A Meditation Technique for Facing Grief
Breathing in the world’s suffering helped me deal with sickness and death
We knew that death was rapidly approaching for Libby when she became too weak to swallow her pureed food or even suck from a straw. My twin sons were only three years old when we started frequenting the nursing home where she lived, excited to take McDonald’s milkshakes to their great-grandmother.
On what turned out to be her last day, I lifted my boys over the side rail and oxygen tubing that surrounded her like armor. One hovered, giggling as he planted a kiss on her forehead. She was just shy of 88.
During that final week, I finally pulled my signed copy of Roshi Joan Halifax’s book Being With Dying from the bookshelf where it had lived, its spine still uncracked after nearly a year. I had purchased it at a mindfulness conference the first time I heard Halifax speak. At the time, no one in my life was actively dying, and a part of me didn’t want to jinx myself or my loved ones, so I kept the book on hold, knowing that sooner or later I’d need the solace it would undoubtedly offer during a time of need.
With Libby’s passing, Halifax began speaking to me through the pages I read, yet I only made it through the first few chapters before it was buried bedside among the stacks of magazines, books, and journals that had preceded it.
A week after Libby’s funeral, my friend Sarah’s two-month-old son appeared yellow, lethargic, and feverish. Their pediatrician sent them to the children’s hospital for tests, returning a one in 18,000 result: biliary atresia, a complete liver failure in their delightful infant. Survival would require a transplant, and he needed to teeter between not too healthy and not too sick to “score” placement at the top of the deceased donor transplant list.
I took her some meals, texted, called, and visited them as they cycled in and out of the hospital, making sure to steer clear of them whenever any hint of a bug lingered in our household. And I breathed. Days dragged into months as she waited for the call that seemed never to come.
During those difficult months, I started reading Halifax’s book again, in anticipation of hearing her speak at another conference. Yet I also continued gripping to a warped interpretation of the “law of attraction,” wherein our thoughts have the ability to release positive or negative energy into the universe. I resisted reading about death, lest I invite it into my life. Not quite halfway into the book, I encountered Halifax’s instructions for “tonglen,” the Tibetan meditation practice of taking in suffering and giving out kindness and compassion, and my progress halted once again. I tried to distract myself with the arrival of the latest issue of Tricycle magazine. While paging through the articles in the bathroom as my sons entertained themselves in the tub, I encountered yet another invocation to tonglen.
Over the years during my imagery, yoga, and meditation practices, I’ve made a point of doing the very opposite of tonglen, by “giving away” my suffering and “taking in” versions of the Buddha’s four immeasurables: loving kindness, joy, compassion, and peace of mind.
Breathing in, breathe in peace. Breathing out, breathe out pain.
Breathing in, breathe in happiness. Breathing out, breathe out suffering.
Breathe in only what you need. Breathe out, let go of what does not serve you.
Various teachers reiterated this guidance. I repeated the mantras to myself and directed my students to do the same.
Take in the good. Let go of the bad. Think positive thoughts, get positive results.
Taking in the good and letting go of the bad felt freeing, therapeutic, and hopeful.
Previously I had described this practice to my dharma teacher. She patiently listened as I inventoried all that I was juggling in my life as a mother, wife, consultant, yoga teacher, etc. and gently recommended daily meditation, breathing in on the count of one, and out on the count of two. Just that. Not loving kindness. Not extensive pranayama with some Kegel exercises thrown in for good measure. Just in-one, out-two. I tried, with some consistency, to do just that.
Yet, twice in one week, two completely unrelated meditation resources had directed me to do otherwise with the tonglen meditation: to give away the four immeasurables and receive others’ suffering. It felt like a sign from the universe in true, hokey, New Age fashion. With total disregard for my dharma teacher’s advice to keep it simple, I accepted the unexpected double invitation and had a go at tonglen.
I sat, settling into my breath. As my mind quieted, I began breathing in all the suffering of the world on my in-breath, and offering all of my happiness on my out-breath.
Take in suffering. Offer up compassion. Take in suffering. Extend peace.
As I initiated the practice, my thoughts became agitated. My chest tightened. My mind said, “No.” And then, suddenly, my face quickly broadened with a smile, eyes still closed. I chuckled to myself, thinking, “Ha! Silly me. To think I could possibly take in all the suffering of the world,” and breathed out a huge sigh of relief.
A quote from an Anne Lamott book flashed through my head. “The difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think He’s you.”
With a deep exhalation, I conjured up what “happiness” was for me. I imagined my grandma. Images of my sons appeared, but then felt torn from me on the exhale. I forced fuller breaths and resisted offering my happiness as associated with my sons. Biblical images of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac appeared, but then additional relief arrived. I allowed my inner dialogue to challenge the fear. It’s not like I’m going to give my sons up for adoption. By offering my happiness, I’m not inviting more suffering. I’m sharing the happiness, not killing the happiness.
More space. With that, I finally felt permission to want to help others, and to be of service rather than to be served. Turning my meditation practice on its head this way felt so much more selfless. I felt okay, and moved mentally to a state of calmness. Energy and optimism began creeping into me. I can help. I am not at my rock bottom in need of help.
After this test run with tonglen, I suddenly realized exactly where I needed to turn my attention. I laid in bed, breathing and focusing on just one person’s suffering: my friend Sarah. A new mother. I breathed in her suffering for her, from her, breathing out an offering of shared joy in having healthy sons.
And then, one Sunday in April, the phone finally rang with news of a family who had suffered the loss of their child, offering Sarah’s son a chance at life.
Months later, cuddled up in bed with my own ear-infected son, I was awakened by a peck from him on my forehead. My heart burst. Meanwhile, Sarah was celebrating her birthday with her now healthy son, the lucky recipient of another’s sacrifice, made possible through suffering.