Yoga is my gateway drug, and meditation is my drug of choice. I deal in the former in hopes of getting people hooked on the latter. Like many people, I didn’t need my meditation fix when my life was easy. Meditation became my ritual in the years when my life was frustrating, stalled, and uncertain. That’s not to say it felt “good;” meditating while on heavy doses of anti thyroid medication, my liver swelling, hair falling out, whole body flushed, and heart beating irregularly and rapidly, did not set the scene for the type of vacation we are promised by modern day pop-meditation psychology. Meditation was hard.
Then I found the meditation that wasn’t hard at all. It was blissful.
I started practicing Tonglen by accident in a series of non-consecutive events. I had an iPhone App called “Stop, Breathe, and Think.” After scanning through it many times, I eventually found myself returning to “Great Compassion” as my meditation of choice. This was initially prescribed to me through the app because of my current situation. When times are blissful, the app will recommend meditations on gratitude. I was in pain, so it recommended compassion.
When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron
Simultaneously, Reid and I had started the habit of an outing every weekend to get us into a new head space. We were living in Pasadena and went to the Norton Simon Museum one day. The museum has a beautiful collection of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, and the gift shop featured books by revered Swamis and thinkers. I held in my hand When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron for several minutes, running my fingers over the engraved hard copy cover. I’m not a big shopper, and Reid usually has to push me to buy things for myself. He kept saying, “Get it!” Eventually, he said, “This is a book about living with uncertainty. If it will help you even a little, buy it for yourself.” I did.
It is currently on the verge of falling apart itself. I have read that book at least five times through, and I refer to it nearly daily. Toward the end of the book, I came upon instructions for a meditation called Tonglen. It sounded a heck-of-a-lot like the Great Compassion meditation. That’s when I realized I practiced Buddhist meditation.
Buddha’s Brain, by Rick Hanson
I figured I should learn about Buddhist meditation, so I ordered a copy of Buddha’s Brain. I dug into the neuroscience behind why compassion meditations work. A few months later, I was on a plane to the Catskills to spend 5 days learning from Bessel van der Kolk, Jim Hopper, and Dana Moore at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Without much information on the program or on Kripalu itself, I registered for “Meditation, Mindfulness & Modern Yoga for Transforming Trauma.”
Everything I learned through Buddha’s Brain clicked. I was actually making my brain better at dealing with my challenges. I happened to be making my heart better as well.
The Lost Art of Compassion by Lorne Ladner
Which brings me to this past summer, years after my dedication to Tonglen, and deep into teaching meditation and yoga. I was having a particularly challenging week with a relationship. A dear friend of mine was angry with me and had chosen to not speak with me; it was a punishment I couldn’t process. I was deeply wounded, and in that pain I couldn’t figure out how to proceed.
I randomly grabbed a book off my bookshelf. I’d read it when a yoga student gave it to me in 2011. It was dog eared and highlighted, but I couldn’t remember a thing about it. As I read, I cried. The book was speaking to everything I had subconsciously been working on for the past decade. And, at the end – a part I don’t think I got to the first time around – I found instructions on Tonglen meditation.
Funny, isn’t it? I could have read that book all the way through a decade ago, done the prescribed exercises, and had the tools I needed far sooner. But I didn’t. I found them in a round about way, exploring this lesson and that, never fully seeing or receiving the picture.
I did resolve that dispute with my friend. I spent two weeks deeply immersed in Tonglen, working to heal my own hurt and mend the relationship internally. A week later I found out I was pregnant with the long-awaited baby whose absence had been a cause of so much of my turbulence.
Meditation, compassion meditation specifically but Buddhist meditation generally, radically transformed my life. I don’t meditate to be happy or to be relaxed or to “manifest” the things I want. I meditate to be kinder to others.
Read these books, and you may find yourself equally transformed. Simply by practicing compassion, you will likely end up happier, with more fulfilling relationships, and with more of the good stuff you want in your life.