We had come from around the world, from every continent, as a global community seeking to cultivate compassion and learning to teach the same. We were beginners all, no matter our fields of service, which is how things work for contemplatives. We always begin again, sourcing our lives in the Source of compassion, as though we had never practiced compassion before.
Dr. Thupten Jinpa, translator for the Dalai Lama for the past 30 years, was leading us in an extended tonglen practice at the close of our first week of Compassion Cultivation Teacher Training in California. Tonglen is a way to imagine freeing others from suffering. But to me it is not very different from sincere prayer. The practice is a matter of the heart: wishing for a person or group to be free of suffering and becoming willing to act for that freedom.
Dr. Jinpa led us to close our eyes, still the mind, relax the body, and focus our intention. He guided us through a process of filling up with compassion and directing it to ourselves, and someone we love, by silently saying, “May you be free of suffering. May you know peace and joy.”
I have engaged in this practice for over a year on a regular basis and prayed for people my whole life. But my rational mind often kicks in and wonders things like, “Is this really accomplishing anything?” My mind has always done the same in the act of praying for others. My mind has a hard time believing in what it can’t see.
Then Dr. Jinpa added a new twist to the practice. As sixty of us sat in a giant circle, five teachers and fifty-five students, he had us briefly open our eyes, smile at the person on our right and left, and close our eyes again. I smiled at Wendy from New York on my right and Ravi from India on my left. Then he led us to pray, (my word, not his), for freedom from suffering for those two people by silently saying, “May you be free of suffering. May you know peace and joy.”
My mind wondered again, for a moment, if that wish was accomplishing anything. Then it happened.
A vision came, a fascinating image of the suffering in each of them breaking up into dark little fragments and flying off of their bodies and up into the air. The tiny bits of suffering were streaming away from them, like a scene from a Sci-fi movie. I felt I was actually seeing freedom from suffering happen in real time.
I started crying. I was so moved to experience that strange sense that something is really happening when I seek to free others of suffering, even if for only this moment. My crying was the kind that you stuff down and choke on when you are trying not to disturb a group. (Silly ego, worrying about being embarrassed when something big is happening like your heart breaking open!)
From there I started directing the same wish for freedom from suffering toward the many people around the room whom I had met during our week together. One by one I pictured them, the global community, and envisioned the same streaming of their suffering away from them. And I kept crying, and I kind of liked the feel of letting the tears cover my face. And I decided not to wipe them away.
Then I started directing the “May you be free of suffering” wish toward my loved ones, and the people in our School for Contemplative Living back home. Then, as Dr. Jinpa led us, I directed that wish for freedom from suffering toward a stranger, a difficult person, and finally toward all beings. In that part I included me: “May I be free of suffering. May I know peace and joy.” (Yes, in compassion cultivation we get to include ourselves, as though we matter too).
As he concluded the tonglen meditation experience, which expresses our wish to free all beings from suffering, and had us open our eyes, I felt the warm tears across my face and treasured them. I think I really got it, that this whole journey of compassion cultivation is about letting my heart break open, not holding back, and learning a skillful means of directing that broken-hearted compassion toward everyone: no exceptions!
When visions come we best pay attention. Our souls are awakening. Our hearts are stepping up to lead us. The ego is shrinking and falling off the throne of our lives. A new Master is taking over. She is the Great Love. He has always belonged on the throne. A new sheriff is in town and it is time to honor Her authority. A new president and CEO has stepped into leadership and it is time to follow His lead.
That’s how I want to spend my last thirty years on this planet: head bowed in reverence, heart broken open, soul united with the Great Love, and mind under the guidance of the Higher Wisdom. I choose compassion cultivation as my path and am, as ever, “called to a life of prayer for the world.”
Join me, won’t you, before it’s too late.