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June 13, 2014

by Stephen Damon

At the beginning of my last shift at the hospice and respite care facility in which I volunteer I was told that we had a new resident who had just been told that she had but a few weeks left. When I walked into her room I recognized many of the signs of impending death. She seemed to be having a hard time falling asleep. She held both of her hands on her eyes and seemed to be trying to close them. So I sat beside her, holding her hand, stroking her head, and saying little things in a soft voice the way I used to do when my daughter was very young and couldn’t fall asleep. After a few minutes it was clear to me that she was very disturbed and couldn’t fall asleep. She had much more serious problems than the inability to fall asleep and yet this seemed to be the only problem causing her distress at the moment.

So I decided to try some Tonglen meditation with her. This practice is a method for connecting with, and alleviating, suffering — ours and the suffering of those around us.
We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting by trying to breathe in their suffering, visualizing it as black smoke. In most meditations we breathe in and out very naturally, trying not to extend or shorten each breath. In this meditation I often breathe in as deeply as I can, trying to take in as much suffering as I can.

In traditional Tibetan practice we are instructed to imagine that the black breath is broken up into small pieces by a granite stone in our heart. I don’t visualize anything in my chest. Instead, I imagine that my “presence of being” breaks the black smoke into smaller pieces of white smoke. Then I exhale the white smoke as deeply as I can towards the person whom I hope to help. I sometimes visualize the person as being swallowed by a mist of white smoke that slowly dissolves as she breathes in. I do this several times, until I feel exhausted. Then I try to sit quietly with the person, synchronizing our breathing as best as I can.

I should say that while I have done this practice with hospice residents several times, I have never noticed any obvious results. But on Friday, after a several rounds, she put down her arms, closed her eyes and fell asleep. I put my hands on her folded hands until her breathing became so deep that I knew she would be sleeping for a while. Seeing this I was filled with a deep longing question that really had no words. I was in front of a mystery and all I could do was be quiet and allow it to enter into myself as deeply as I could.


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