Compassion and peace are not intellectual abstracts! They are a practice and an attitude that are exquisitely simple to learn and share with others. In the sharing, they grow.
When I first began my surgical practice in 1971, I knew very little about compassion and peace. However, I was known as “the doctor who listens” so I must have known something about it for some time before. I convened the first “H.O.P.E. Group” meeting in February 1987, which attracted the attention of the holistic medicine movement. I started participating in their meetings and workshops, one of which was a workshop on mindfulness meditation. There, I encountered a steady emphasis on compassion, and my curiosity got the better of me. It led me to the work of Pema Chödrön, a Tibetan Buddhist born of American parents in Brooklyn, New York, who taught me the practice of Tonglen to relieve suffering. I found it to be extremely powerful and effective, and I used it regularly in H.O.P.E. Groups where the suffering of serious illness was commonplace.
This Tibetan word literally means “giving and taking” (in our Western minds “sending and receiving” seems to work better because it creates specific reference to the relief of suffering.) It comprises a compassionate practice utilizing the breath, the lungs, and the heart… images that we can readily understand and appreciate. In its practice one can imagine that the suffering is like a cloud in the air we breathe. We can also choose to see the spiritual nature of the physical heart – love – as that of a “noble transformer” which can change suffering into peace… nothing more needed!
I think it is so important that this simplicity avoids encumbering thoughts of being able to walk in somebody else’s shoes; carry their loads; pity them; and even understand them. I have used and taught this practice for nearly 30 years now. When I share it with another human being, the response I always get is, “Oh, I can do that!” And it is not uncommon to hear a few weeks later that same person say, “It works!”
The practice of compassion and peace
Specifically, and pardon me if I repeat, I am very interested in helping us become familiar with this remarkable practice. Imagine the suffering that you’re present to, whether it be your own or somebody else’s, looking like a dark cloud. Now, breathe the dark cloud into the space (your lungs) around your “noble heart” and hold it there for a moment, letting that noble heart transform the suffering into peace. As this develops, repeat softly to yourself that one word, “peace” while you hold the dark cloud in the space around your heart.
That noble heart transforms the darkness into a pure light that you can gently let go of with the out-breath. Give yourself permission to see it flowing around the object of your thoughts and actions – including your own self. Repeat this as often as necessary until you feel comfortably lighter and more peaceful. As this feeling pervades you, give yourself permission to soften the gaze in your eyes as you look at yourself, the other, or the others, and letting go of all judgment. Let that peace be yours – and ours – all in all.
A simple experiment:
I went for an annual physical just before the Republican National Convention this year. My blood pressure was 190/90! It used to be less than 150/80 without treatment! My physician and I agreed this was likely related to stress, and I was to apply what I knew about stress management when I got home. It was down to 170/82 when I got there and I took a few minutes to do a progressive relaxation that brought it down almost to 150, but not quite.
I watched it for a day and it never got below 150. After listening to the Republican candidate, it went up to 170 again… a classical response to stress! It did not go lower, though. I was disappointed.
I chose instead to listen to a 25-minute guided imagery I had created for H.O.P.E. Group use called “Deep Relaxation”. My B.P. dropped another 20 points to 132/70! There it stayed with but little fluctuation up and down for the rest of the day! The next day, it was back up to 150; so I decided to do a simple progressive relaxation focusing on a single muscle groups (e.g. “forehead”, “jaws”, “low back”, thighs,” etc.) repeating to myself, “Peace” while letting the breath go… Tonglen again… and it dropped to 133/73! Tonglen in action!. Imagine: some 15 muscle groups, fifteen peace breaths… about four minutes in all… while sitting comfortably relaxed at my desk… without any antihypertensives or tranquilizers! It works!
• It is a healthy personal practice benefiting self and others.
• It works on a wide scale because we are all one in consciousness.
• We are always in relationship with ourselves and with others.
• The quality of that relationship is always a matter of choice.
• There is no alternative to peace in both reality and truth.
• Please do not wonder about trying to change the world; you just did!
And when a suffering of anyone or anything comes to mind, please use your breath to bring peace to it.