Turning the page on 2019
Trending this morning on Twitter was the phrase “page 364 of 365.” It’s almost time to turn the final page at the end of a long year, one which caps off a long decade. My mom, who was born in the 1930s, is about to enter her ninth decade. Kirk Douglas is about to enter his eleventh. In “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot tells us that “Life is very long.” Meanwhile, John Lennon tells us that “Life is very short, and there’s no time / For fussing and fighting, my friend.” With these opposed forms of wisdom, can we work it out?
To focus on the length or brevity of a life is to embrace a particular narrative, or, if you prefer, to adopt a particular attitude. Shakespeare said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” a positive approach, while the aforementioned T.S. Eliot took a somewhat darker tone in The Waste Land:
I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.
For some, the 2010s has been a dark decade. For example, we know that fewer Americans own stocks today than did at the beginning of the recession of 2007 and 2008. We all must decide what sort of practices, attitudes, or narratives might help us to leave the darkness behind us. Having read books this month by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Pema Chödrön, and the 14th Dalai Lama, I feel obligated to share a sample of what I have learned.
In particular, I’ve been reading about tonglen, a Buddhist meditation practice that involves both the Tibetan term of tong, which means “giving” or “sending,” and the len, which means “receiving” or “taking.” I understand this to mean taking (or breathing) in another’s concern, worry, or suffering, and then sending (or breathing) out coolness, freshness, and discernment as a momentary stay against the suffering.
I think of this practice as having three stages. In the first stage, one acknowledges with appreciation that others are suffering in the same way, or from the same cause, that I am suffering. This makes one feel less isolated, and more connected to others outside the self. John Lennon said that reality is “a dream we dream together.”
The second stage involves wishing that the relief that one knows, even momentarily, resulting from one’s sitting or meditation practice may be felt by all who suffer as one does. The third stage involves actually seeking out and taking in the suffering of others, holding it for a moment, and then breathing it out while also breathing out freshness and healing to those who suffer.
This might be a lot to ask of a simple meditation session, but this practice of tonglen also substitutes a positive narrative for the sorts of narratives that anguish us, whether they be reliving difficulties of the past, or reliving difficulties yet to come. It has been said that worrying is like praying for what you don’t want. Mark Twain said, “There has been much tragedy in my life; [and] at least half of it actually happened.”
Twain’s folksy optimism is welcome, but as this decade comes to a close, we all know many people who are struggling and who are suffering. For myself, I know some who have chronic illnesses, and some who have deadly illnesses. Some are estranged from those they love, including their families and extended families. Some are finding their talents or labors insufficiently recognized or remunerated. Some see multiple forms of injustice, and wonder if what they do is enough.
By focusing our attention on the alleviation of the suffering of others, we may find that the practice of tonglen or another form of mindful meditation allows us to strengthen ourselves so that we can better support others, as well as to create different narratives from those that vex us. I hope you find yourself ever growing, with your eyes ever opening, in this coming decade, and that all of us can free ourselves from those recursive narratives that needlessly limit our awareness and our potential.
Dr. Andy Jones is a writer and faculty member living in Davis, California.