Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The School of Joy

According to many Native traditions, hummingbird medicine encompasses joy, which my recent experiences confirm.  The best part is that I've realized I can access joy whenever I want.  Actually, I've discovered this then almost immediately lost it several times in my life, but it's finally sinking in.  The first time was at a party when I was in college.  I was utterly miserable, had partaken of at least two mood-altering substances that seemed to sort of cancel each other out, and was frozen to a couch in sensory and emotional overload.  All I could do was watch everyone having a good time and feel incredibly self-conscious, even though no one was looking at me.  Then I suddenly noticed that underneath all that angst and anxiety was a feeling of pure joy that I could listen to instead of the clamoring of critical voices in my head.  The ability to do this only lasted moments, but it was enough to make an impression, one that I've returned to over and over.

The next significant milestone in this lifelong lesson was when I was about ten years into a miserable marriage, and kept praying for relief.  I wanted God to either change my husband, take away my pain, or show me a way out of the marriage.  This one particular day, I was balled up on the floor, wretched, emotionally starved.  I felt like an empty cold bathtub.  I kept praying the same tired prayer to be taken out of the pain.  Something shifted; I stopped desperately straining to look up and out, and found myself embraced from the inside.  The pain was still there; in fact, it was intensified in a way, but I relaxed into it, stopped desperately treading water and floated, and discovered that there was a gentle warm current of comfort just right there, in the center of the suffering.

What's happening lately is not as dramatic as all that, but that's why it's more effective I think.  Joining with that current is just becoming habit.  A few months ago I read this little book by Pema Chodron:

The subject of the book is Tonglen practice, which is a very simple discipline of breathing in the bad and breathing out the good:  embracing all your angst and anxiety and then breathing out peace.  It was nice to discover that my experiences in this realm have a basis in Buddhist teachings.  Reading about this practice there in a book, put so simply, I was surprised and confirmed.  It struck me as such a reversal of pop spirituality, where you're taught to breathe out the negative and take in the good.  In this sense, Tonglen seems very Christian to me.  It's what Jesus would do.   In fact, it's essentially what he was getting at when he told the Pharisees that it's not what you take into the body that makes you sick, it's what you put out.  And then the whole taking-on-the-sins-of-world thing - well, I don't suppose that requires much explanation.

So I've been doing this Tonglen practice.  Badly, irregularly.  But it works anyway.  And ever since I started seeing and contemplating hummingbirds, I've been hearing this little voice in me that tells me daily that I'm happy.  Not the whole livelong day.  Not yet and maybe never.  But it's enough.  There have been numerous occasions when I could have followed my lethal mind down its dark familiar rabbit hole, but instead I listened to the hummingbird voice, the whirring hum of iridescent wings, erasing my scrawling brain like a whiteboard.  And dare I say it - this way of being is becoming second nature.


  1. I find Tonglen practice efficacious, too. Your insight that this sort of practice resonates with the teachings Jesus gave (particularly in Matthew on the Sermon on the Mount) is one that led me to study Buddhism so deeply in the first place. Buddhist teachers had traveled west to Jerusalem by the time Jesus was around, so it's not inconceivable that he got some of his ideas from them. His overturning of traditional Jewish thought was certainly parallel to Buddhist sensibilities.

  2. Interesting! I never thought about the possibility that he learned from Buddhist teachers, but it makes a lot of sense.

    I've particularly been practicing Tonglen when I lie down with my two-year-old at night. If she's squirmy and restless, I focus on breathing that in and breathing out peaceful sleepiness.

    Using it this way as a daily practice has really driven home how difficult it can be to focus in a sustained way. It's hard not to get distracted and sucked into her restlessness. But it's also shown me more clearly how well it really does work!

  3. I love the buddhist way:) love your article also!!!! Shambala has great books......



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