Just last week, I can’t say I expected to hear a classical repertoire performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s brass section at Patricia’s Green on Hayes Street. Striking symphony members took to the street to meet, greet and explain. Music so unexpected and delightful that I sat and listened until they stopped.
On a slightly different note, I hadn’t planned to participate in Zen Master Norman Fischer’s workshop Training in Compassion on a recent Saturday at the Zen Center. I imagined myself still in the “me” stages of meditation. I didn’t expect to be open to concentrating on anyone else. But my Zen practice teacher insisted this was an important place to be and the right time to be there. One takes seriously these directives.
I had not expected to be so profoundly moved by this talk and workshop on training the mind, nor to buy Fischer’s book, nor to be continuously reading it. I hadn’t expected to be this wholehearted about meditation for the welfare of others. Yet unexpectedly I got it. No separation between self and others means no fixed self to speak of, let alone to improve upon; focusing on others does for me as much as it does for everyone. We are all one.
I love Norman Fischer’s book. He writes in the forward: “Compassion and resilience…can become the way we are and live on a daily basis. We can train our minds. We are not stuck with our fearful, habitual, self-centered ways of seeing and feeling.” And then he shows the reader how. I love that he teaches from an old Tibetan text he has modernized. Lojong is how Tibetan Buddhists and Fischer name the practice; Pema Chodron teaches it as Tonglen. Fischer’s book covers seven points and 59 slogans for generating compassion and resilience. These bite-sized wisdoms are to be contemplated on the cushion, memorized in any order or the order in which they are presented. They are a little like bumper stickers for awakening compassion—A kind of “Honk if you love Jesus” but more about radiating kindness than asking for validation that a particular wise man matters.
Going into this day with Norman Fischer I did not expect that I would want to breathe in other’s pain for the sake of their wellbeing and breathe out what I feel would bring them relief and happiness. Doing this practice meant I had to face my resistance to experiencing pain. I went to the workshop tired by my own pain; I had no interest in adding other’s pain to my own. Yet by the end of the day, I found unexpected space in my sitting practice to experience and alleviate pain for others.
Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron explains the purpose of this kind of meditation: “The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.”
I did not expect that after describing my experience at the Zen center, my Wednesday night Small Group Ministry group at the Unitarian Universalist Church would want to practice Lojong as part of our service project. As we sit together, each participant will breath in suffering associated with what matters to them such as breast cancer or world hunger and breath out release from that suffering. I was encouraged and grateful to see my experience begin to ripple out. Expect the unexpected.