Answering the ‘good question’ — one breath at a time

In August, I took this photo of a contemplation bench that sits behind Trinity United Church at Road 2 West and the McCain Side Road. It was a favourite rest spot this summer when I was out cycling. A lot of us have been whizzing by it recently because of the Main Street detour. Sometimes, though, it’s good to slow down — and breathe.

When I was invited to write for the Kingsville Observer, my briefing included the encouragement/warning (depending how you look at it!) that I address spiritual questions without getting “churchy.” It’s a delicate dance.

My previous column was about the “end of season, end of year, getting older while enduring a pandemic blues.” I suggested that a possible antidote is to not waste our time. Find what we are meant to do and then do what we can. I heard back from two readers who lamented they’d reached a certain age and still had no clear notion of what they are meant to do with their remaining days. Their response to “why are we here?” is “a good question.”

This summer, while still delighting in the freedom to be out cycling each day, I realized I’d need a way to maintain a healthy outlook when the days turned colder and the nights got longer.

I turned to mindfulness meditation as a way to accept the limitations of our current reality and to also find the beauty and joy still present in all moments.

I enrolled in an eight-week online course in cultivating compassion training, offered by the Compassion Institute at Stanford University. CCT has roots in Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice. While working with one of the exercises, tonglen, I had the sense I was glimpsing a kind of answer to the “good question.”

I turned to mindfulness meditation as a way to accept the limitations of our current reality and to also find the beauty and joy still present in all moments.

The name “tonglen” comes from two Tibetan words. Tong means “giving or sending” and len means “receiving or taking.” What do we take in and what do we give out?

The gentle voice on a recorded guided meditation invited me to notice, as I breathed through my nose, the sensation of cool air going in and slightly warmer air going out. It’s subtle, but true. Contact with my lungs, with my interior, actually does warm the air. The recorded voice went on to ask me to consider the suffering of a person dear to me and to imagine their pain or sadness as a kind of storm cloud — and then picture “breathing in” that cloud.

The instruction was to not hold onto or take on their suffering, but to imagine the warmth within me could transform the cloud of discomfort into bright light, which I would then exhale back towards the person.

I may not be able to discern whether my tonglen practice is of help to the person on my mind. What I do notice is it alters how I see myself and my place in the world. I can be intentional about offering compassion. I can think of myself as a person whose purpose is to help “warm” and perhaps transform the world, one breath at a time.

I find this imagery helpful. It reminds me of the song Nature Boy. It was made famous by Nat King Cole and covered by dozens of other artists. Eden Ahbez, the composer of Nature Boy, offered his own answer to the “good question” about why are we here, in the lyrics: “The greatest thing You’ll ever learn Is just to love And be loved in return.”

You can hear a short, sweet and delicate version, by Ella Fitzgerald with Joe Pass on guitar, if you follow this link: (Can’t go wrong with Ella!).

Darrow Woods is the pastor at Harrow United Church. He lives in Kingsville.

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