This is a season of miracles, when nature offers an immense metaphor of the return of light to our lives. Human experience through the millennia melds with nature’s cycles, coming to some as the story of the Magi following a star, to others as the miracle of a lamp that continues to burn, to ancient Celts as burning the Yule log as an effigy of the goddess of darkness to make way for the coming of light.
I think these celebrations, both ancient and contemporary, reflect a primal theme in us all: that we are fundamentally a combination of light and darkness, and that both contribute to our health and well being. I have been in medical practice for thirty years now, and it always amazes me to see how individuals respond to a disease that is affecting their bodies. There can be 2 individuals with exactly the same diagnosis and exactly the same severity and extent of disease – and there can be 2 completely different experiences of illness in these individuals! For one, it can create bitterness and intense railing against the loss of control, and a shrinking of the family and social ties; for another, it can create a transformative step of letting go into the unknown of how things will turn out, opening to help from others, and tolerating the re-ordering of one’s life that illness often requires.
When I recently meditated on the “spirit of darkness,” it showed itself as wisps of dark smoke inherent in everything. It also distinguished itself from “evil,” showing itself as a positive force in the world. Darkness is the energy of “un-making,” of “unraveling,” of breaking open old, fixed patterns that have outlived their usefulness in our lives. In the darkness, we examine ourselves, question where we are and what we are about, experience “the dark night of the soul” – a necessary process for us to enlarge and reconstitute into a fuller experience of who we really are.
Each fall, I watch the leaves drop to expose the “bare bones” beneath the foliage. And each winter, I celebrate the buds on these bare branches, ready for the coming light, to support the growth of the enlarging tree. Both are always there: the breaking apart and the returning anew. If we forget that both are important, we run the risk of putting labels of “good” and “bad” on this powerful cycle — thus cutting ourselves off from being able to utilize half of our process of healing, enlarging, and re-ordering.
Tonglen is a beautiful Buddhist practice of “sending and taking” through healing breath. It is a wonderful example of putting nature’s cycles to work through transforming darkness, rather than resisting it. When we are feeling any pain or grief or struggle — any dark place — we can use tonglen not only for ourselves, but on behalf of all sentient beings.
On the inbreath, we allow ourselves to feel the feeling fully – and on behalf of self and others, we take it in without resisting, taking it to the “vastness inside” (or the God inside, or the great blue sky inside) and let it go to be released and transformed. And on the outbreath, we open and breathe out the feeling of joy, well-being, satisfaction, tenderheartedness, anything that feels fresh and clean, wholesome and good – and we give that back to the world. Breathe in grief, breathe out the smell of a fresh cup of coffee; breathe in anger, breathe out the smile of your granddaughter; breathe in despair, breathe out a whitetailed deer at dusk reflected in a pond . . . . . .
It takes focus and commitment to do this, as it is the opposite of how our culture tends to want to breathe, i.e. breathe in good stuff, breathe out yucky feelings. But our world needs us to be bigger, to fill up with our fullness, our vastness and be in joyful service. We don’t have to have lots of time or lots of money or be a holy person. Focused breath can start to change the world. We can do it. The time is now. The light is coming.
In soft, steady breath,