When we have to wait – tonglen practice

In her best-selling book When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron teaches the Tibetan Buddhist technique of tonglen.  The heart of the technique is to move from the ego – our own limited suffering – to connect with others who are suffering in similar ways.  It’s pretty challenging, deep practice, but can be very liberating – and can be practiced in a grocery store checkout line, or anywhere that we are waiting, or anywhere.

The source of much of our pain is isolation - being caught in the ego, in our solitary experience.  Expanding to include the pain of others may seem scary, but is paradoxically very liberating.

The source of much of our pain is isolation – being caught in the ego, in our solitary experience. Expanding to include the pain of others may seem scary, but is paradoxically very liberating.

Let’s say you are waiting in the grocery checkout out line.  You start by turning typical new age practice upside-down: instead of “breathe in the good stuff, breathe out the bad”, you open your heart and you breathe in any distress or pain you are experiencing.  And for a Buddhist, to the extent that you are not in touch with your inherent goodness and the goodness of creation, you are suffering.  So any impatience, discomfort, irritation, any judging of the situation, any separation from your natural state of oneness with all of life – breathe that all in and pay good attention to it.  Then breathe out a wish for your own healing – that you return to the experience of peace and oneness.

After spending some time on your own healing, you expand your gaze to focus on others who are experiencing similar distress.  When you inhale, along with your own pain, breathe in the waiting-in-line pain of the others waiting in your line – or if your line is very small, those in the line(s) next to you.  Feel the pain that all of you are holding about waiting in line, then breathe out a wish for healing for all of you.

Continue this practice in progressively widening waves.  Open your heart to:

  • all those who are waiting in line in this store
  • all those who are waiting in any store in this town
  • all those who are waiting in a store anywhere
  • those who are waiting for organ transplants or to get out of jail or prison, those who are waiting for loved ones to come out of surgery, etc.
We can join ourselves with people who wait in much longer lines, in the heat or cold, in situations where being in this line places them in political danger, etc. - all our people, all our suffering.

We can join ourselves with people who wait in much longer lines, in the heat or cold, in situations where being in this line places them in political danger, etc. – all our people, all our suffering.

We end the practice by blessing ourselves and all those we have included in our focus – all brothers and sisters of ours.  We offer gratitude to those who have developed and offered this practice.  See if it has shifted your experience of waiting in this line.  Let me know what you find.

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Loving the hostile old man in me

My therapist Lorrie is reading and loving this blog.  This is flattering, affirming and encouraging.  One way this is a mixed blessing is that when she sees in my writing an area where I’m stuck, she feels empowered to offer me the chance to get unstuck.

A week ago, December 21, in a post entitled “Customers who piss you off” (the search box in the right hand column will take you right there), I described a customer: “About 60 – tall and wiry – he presented very defended – strong male body armor, cold, hostile.  I immediately took a dislike to him.  I didn’t want him in front of me.”  At my therapy session two days after this post went up, Lorrie asked, “What was it about him that made you not want him in front of you?”

What made it so hard for me to respond to this guy with compassion?

What made it so hard for me to respond to this guy with compassion?

I knew immediately that I had been found out.  What made me reject him?  Well the part of me that is like him.  Some would call this the shadow.  I like my persona – what I lead with, what I identify with.  My persona is soft, undefended, warm, embracing.  It’s how a lot of people would describe me.  But it’s not all there is to me.  I have a part of me that is very defended, cold and hostile.  I hate it when I go there.  I hate me when I go there.  I have it in me to get mad when I think I’m being charged the wrong price.  I don’t go there very often, but I could go there.

So I got mad at this guy because he reminded me of me – a part of myself that I reject.  This is probably true most of the time that a customer (or anyone) pisses us off.  And the rest of the time they probably are reminding us of someone from our past who hurt us or who for some other reason we still resent.  This makes these people real gifts to us – they expose what in us still needs healing, still needs loving.

If we seem these people as gifts, we may see that they are clearly in pain – or they would not be behaving in unfriendly ways or radiating toxic energy.  If we see them as gifts and in pain, we may find it in our hearts to have compassion for them.  And the big payoff of having compassion for them is that it will open up the possibility of having compassion for the part of us that is like them.

I won’t be able to catch this dynamic right away every time it happens.  I will still get pissed off at the occasional customer.  I will need to have compassion for myself for having a hostile response to a customer.  Having compassion for myself will make it easier for me to have compassion for the hurting person in that customer.  Having compassion for them will make it more likely that I can have compassion for the hurting part of me that they remind me of.

And that’s not a bad deal at all.

Right place, right time, right person?

Nobody likes to work register 5.  It’s right directly in the traffic flow and is by far the busiest cash register.  You never get a break – it’s crazy-making.  But this morning #’s 4 and 2 are taken – and even my regular #3.  #1 is way out by itself and I can get lonely out there – but this morning I decided to take it, rather than face the fearsome five.  But when I got there, one of the managers’ cash drawers was already in there.  It wouldn’t have been that hard to get it removed, but I took this as a sign that I really should go to 5.

As I settled my drawer into the #5 cash register, Sherri Lynn teased me.  “Oh, so you’re going to be my neighbor this morning, eh?” Sherri Lynn is awesome: beautiful, talented (very accomplished country singer), funny and – at somewhere in her 50’s – way closer to my age than most of my co-workers.  We have tremendous fun together – she comes down to my register when things get slow.  But it seems that whenever I take #5 to be next to her, it gets so busy that you totally lose track of who’s at your back.

When I’m depressed, as I am today, everything seems wrong.  Did I make a mistake by not taking #1? But then there’s Sherri Lynn.  What if I’m in the right place at the right time – and am the right person to be here?  I decided to make this my study for the day – let’s see what the events in my checkout line have to teach me about this.

My first customers are a senior couple who have exact change for their two gallon refills of water.  The math was not hard on this and it seemed they had probably made this purchase before.  Why were they so tickled at my relatively foolish banter? (“Oh, you were all ready for me” – nothing very clever there.)  On their way out, they greeted Shirley – who has been here a long time and knows most of our longstanding customers.  Why were they in my line?  Was it where they were meant to be? Puzzling this out was going to be more complicated than I might have thought.

This attractive 40ish woman started waiting in my line, then moved when Sherri Lynn returned from her break and opened her line.  Was that little abortive interaction just right?

I gave this older guy his senior discount, which he hadn’t even known about and which made him happy.  Then I asked the next woman, “Do you know about our discounts?”  “Yes, but I don’t qualify.”  (“He thinks I look 60 – bastard.”)  Did I do right in the first case and wrong in the second one?

Then I forgot to offer the discounts to a guy who might have been 60 or might have a military background.  Did this mean I was in the wrong place?  All the variations of imperfection.

#5 has just become better real estate because a lovely young coworker who is a buddy of mine has set up shop across at #6.  I’m just appreciating how much fun she has with her customers when my customer – who has identified himself as a World War 2 veteran – says, “Now every day is fun.”  A pretty awesome thing to say – and I’m kind of stunned by they connection of young and old both focused on fun.  None of this would have happened for me if I was at another register.

I take my 10 minute break and catch up on my notes.  Depression continues to drag at my heels.  Whenever I start to think that maybe I’m at the right place at the right time and am the right person a hostile inner voice says no.

Young Regina, just coming on duty, asks me if I want to shift over to #1.  “This register is awfully busy.”  Oh, she prefers this register.  She is a speedy, high-energy person – I guess it makes sense.  I momentarily buckle.  “Sure.”  Why not? It will be easier.  She’s better suited for this register – it will be better all around.

Then something asserted itself inside me.  “No, this is where you are meant to be today.  After your lunch break they will shift you anyway.  You’re in the right place at the right time – and are the right person to be here.”  “Regina – thanks, I think I’ll just stay here.”  Earlier I had taken this register by default – now I was fully choosing it.

I had gone from taking #5 by default to claiming it - taking a position that I'm where I'm meant to be.  How did this affect what happened next?

I had gone from taking #5 by default to claiming it – taking a position that I’m where I’m meant to be. How did this affect what happened next?

My next customer – a short 50ish woman – has already told me that she had a hard night and is not quite with it.  She has a hard time entering her frequent shopper number and becomes apologetic.  I say “You’re perfect – don’t worry about it.”  Would my co-workers have given her this message of empathy?  Was I the right person for her?  I think, reviewing my notes later, that most of them would have done pretty much what I did.  This was for me as much as for her.  She was the right person for me – I needed to hear the message of forgiveness.

A customer comes up wearing a prosthetic neck brace.  I feel instant compassion for him.  “Wow, you’ve got an owie.”  “Oh, it’s a recurring problem.  This thing actually feels really good – very comforting.  The first couple of them didn’t feel so good, but this one is great.”  I am knocked out that he has taken something that most of us would regard at best as a big annoyance and turned it into a positive – and tell him so.

He says, “I was talking to a guy the other day whose house had recently burned down.  He lost everything.  he said that parts of it were really hard, but that it was also kind of liberating to let go of everything and start over.”

“Wow, he inspired you and now you’re inspiring me.  I’m going to put this in my blog and maybe that will inspire someone else.  Look at his chain of positive messages.”  I was able to affirm this guy.  His message encouraged me – I’m glad I was there to receive it.  People do tell me that this blog inspires them.  If this post manages to inspire someone else, then I have definitely been in the right place at the right time.