Nautilus shell art by William Conklin
exercises + experiments, reminders

Self Care in the Time of Corona

Yes, by all means, breathe in the light. Yes, absolutely, focus on the positive. Pull out the crystals, light up the sage. Keep yourself safe. But don’t bypass what you’re feeling right now. This is the moment. Scary, messy, uncertain, full of potential. You were made for this, remember? You are no stranger to trauma. This is your wheelhouse. A natural healer, you are well equipped to thrive. Trust.

Bodhichitta and the Practice of Tonglen

Rather than trying to visualize our way out of this, what if, instead, we dove right in? No one articulates these ideas as pragmatically and poetically as Pema Chodron. From her every-sentence-worthy-of-a-frame classic, When Things Fall Apart, here is a meditation practice you can do right now:

We awaken bodhichitta, this tenderness for life, when we can no longer shield ourselves from the vulnerability of our condition, from the basic fragility of existence. In the words of the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, “You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion.” It is said that in difficult times, it is only bodhichitta that heals. When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself. This is the time to touch the genuine heart of bodhichitta. In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear… is the heartbeat of all things, the genuine heart of sadness.

The practice of tonglen – sending and receiving – is designed to awaken bodhichitta, to put us in touch with genuine noble heart. It is a practice of taking in pain and sending out pleasure and therefore completely turns around our well-established habit of doing just the opposite.

Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain. Whenever we encounter happiness in any form, the instruction is to breathe it out, send it out, with the wish that everyone could feel joy. It’s a practice that allows people to feel less burdened and less cramped, a practice that shows us how to love without conditions.

When we protect ourselves so that we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, imprisoning the softness of the heart. We do everything we can think of not to feel anything threatening. 

[But] when we breathe in pain, somehow it penetrates that armor. The way we guard ourselves is getting softened up. This heavy, rusty, creaking armor begins to seem not so monolithic after all. With the in-breath the armor begins to fall apart, and we find we can breathe deeply and relax. A kindness and a tenderness begin to emerge. We don’t have to tense up as if our whole life were being spent in the dentist’s chair. 

When we breathe out relief and spaciousness, we are also encouraging the armor to dissolve. The out-breath is a metaphor for opening our whole being. When something is precious, instead of holding it tightly, we can open our hands and share it. We can give it all away. We can share the wealth of this unfathomable human experience. 

In the process of discovering bodhichitta, the journey goes down, not up. It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt. We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it. We move toward it however we can. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away. If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes, we let it be as it is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of bodhichitta. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die.


*Nautilus Section X-ray by William A Conklin

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