A guided meditation combatting fear of the Coronavirus through compassion using the technique of Taking and Giving (in Tibetan, Tonglen). We soothe our own fear and anxiety by imagining how others are suffering now, just as we are. And we sincerely wish to help, to take away their pain, through a powerful guided visualization.
Introduction to Compassion through Taking and Giving (Tonglen)
Because of the events of the last week, the fear and uncertainty due to real dangers in the world today, due to the spread of the Coronavirus), and the stock market crash, and the risks to people’s jobs and livelihood, we’ve decided jump ahead in our slowly unfolding sequence to one of the most powerful techniques of compassion, and one that’s an effective and powerful antidote to anxiety.
It’s a technique where you empathetically imagine the fear and the pain and the suffering of others; not just feeling it, but sincerely wishing to take it away.
It’s a technique of compassion. And if you’re unfamiliar with compassion, or just familiar with its dictionary definition, from the meditative approach, compassion is different from empathy.
Empathy is when you feel another’s emotions, when you feel their pain. But it’s been shown that empathy alone leads to burnout, and more stress sometimes, because you can become overwhelmed with others’ suffering. Compassion, though, combines empathy with a wish to eliminate others’ pain.
So compassion’s a mental technique to transform empathy into some form of action, even if it’s just a mental action, an action of your imagination; turning your mind toward helping others; at the very least wishing to help others.
In this meditative process you imagine taking away all the pain and suffering of others. And then you imagine giving them all your safety, all your health, all your peace of mind.
And it’s not a kind of spell that magically takes away others’ problems. But imagining like this in meditation has the effect of opening your heart to others in a productive way that eases your own fear and pain and stress and suffering.
And then in a state of mind that is more understanding of the pain of others, paradoxically you become far better when you get off the cushion at remaining calm, at helping others, at staying present, and doing the best for both the people close to you and the people you encounter in your daily life.
Staying calm in the face of genuine danger like we have today helps you absorb information accurately, it helps you make rational good decisions, and it helps you be available to effectively soothe and care for your family, your friends, your coworkers, and strangers.
Being able to calm your mind and bring yourself to a point of present awareness without anxiety—through this type of compassion meditation, or through other types of calming, stabilizing mediation—this isn’t just mentally helpful, but it actually promotes your immune system’s health. It prevents communicable disease from arising and accelerating. Because stress is a great cause and accelerator of disease.
Meditation on Compassion through Taking and Giving (Tonglen)
So let’s dive into the meditation.
Find yourself cross-legged on the on the floor, or in a seat with your legs uncrossed your feet flat on the ground.
We set our motivation to spend a brief time on the cushion to reduce our anxiety, to reduce fear, to increase our compassion, so that we can make good decisions; we can be rational; and we can remain warm and open and helpful, both for ourselves and our own physical and mental health, and also for all those around us.
Stabilizing on the breath
We begin with a brief stabilizing meditation. Adjust your posture so that your spine is erect, your hands on your knees or right hand atop the left in your lap.
Let everything else in your body relax: your legs, your arms, your torso, your shoulders, your face, your eyes half closed, if you’re in a quiet place.
Bring your attention to your breath. And, as other thoughts and feelings arise or pains in your body, try just to let those thoughts and feelings and perceptions gently fade away. There’s no need to pull them close. There’s no need to push them away. Just let them gently pass by and bring your mind back to your breath. So, just for a minute do this together.
(One minute silent meditation on the breath)
Opening our heart to others’ suffering
And now we begin to open our heart. Bring to mind other people who are facing the same difficulties as you right now. And in your mind, materialize them sitting in front of you. People that are scared. People that are anxious; people that might be a little bit sick and not sure if it’s something more serious. People worried about their jobs. People worried about the stock market and the economy. People worried about supporting themselves and their family. People worried about their safety.
Bring this group of family and friends and colleagues to mind all in front of you. And for a moment just try to move between their minds, seeing how they feel similarly to you, in specific detail, if you can.
(Silent meditation for one minute)
Then reflect on your own good qualities. That, beneath any fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, all of your best qualities remain stable. Your capacity to be kind and generous and loving and helpful and patient. Your capacity for joy and camaraderie. And your ability to focus and be effective in the world, to be rational, and to be compassionate.
Try and visualize all these qualities as if they materialize as a bright white light at the center of your chest. The visualization helps to give these qualities a form and a focus.
Imagine expanding that light, slightly, strengthening those qualities in you and seeing that there’s enough to share, enough to help others. And that, when we exercise these qualities, they only grow. They never run out.
Now come back to all the people close to you, spread out in front of you. Come back to the pain and fear and anxiety and maybe even genuine illness that some of them have right now.
And think, how much I wish that if I were able, I would take away their pain. There’s only one of me, but there’s so many of them. If it were possible for me to take away their pain, even if it meant some small pain for me too, of course I would do that.
If you’re a parent, you know this feeling. It is more painful to see your child suffer than to suffer yourself. You’d gladly exchange with them. So try to extend this kind of deep, unselfish compassion to everyone you’re close to. That, if I could, I would take away their pain, even if it meant some pain to me.
Then imagine that all those people’s difficulties also manifest as a kind of visualization, a kind of a dark, blackish gray smoke at the center of their chests. And there gathers all their fear and anxiety, their financial strain, any illness, any lack of safety and security.
And now, as you breathe in on your next breath, imagine that those little dark clouds are pulled up within that person, pulled up along their spine.
And on the next in breath, imagine that that smoke comes out of their nostrils: all their pain and suffering, anxiety, fear, and genuine danger, genuine illness, too.
As you breathe in further, all that darkness comes into a cloud between you and them: all of their fear and pain, and illness, and danger.
Now bring that cloud closer to you and allow it to condense to a dark, dense sphere of smoke right in front of your face. And think again: I would be willing to take away their pain even if it meant some pain for myself.
Then, generate a strong sense of courageousness, fearlessness. And remember again all of your strength and good qualities, the bright light of the center of your chest. Then on your next in-breath, breathe in. Allow that smoke to come in your nostrils, and then down toward the center of your chest.
And when that dark smoke meets the bright light of your goodness there is an enormous explosion, like a mini supernova. And imagine that all your friends’ and family’s and colleagues’ problems are destroyed.
You feel your own goodness and kindness and patience and stability strengthened. And then you also feel light going out on individual beams to the hearts of all those people in front of you, sending them everything they need. Giving them fearlessness. Giving them calm. Giving them compassion.
And giving them all the material things they need too. Giving them health. Giving them security in their job, and their physical safety.
And imagine that this has happened. All your friends’ and family’s problems have been removed. You’ve given them all the happiness and joy and material comfort they need.
And now we expand. Imagine that a vast crowd, all the earth’s population, appears all around you, fanning out at a great distance.
And let your mind move now to people that are suffering to a greater extent. Think of the people that have this virus right now, in hospital beds, or at home or homeless. Think of the real suffering they’re going through: the difficulty to breathe, the weakness, the fear, the anxiety.
Genuinely wish to take it away. That, if I possibly could, I would have the courage to take away their pain and suffering, even if it meant some suffering for myself.
And imagine all the doctors and nurses treating these people. Their exhaustion, and their fear that they might catch the virus, and some of them that have already caught it through helping others. And think that, of course, if I could, I would take away their pain and suffering and fear and anxiety.
And then numerous people have already died from this virus. And so think of the sadness of their family and friends and colleagues; the people that treated them unsuccessfully, their sadness and regret. If I could take away their suffering, help them to accept the pain and the loss, of course, I would.
Then, think of the rest of the world. Billions of people afraid, having difficulty sleeping, having trouble deciding on the best course of action. Being thrown into financial difficulties, or already in financial difficulties, some of them having even lost their job already, others afraid so.
We’re not alone in our fear, our suffering. By opening our hearts to others’ fear and suffering, we can actually calm and soothe ourselves through a sense of togetherness. And through an altruistic wish to take away everyone else’s pain.
And now imagine all those billions of people around you that all of their pain and suffering and difficulties and illness, that in all rises up like a great low storm cloud floating above all their heads. All of the pain and the suffering and fear around this new threat to our health, to our livelihood.
And as you breathe in, let that cloud condense in front of you.
With each in-breath, It grows, smaller and denser until eventually is a very dense, dark cloud in front of you, before your face, almost like a mini black hole, of all the world’s pain and suffering around this new threat.
Think, if I could, I would be willing to take on this pain and suffering, if it meant that everyone on Earth was free from it.
Try to generate that courage, and if you can’t, that’s okay. Just imagine that perhaps one day you could.
But in this meditation, there’s no danger to yourself. It’s a mental exercise to expand your compassion.
And so imagine, or think that if I could, I would take on all the world’s suffering around this virus.
On your next in-breath, take in that cloud, let it come in two streams up and around and down. And it touches that great bright spot of all your goodness, all your best qualities. And there’s a tremendous supernova explosion of light.
And then that light fragments into billions of individual rays that spread out, shoot out to the heart center, of everyone on earth gathered around you. And offer them everything they need: health, safety, security, medicine, food and shelter, loved ones, and the courage and calmness and intelligence to deal with whatever difficulties they face.
Rest in imagining for a moment that that has happened, that you’ve taken away all the pain and suffering of this virus, given everyone everything they need to pass through it. To live stably and happily and securely.
(Meditate silently on this for a short while)
And then, finally, as we end the session, we dedicate all the goodness, our mental evolution from doing this meditation, so that we can remain calm and stable and present and rational and wise. For our own safety and security and for all those around us.
May we be able to help ourselves and others, in all the ways that they need we need. And we also know our limits, how to protect ourselves, how to soothe and calm and nurture ourselves through a very difficult time.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio
Photo illustration by Kanchi Rastogi