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I was watching a few health and diet related TED talks, always inspirational, but one was focused on how to live to be 100 years old. A few places around the world were visited where centennials are prevalent, and with the expected good habits of plant based foods and regular exercise as a way of life, something else came up and got me thinking. It was the way the elder generation is viewed and treated in these societies. They have the outmost highest respect and authority, and are seen not only as oracles of sorts, but as active and contributing members of their community. I grew up in Russia and I watched my mother and grandmother take care of my great-grandmother in our tiny two-room flat, where she had the best and biggest bed. I remember when they turned her to prevent the bedsores and applied green pasty medicine to the skin of her thighs. I recall feeding the tip of a teapot into her mouth so she could enjoy some warm tea. And how she responded with the kindest of eyes and words. And then everyone came over after the funeral, and I was staring at our usually empty wooden hat rack filled to the top with people’s hats of all shapes and sizes and I was shocked to have so many people at once at our home. Then my grandmother living with us until she fell ill with cancer and passed away at home here, in America, surrounded by family. And I wonder how does this change? How does this culture take the older population and puts them away? What really happens to us as we get past say 75 or 80 years old? How many old people do you see in a day? Why do they become invisible? Are they no longer active consumers (except for the pharmaceutical companies) and therefore excluded from life? Older people in this country are nearly invisible. Many are permanently residing in so called “adult communities”, cared for by strangers, I am sure with more enthusiasm in the swanky and expensive ones, and not so much in the less pricey choices. I do not claim to know the answer by any means. I also understand that individualism and independence are highly valued in this culture. But I wonder how we can include our oldest and wisest members into our lives with more respect, kindness and urgency? None of us are here to stay, and the older we get, the less time we potentially have, and the more wisdom and knowledge we have to offer and share with younger generations. And being around family, kids, those that love and adore us keeps us healthy and alive, gives our daily routines a meaning, a sense to go on, proceed and look forward to tomorrow.
When a dear friend first told me about Tonglen meditation I frowned. So counterintuitive. You breathe in darkness, consisting of others’ pain and suffering, and you breathe out light onto them. Why would I want to do that, I questioned? Why inhale negativity and allow what we are used to calling “bad energy” to enter my body? Wouldn’t it stay there? Affect me? My desire to remain “whole” and “positive” was strong and I was certain that allowing in “evil things” would damage my haughty aspirations. In Tonglen you essentially serve as a filter for all which you see as unwanted and use your body to purify it and release it back as joy and kindness. You can apply it to people suffering as a result of natural disaster, domestic abuse, disease, fear, neglect, you can even apply it to animals experiencing pain for any reason.
Pema Chodrin writes that “Tonglen puts us in touch with all the others who are just like us, who feel the way we do. We all experience pain and pleasure. We all gravitate to what’s comfortable and have an aversion to what’s not.” As I began to practice Tonglen against my wishes, just to give it a try, I found myself experiencing the most profound revelations that meditation ever brought to me. Now I am only beginning this journey and have much much to learn, and most certainly always will. What I came to realize is that Tonglen is ultimate compassion. Tonglen brings us back to where we are one, before we were separated by birth, by rules, by countries, by race, by gender, by class, by politics, by opinions… While you visualize the dark cloud of suffering, you feel the pain of others’ and identify with it, you own it, because you understand what it is like to be there, you are there. It brings you as close it can to standing in “someone else’s shoes”, because “someone else” is a human construct, a synthesis, our own creation of separateness that pulls us further away from each other and cuts the cords by which we are all connected.
Tonglen Meditation is a solution not just when you have a specific situation or person (s) in mind, but also when you feel helpless, when you want to help but time and distance separates you, when you cannot give physically or financially, because all you need is your mind. Once again, Chodrin affirms that “Tonglen goes against the grain of how we usually deal with the world: wanting life on our own terms, wanting things to work out for our own benefit, no matter what happens to others. The practice begins to break down the walls we’ve built around ourselves, begins to liberate us from the prison of self. As this protective shield starts to come apart, we naturally feel a wish to reach out. People need help, and we can provide it – both literally and at the level of aspiration for their well-being”. For me, Tonglen is also about giving up control, letting go of the persistent thinking that I must avoid all pain and suffering and not letting it into my mind and body. When I feel the pain of others, I am much less likely to become the one that causes it, thus revealing my most intimate humanity, and what is more potent than that?
Random acts of kindness are a beautiful thing. They get shared widely and we rejoice in power of humanity.
Random however implies seldom, accidental, non-intentional, irregular, infrequent. It also implies certain egolessness as there is no expectation of any return. Though when I repeatedly added coins to someone’s expiring meter this past weekend, that happened to be right next to ours, I did hope deep down that I would get caught in the act and showered with gratitude. Not that I would ever reveal that…in public. Human.
Unrandom kindness, kindness that is constant and unassuming, that flows naturally and starts with a smile, a friendliness within, to our own thoughts, actions, bodies, inefficiencies, and expands out to others with soft eye contact, a smile to a stranger in traffic, sometimes silence when unkind words are dying to come out or unkind self critical thoughts flood the gates of our minds. Outcomes of kindness are more kindness and gratitude, because kindness is contagious. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”, Ian Maclaren