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Receiving and Giving: Dealing with Disconnection

Receiving and Giving: Dealing with Disconnection

Last week I led a mindfulness session for a group of colleagues working in the India-based office of a Chicago business. Their suffering was palpable, even from 8000 miles away.

Healthcare and governmental infrastructures in India are rapidly crumbling under COVID’s devastating weight. They spoke of being uncertain how they’ll move ahead. They’re frightened, too. Despite mounting anxiety and moments of depression, to a person, the most difficult thing they had to deal with was feeling disconnected from their own families and loved ones.

I just want it to stop. Yet we don’t have enough resources to go around, and we have to keep going.

Their anguished heartbreak touched me deeply.

[Related: The Breakdown Before the Breakthrough: Now is Our Time]

We sat together, using the power of mindful attention to follow our breath through cycles of inhalation and exhalation, and settled our nervous systems.

Once settled, we shifted to practice Tonglen. It’s a Tibetan practice designed to overcome fear by developing a new relationship to suffering. It’s also called "giving and receiving" or "exchanging self for other."

I directed everyone to bring to mind a loved one who was suffering. Then we intentionally inhaled the dark vapor of their suffering into our own bodies. Holding that breath with gentle awareness, the edges of suffering softened a bit, transforming the suffering into light.

We then exhaled out compassionate light, sending it towards our loved one. Together that early morning we opened up space big enough to contain both the suffering and the love they felt. I felt it, too.

Sitting with this small group of leaders got me thinking back to my early days as a psychologist treating trauma.

[Related: The Path to Mindfulness Part 3: Thought and Emotion Awareness]

Denial is common in trauma work, and why wouldn’t it be? After all, who wants to deal with the realities of abuse head-on? Or feel the full impact of what occurred? Or fearfully face an unknown future?

Nobody. Yet denial, in any of its many forms, must be grappled with to bring about healing.

Rumi teaches that we must turn toward the thing we recoil from:

Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where The Light enters you.

Rumi’s words offer an invitation to us to turn towards our experiences of disconnection — the impact of social distancing, the stressful strain on our body, our fragile sense of identity — and welcome them in, too.

Sitting together, quietly practicing Tonglen with colleagues halfway around the globe, I couldn’t help but feel lighter. My colleagues expressed that sentiment, too.

How could suffering be reduced if we all spent a few minutes practicing Tonglen together?

[Related: The Upside of Trauma (Yes, It’s Possible)]


Chris Johnson is passionately committed to developing generative leaders and collaborative teams who will advance systemic change and create new ways of working together.

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