Resources for Recovering Resilience: Resilience in the Face of Sudden Tragedy

The news of – and the newscast images of – the bomb blasts that killed three people and injured 100 others during the Boston Marathon last Monday instantly evoked shock, horror, outrage in millions of people nationwide and, in the next instant, evoked an outpouring of compassion and care that made the news, too.

Compassion is the heart’s innate and instant response to suffering. We’re evolutionarily hard-wired to respond to pain, loss and grief with deep empathy. The heart is moved and we want to reach out to help.

This week’s resource for recovering resilience in the face of tragic loss is a meditation on Awakening the Heart of Compassion by Tara Brach, clinical psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, D.C. The meditation is based on the ancient Tibetan practice of tonglen, training our hearts and minds to respond to suffering with tenderness and care. (True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Our Own Awakened Heart, p. 220.)

Sit in a way that allows you to be relaxed and alert. Let go of any habitual tension and allow your body and mind to settle.

The traditional practice of tonglen begins by taking a moment to sense the stillness or openness that is already here. This is considered a flash of remembrance, a reconnecting with our awakened heart and mind.

Now bring your attention to the natural rhythm and quality of your breath. As the breath flows in, allow your cells to receive this life energy. With each in-breath, open with total receptivity, like a balloon gently expanding with air. Be aware of the experience of no resistance, of allowing yourself to be touched by the sensations of the breath.

With the out-breath, notice the sensations of letting go and releasing into the space that surrounds you. Imagine your total body and consciousness flowing outward with the breath and mingling with the vastness of space. Breathe out into relaxation, ease, and spaciousness.

Continue meditating on the essence of receiving, being touched with the in-breath, and letting go into openness with the out-breath.

Now invite into your awareness someone you know personally who is suffering, someone you want to help. Imagine yourself in this person’s circumstances, experiencing this person’s fear or hurt or loss. What is it like to look at the world through these eyes? Live inside this particular body? Feel with this heart? What is the most vulnerable, painful part of this person’ experience What does he or she most need?

Now breathing in, invite all this pain into your heart, allowing yourself to feel it fully. Inhale, taking the pain into yourself, so that the other person will have relief. And as you breathe out, respond to his or her needs by sending out relaxation, space, love or whatever will bring ease and happiness.

Sometimes as you inhale you will meet your own resistance to pain. If this happens, shift the focus and breathe for yourself and countless others just like you who are feeling this same stuckness, anger, revulsion, or fear. Then as you breathe out, offer whatever helps you and others like you find space and relief.

As your resistance softens, return to breathing for the person you intend to help. As you inhale and let the person’s pain touch you, feel how he or she is held in your heart. And as you exhale, send whatever prayer or expression of care feels most sincere or most needed.

Now, enlarge the taking in and sending out to include all those who are in the same situation, experiencing the same suffering. If the person you want to help is grieving a loss, breathe in and out for all those who are experiencing the pain of loss. If this person feels like a failure, breathe in and out for all who feel like failures. Sense, as you breathe in, the unconditional willingness, tenderness, and receptivity of your heart; and as you breathe out, the vastness of loving awareness that is here, holding this world.

Continue breathing, opening to the universal experience of this suffering and letting go into spaciousness with prayer. As your heart opens to the enormity of suffering, your become that openness. As you offer your tenderness, your awareness becomes suffused with compassion.