. The intention then becomes a part of a much larger community of intention brought together in the mind of God. In this way, your practice, when joined with the loving intentions of millions and enfolded in God, becomes a powerful, world-altering act indeed.

Christians believe that the Holy Spirit resides in the breath. Through this practice, you join with the Spirit to participate in Her work in the world.

May I be free from suffering.
May you be free from suffering.
May all be free from suffering. 

Community of Hope

We shouldn’t walk alone. We shouldn’t have to walk alone. Our pastor in a recent sermon said that survivors of trauma lose some of their ability to tap into their frontal-lobe, creative-thinking areas of the brain. Instead, their harsh experiences carve a groove leading directly to the reptilian fight-or-flight centers of their brains. These responses isolate a person from the very help they need.

Fight or flight reactions are protective during trauma, but in other situations these responses hamper a person’s ability to function. When faced with decisions at work, in social situations, and at home, the traumatized person will disengage either by leaving or shutting down, or by becoming belligerent. People observing this behavior are baffled. “Why is she acting like that? I just asked her when the project would be finished.” The reptilian brain tells the person that this question is a threat.

Many of us have lived through trauma; many of us have a deeply carved groove leading to reptilian responses in our brains. How do we begin a new path leading to the creative centers of our thinking? How do we abandon the threat response, except when it is truly necessary?

Our pastor had an idea about that. She said that if a beloved community walks alongside the trauma survivor in hope and support, the person can begin forming new pathways. If the community treats the person with kindness, love, and acceptance, the survivor can begin to send out tendrils of trust.

This sermon brought me to tears because I feel that many of the ways I have behaved over the past several years were reptilian responses. Fight or flee. I had been traumatized by emotional abuse in a relationship, and as a result, I perceived a few other people’s actions toward me as threats to my well-being, even when they really were not. I said unkind words that I wish I could take back. And the problem is, when you say something you regret to someone who is also operating from fight-or-flight feelings, they can’t or won’t let the hurt go, even if you beg them to.

Awareness is the first step toward healing. If you are aware of these responses in yourself and can stop a moment before heeding them, you can begin finding the route to your creative brain. If you see others behaving with, as you perceive it, inexplicably harsh reactions to situations, you might wonder whether they have been traumatized in some way in the past. Perhaps you can extend a hand to help bring them into the beloved community of hope.