Earlier I wrote about needing to tell a new story, a new narrative — one of communion and not separation. Yet as I listen to the news I feel as though I don’t want to be in communion with some people. I want to be separate from them. I want to scream how can you do that? How can you believe that?
Similar headlines are repeated daily generating increasing toxicity within me. What can I do so as not to get sick? How can I foster a sense of communion with all peoples even when their behavior is repugnant? As I prayed I recalled a practice that I feel might be helpful. It is Tonglen.
Tonglen is counter-intuitive. Although the resistance to what is painful may make us feel justified and righteous it is actually making us rigid. It closes up our hearts. When we relax and soften our hearts, we discover the gift of compassion for ourselves and others.
In Tonglen you begin by being very aware of the situation or the person who is causing you pain. With your in-breath you breathe in the feeling of that pain. Chodron encourages you to be very concrete. Is your feeling one of a heavy weight coming down upon your shoulders? Or a red-hot searing iron being placed on your heart? You try to feel it and picture it. You allow the painful situation to touch you. But you cannot stop there for you must release such negative energy, so the second part of the practice is key.
You imagine what gift that person or that situation is in need of and you breathe that out. Again, try to be very concrete. If the gift needed is a respect for women what does that feel and look like? Might it be an image of people dancing in a circle? If it is for civility and truth telling, could it be the image of two or three people talking, exchanging ideas and expressing a willingness to say I’m wrong and to change? Picture it and feel it. Then with your out-breath release it for the person or situation you’ve chosen.
I feel this practice helps me stay grounded in the reality that we are all connected. It frees me to be bolder in my response — to be clearer about why what is happening is unjust. It enhances my capacity to understand why it is occurring given our different developmental stages of consciousness. It helps me not to ignore my feelings or react to them in less than constructive ways; rather, it invites me to face into them and convert negativity into life-giving energy.
I offer this to you in the heat of the political debates. I invite you to try it as part of your prayer. Perhaps it will give you some insights as to how to move beyond the divide of separation and imagine new ways of acting on behalf of justice and living out of a narrative of communion.
When we see in new ways we will tell the story of communion.
[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]