On Friday morning, a student of mine approached me at the front of the room a few minutes before class started.
“Can I talk to you outside?” he asked.
I nodded and followed him into the hall.
“Last night…” he began, swallowing a lump in his throat, “Last night my friend got shot.”
He explained that his friend was in critical condition in the hospital. After expressing my condolences, I asked if he needed to leave and go be with him.
“No, I don’t need to leave now, but if I seem out of it, or if I get upset by something, I might end up leaving before class is over, if that’s okay,” he asked/explained.
“Of course,” I replied, “Do what you need to to take care of yourself. We’ll make sure we get you caught up if you miss anything.”
On Sunday, I received an email from the student saying that his friend had died.
This is not the first time something like this has happened since I’ve been teaching college. I had a student talk to me during office hours about being suicidal. I had a student who got through a class at the same time that her parent was getting deported. At the beginning of this semester one of my students lost her mom to cancer. And last week, another student’s mom just got diagnosed with cancer (a year after her dad passed away from kidney failure).
In my other job, as a yoga teacher, I don’t always hear these stories verbally, but I feel and bear witness to my students’ struggles. I feel trauma in the quivering hips of a student I adjust in half-pigeon. I witness sweat mix with tears while my students rest in savasana. I feel the weight of heartbreaks, and transitions, and grief from every exhale in the studio.
Because I, like everyone, have experienced suffering to varying degrees in my own life, it sometimes feels overwhelming to also be wound up in the suffering of others. I have not always known what to do with the heaviness I feel after those interactions with burdened students. I used to attempt to find ways to bring them comfort while still shielding myself from carrying their pain, but that never proved successful.
About a year ago, I learned about the Buddhist practice of tonglen. Pema Chodron describes it as “connecting with suffering–ours and that which is all around us.” She explains,
“We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other’s pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness. However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.”
When I first read those words, I was at one of the lowest points I had been in a long time. My entire life had been flipped upside down and I felt very scared and alone. I was spending all my time consumed in my own suffering. I remember sitting on my bed and re-awakening to the suffering of the world. I remember breathing in for victims of drones, for people with chronic illness, for exploited workers, for my mom and the challenges she was facing at home. I started weeping almost immediately, burying myself in that pain, but, at the same time, my body felt suddenly light.
“At that point you can change the focus and begin to do tonglen for what you are feeling and for millions of others just like you who at that very moment of time are feeling exactly the same stuckness and misery. Maybe you are able to name your pain. You recognize it clearly as terror or revulsion or anger or wanting to get revenge. So you breathe in for all the people who are caught with that same emotion and you send out relief or whatever opens up the space for yourself and all those countless others. Maybe you can’t name what you’re feeling. But you can feel it —a tightness in the stomach, a heavy darkness or whatever. Just contact what you are feeling and breathe in, take it in —for all of us and send out relief to all of us.”
The practice of tonglen is a reminder of the interconnectedness of all beings. When I have been in low places, I can find comfort by practicing compassion for those who are also suffering. This is different than “misery loves company.” Tonglen isn’t about feeling better because “someone has it worse,” it’s about recognizing that all beings suffer, (just as all beings feel joy), and that a path to effective healing must consist of compassion both towards ourselves and towards others.
When I am surrounded by suffering, I can conjure the compassion that I have learned through my own personal challenges. When I see and feel the tumult of my students, I can breathe it in, hold it, then exhale some relief to them, and in turn, to me.
Any human being who is in relation to other human beings will experience the suffering of others, but those of us in care-giving occupations may often experience it to a level that feels overwhelming and/or triggering. In addition to tonglen, these are some other ways that I practice coping with others’ suffering:
At the end of every yoga class, as I’m guiding my students out of savasana, I fold my towel in front of me on the mat in exactly the same way. Over, under, flip it, fold. That process may seem small, but it allows me to transition from the space in the room–now sopping with the stories the students came in with–back into the world, and to leave what no longer serves me on the mat.
Running, HIIT, yoga, whatever it is, when I move my body and sweat, I feel epic release.
This is a practice that some suggest you ought to do every night. After being out in the world with all the mucky energy, it is important to rinse away the day. (And also allows your bed to remain a clean, pure space to enable optimal sleeping and dreaming conditions!).
(PS: I don’t practice this one all the time because I do the majority of my working out and/or yoga in the morning, so I usually shower in the AM. If I do do a PM shower, I try to make it very quick so as to not waste water!)
Dry brushing is a practice of taking a body-brush and running it over your body to get blood circulating and remove dead skin cells. More than that, it too acts as a method of release and detox.
Burning sage cleanses the space around you. I do this whenever I move into a new apartment, and any other time I feel like I need to purify the energy around me.
In her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, Tara Brach writes, “…as we feel suffering and relate to it with care rather than resistance, we awaken the heart of compassion. As we practice responding to our suffering with the kindness of compassion, our hearts can become…as wide as the world” (p.201). The suffering of others is also our own, and vice versa. Our mission is not to resist or find a way to escape, but rather to let it open us up into our most vulnerable and compassionate selves.