Spiritual Breathing

[First, I must apologize for not providing a recent health update since I asked for prayer for my year-end CT scan. Great news–it came out “clean!” So now I’m on a five-year watch plan with lots of blood work, scans and annual colonoscopies. I’ll let you know any “news”, but otherwise let me thank everyone once more for your faithful prayers and well-wished these past months! Now, back to our regular programming…]
Today I received a very sad update from a friend who is struggling with some personal matters. I took some moments to pray for her. But I also then felt led to “exchange” some of her pain for my good intentions. It’s a practice I’ve begun using to “bear one another’s burdens.” Here’s what I mean…
Over the decades, I’ve been a fairly serious student and practitioner of various Christian contemplative practices. Among lots of other things, I’ve exercised the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, read scripture through Lectio Divina, taken a number of silent retreats, and led groups through understanding many of the centuries-old practices of the spiritual life covered in Richard Foster’s celebrated book, Celebration of Discipline. I’d say I have a contemplative bent.
While going through chemotherapy, I enjoyed reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s recent book Holy Envy. Taylor is an ordained pastor who later became a professor of comparative religions, and this book is her journey of learning to appreciate and even borrow from other faiths some practices and perceptions which she felt could further her own Christian journey. Her writing always challenges me (and challenging books are really the only ones that hold my attention).
And because I sense that my colon cancer may have been caused or exacerbated by the grief that’s inherent in my career in poverty alleviation work, I was also studying about how to live a more present and mindful life each day, paying more attention to what I’m doing each moment and enjoying the very doing of it. My reading about mindfulness intersected me with Buddhist thought and practice [For her part, Taylor considers Buddhism a philosophy, not a religion]. And I found something in it which wonderfully echoes Christ, and I’m finding this a meaningful practice in my Christian journey.
It’s very similar to the ancient spiritual practice of Breath Prayer, but is perhaps its ‘photo negative.’ Whereas in Breath Prayer we may breathe out our agitation and worry and breathe in the peace of God or the spirit of Jesus, this practice known as tonglan does the opposite…
“The essence of Tonglan is breathing in that which is unpleasant and unwanted, and breathing out – – sending out – – that which is pleasant, relieving, enjoyable. In other words, we breathe in the things we usually try to avoid, such as our sadness and anger, and we send out the things we usually cling to, such as our happiness and good health. We breathe in pain and send out pleasure. We breathe in disgrace and send out good reputation. We breathe in loss and send out gain… [Tonglan] helps us overcome our fear of suffering and tap into the compassion that is inherent in us all.” – Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully
This short paragraph stopped me in my tracks. It might strike you differently, but for me, the image that immediately came to mind was of Christ on the cross taking into himself the sins of the rest of us. In tonglan, when practiced for the benefit of another person, we in some symbolic or metaphysical or spiritual way take into ourselves the pain or strain of someone else and exchange it for a wish or prayer for their peace or freedom or integrity. Doing this for a few moments for my friend today was a privilege.
Until today, I’d practiced tonglan mainly as a meaningful spiritual antidote during this time of political turmoil which America is experiencing lately. Whoever embodies enmity or hypocrisy to you at the moment (and we don’t have to agree on who that is)–consider trying to offer yourself as a co-bearer of their worst anxieties and insecurities, breathing those in, and breathing out a prayer or wish for that person for compassion, integrity, etc. I now do this multiple times each week, and it helps give me a sort of empathy or at least pity for that person, while symbolically offering to bear some of their burdens or hurts or insecurities.
If spiritual practices generally seem too esoteric and wacko to you, that’s fine. Also, any enduring practice is useful to some and not to others. Other practices are useful for a season and then no longer; this has certainly been my experience.
But if it initially seems repulsive to you to take in some of the the strife and strivings of your ‘adversary’ (political or otherwise), then let’s remember what the One on the cross taught us:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — [Matt 5:43-48 NIV]
And meantime, you may find this practice useful for helping carry the burden of friends and family. But can you imagine how the world would be if we are all breathing out peace, joy and lovingkindness to each other, including our opponents? I can only imagine.
January 2020
PS: I’d love to hear about your own experiences!

3 thoughts on “Spiritual Breathing

  1. Cory,
    This gives me a beautiful picture of Jesus’ last breath- his exhale being one of peace, joy and lovingkindness to us all.
    Thank you for your thoughts and insights.

  2. Good and challenging post. I’ve often contemplated the question of how do we REALLY bear one another’s burdens? I think I’ve always thought of that in the practical, fix-it sense which is so common among us guys (and probably a lot of women too) … what physical thing can I do to help? Fix a meal? Fix a leaky faucet? Buy groceries? Watch kids? Etc.

    But what you’re talking about really is a lot more “metaphysical” than that, and possibly more an exercise in identity, getting inside another person’s skin and “experiencing” their pain with them.

    I tried that to some extent yesterday when I had coffee with a friend, a young man of great courage and commitment whom I really admire. He serves as a Sheriff’s Officer for a local county, and told me that at times he struggles because there are times there is just “so much death” in his day-to-day job … mostly its the suicides that get him down, or drug overdoses, and all the seeming waste of human life. He wants to comfort surviving family members but feels very inadequate in his job to do this (and also explains it really is the job of the chaplain, but sometimes he’s there and the chaplain’s not, so it’s very hard).

    Anyway, as we chatted, I was trying to put myself in his shoes so I could both listen well and understand and hopefully offer encouragement. I don’t really experience that much death in my day-to-day job! And working at World Vision, I know we probably do get more of that than most jobs have to offer. So it’s easy to get complacent and just coast. But how could I take on his burden and truly be affected by that?

    It helped a lot to pray aloud with him, and to express my own inadequacy in this regard to our Father, and to ask for the gift of empathy. After a solid two-hour chat (much easier for me, now that I’m retired, than for an officer on his way to work … but I really appreciated the time and hope it was a mutual blessing).

    I’m convinced that, as usual, a lot of the power and the answer lies in presence. In incarnation. That’s what Jesus did for us. Came down, shared our pain, was present, empathized with us. He even laid aside the privileges of deity to do it! He certainly didn’t have to, did He? Thanks be to God that He did.

  3. Larry, thank you for your beautiful reflection and story. Yes, I think a couple readers got hung up on the link to Buddhist philosophy, but the spirit of my piece is exactly what you’re saying… identification, incarnation, presence, empathy. Spiritual practices assume or hope for an additional metaphysical/mystical component: triggering action in the spiritual realm from these practices. That’s my hope, as well.
    Thank you again! Cory

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