My spiritual journey has been a long and winding path, filled with wrong turns, retreads, and missteps. I went from a very naïve girl who fiercely wanted to believe her Catholic faith to an embittered agnostic who didn’t dare believe anything, all before my 20th birthday. I spent my 20s mired in agnosticism, lost and shuttered, all but shut down to anything besides the tangible world around me.
The road from there to where I am today was filled with questions, study, meditation, Prozac, and a healthy dose of rage and grieving.
The first step, however, required the most bravery.
The first step from shut-down to wide open was a tiny crack. Just a little opening in that shell I’d created to protect myself, through which I could begin opening my mind, heart and soul once more to things and ideas beyond myself.
One of these cracks came through the teachings of Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön. In her works, Chödrön teaches about the practice of tonglen:
Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from age- old patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.
The idea of actually seeking out pain, taking it into me with compassion and kindness? Yeah, that seemed a little bit extreme at first. But I tried it. And it changed me.
The act of opening yourself not only to your own pain, but to the pain of others, is simultaneously liberating and terrifying. We spend our entire lives fighting against discomfort, building walls and mountains and universes around ourselves to protect that fragile little space within that we call “us.” Tonglen busts right through that.
We open a door. We open a universe, inviting pain and sorrow and regret into our homes, giving them a place at the hearth, welcoming them with compassion and understanding.
It’s a radical step, but it yields results.
The moment I began opening myself to the pain of the world, instead of trying fervently to avoid it, I discovered myself stronger, braver, and more resilient than I ever dreamed imaginable. I found within myself more patience, compassion, and generosity than I thought possible.
I also found my own pain, my broken places and seemingly unforgiveable regrets. I found them and, because I’d learn to have compassion for other people’s flaws, I could have compassion for my own. By learning to feel compassion for others, I learned compassion for myself.
It’s not a cure-all.
I still rage at the injustices of the world, sometimes loudly and in a rather obnoxious manner. I still get impatient with stupidity and stubbornness and hypocrisy. And yes, I don’t handle it very well when someone disagrees with me on something I believe passionately.
We’re all works in progress.
The take-away here is that growth requires tenderness. A new bud is vulnerable, but without it, the plant will never grow. A newborn animal is fragile, but contains within it the potential of strength, courage, and expansion.
Spiritually, if we are to grow, we must have the courage to risk vulnerability. We must be brave enough to open our hearts, minds, and spirits to the unknown–knowing there is the potential we will be hurt.
Like the saying goes, courage doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid. Courage is feeling the fear, and moving forward anyway.
Be brave, my friends.