Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Transforming Sorrow into Connection

by Vanessa Mortillo


“When we come from a place of love, everything shifts for us.”

-Lama Palden Drolma


A powerful tool I have turned to when I find myself overwhelmed with the suffering of others is the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, or “sending and receiving.” This practice invites us to take in suffering and pain, and then move it outward into the world as greater compassion and joy. The first part of the practice includes breathing in the suffering. At first glance this sounds counterintuitive, but for many of us, the suffering is already stuck inside. In her book on Tonglen, Love on Every Breath, Lama Palden Drolma states, “many of us take in the suffering, and it simply sits in us, unprocessed, weighing us down.” She details the use of this practice to move the stuckness and hopelessness into greater compassion by turning our kindness outward. The second part of Tonglen, sending peace on the outbreath, invites us to deepen our connectedness to others in the world. This process in itself is healing. When we feel more connected we have access to our internal resources including love, compassion and empowerment. 


To get started, Pema Chodron guides us through a short Tonglen practice here

Practices for Keeping Our Hearts Open

Sometimes the pain of the outer world is so great that it can feel challenging to keep our hearts open. It has been a rough two years. Throughout these unprecedented times, we have found meaning and hope, inspired by our work and supported by our connections as a community. In a recent conversation of Resiliency Center practitioners, we talked about the impact of having great empathy in a time of tremendous pain. We explored the ways we keep our hearts open and caring and how we stay resilient in the process. None of us are perfect at this. Like everyone, it is a work in progress. Below are some of the practices we have found most helpful.

1.      Self-Care. Nutritious food, quality sleep, exercise, rest, play, and time spent in connection with friends, family, and nature. This also includes being mindful about our media consumption. Like the food we eat, the media we consume has a big impact on our mood and outlook. When we prioritize the basics of good self-care, we have a greater capacity to be present with others.


2.      Holding the “and.” Brittiney George highlighted the importance of holding the “and,” that bridge between the anguish and the joy, the hate and the love. She spoke about how important it is to let them co-exist. Biologically, we are hard wired for survival.  That means we are set up to pay more attention to what is wrong. However, if we only let ourselves register what feels bad and don’t allow ourselves to also feel what feels good, we will be stuck in that fight-or-flight fear reaction and miss out on all the gifts life has to offer. Brittiney describes the “and” as “the color in the black and white world, the 64 crayon box with the sharpener in the back.” During times of acute distress, personally or globally, we may only see darkness. We may have to look harder for the color, for the goodness.

3.      Be present with our emotions. Jen Perry shared wisdom from Gabor Maté who states that one of the needs of humans as they are developing is the space to feel the full range of human emotions fully. Unfortunately, most of us are not given this space. As a result, we become fearful of our feelings and of other people’s feelings. When someone is expressing strong emotion we view it as a problem to fix, instead of an experience to experience. Efforts to silence our emotions can manifest in our bodies, in the form of headaches, pain, fatigue, and agitation. If we could feel safe to feel ours and others emotions fully, we could accompany each other on this journey with compassion instead of exhaustion. As we feel safe and soften, allowing ourselves to ride the wave of emotion, it is a wave: it rises, crescendos, falls again. By being present with whatever feelings arise within us, without working to stop that flow, we find a new freedom, a release, a relief, a freer inhale and exhale. Jack Kornfield in A Path with Heart writes: “What we find as we listen to the songs of our rage or fear, loneliness or longing, is that they do not stay forever. Rage turns into sorrow; sorrow turns into tears; tears may fall for a long time, but then the sun comes out. A memory of old loss sings to us; our body shakes and relives the moment of loss; then the armoring around that loss gradually softens; and in the midst of the song of tremendous grieving, the pain of that loss finally finds release.”


4.      One moment at a time. Resiliency Center practitioner Therese Daniels shares, “Thinking about how to help the whole world is extremely overwhelming and not possible. One moment, one person, one situation at a time. That’s what is possible. One small thing can create ripples that affect so many people. We can show up for ourselves and our people. Spread love, show love. If we think small, bigger things will happen, eventually.”

5.      Boundaries. Brittiney George reminds us that when we truly honor our needs and energy, our ability to be with, sit with, and hold space for others increases . Our ability to experience gratitude and joy does too. Begin by asking ourselves, “What do I have the capacity for that is sustainable for me?” Listen to the answer that arises. Honor that boundary.

6.      Connect to the goodness in humanity. Focus on acts of kindness. Read stories of heroism that emerge. We were moved by the story of the mothers in Poland leaving strollers at the train station for all the mothers arriving from Ukraine, the firefighters in New Jersey gathering firefighting uniforms, hats, and boots to send overseas, and the reporters risking their lives to tell the truth.

7.      Care, not Carry. It is also important to remember that while we can care deeply, we don’t have to carry what we care about. We can be with others without feeling responsible for them.

8.      Gratitude. We can find gratitude for the goodness in our own lives. And for life itself. Elizabeth Venart posted a daily gratitude post on Facebook for eighteen months. Some days featured seemingly trivial posts (catching that green arrow at the traffic light) while other days yielded more profound observations (reflecting on the kindness of a stranger, the beauty in nature, and the wisdom of a child). It not only helped improve her own outlook, but others responded that it uplifted their days as well. Seeing the old posts pop up on her Newsfeed still brings a smile. Of course, there is no need to make your reflections public. Keeping a daily gratitude journal of one to five things for which you are grateful can help shift your perspective and improve our mood. You could also experiment with writing down the positives from the day – moments of beauty, kind words spoken, favorite funny moments, a great line from a book you read, anything that uplifts or inspires. And why not include what you are looking forward to tomorrow? When we look for positives, we are likely to see more positives. What we garden (and water) grows.

Open-Heartedness in a Time of Heartbreak

by Elizabeth Venart

Facing my blank computer screen on March 7, 2022, I struggle to find words to adequately express my heartbreak at the devastation in Ukraine. I watch news reports of Russia violently invading, bombing buildings, destroying homes and neighborhoods, and sending millions of Ukrainian citizens fleeing their homeland. I watch footage of thousands escaping on foot and by train, with only a small backpack of possessions remaining from the life they cherished. I see the courage of those who stay, those who fight back, the leader who, despite the world’s estimation that he has only a fraction of the military resources of his attacker, stands up and demands his voice be heard and boundaries honored. I am awed too by the bravery of citizens in Russia who oppose their government’s actions, facing arrest, prison sentences of fifteen years, and worse.

As I watch news coverage from the comfort of my home, in my peaceful neighborhood, in a town free of explosions and terror, I am aware of my privilege. I recognize that we may be sitting on the precipice of a World War in which peace anywhere is potentially under threat. I also recognize that is not my experience in this moment. In this moment, I have the luxury of a relaxed in-breath and out-breath, the presence of my family members and pets, and the ability to reach loved ones over the phone and know they are safe. I can drive and travel unencumbered, and I know where I will rest my head to sleep at day’s end. I am acutely aware of these gifts of home and safety and peace – and sense more deeply the need not to take them for granted.  

Keeping our eyes and hearts open, our compassion intact can be some of the hardest work. Sometimes the cruelty and suffering we witness is so intense we may feel overtaken by anger and thoughts of vengeance. Or we may feel frozen in response to it. We may numb out, avoid the news, and avoid conversations for fear of hearing more news. We may become consumed in something rather mindless, like playing Wordle, Quordle, and Octordle (my favorite three distractions these days). We may tune out, shut down, pretend nothing is happening. It is natural to feel a whole host of emotions in response to suffering. It is also natural to experience these emotions in waves, rising and falling in our consciousness. 

It is painful to stand back and do nothing when our hearts feel the pull to help. If my nextdoor neighbor is struggling or has experienced a loss, I can sit with them. I can make a casserole. I can mow their lawn or clear the snow off their car. I want to help, to act, to do. But what can we do when the ones suffering are a continent away?

On a pragmatic level, there are some things we can do. We can participate in social and political activism – putting pressure on elected officials and corporations to impose sanctions and take actions that might have a positive impact. We can also make donations in support of humanitarian assistance in Ukraine. These actions do matter. (Resource links for sending aid to Ukraine appear later in the newsletter.)

Rather than succumb to a sense of futility about making a difference, we may seek an outlet for that inhibited desire. Maybe we organize a local food drive to help the homeless in our own community or volunteer for the Red Cross. Or maybe we channel that energy into training for a marathon, planning a family reunion, reconnecting with old friends. . . finding something we can do.

These are tumultuous times. Times of change, upheaval, fear, courage, heroism, and transformation. Many of us are only slowly re-emerging from a time of prolonged isolation. Connection is good for our souls. It provides a pathway through times of anguish. Invite opportunities for laughter among friends, meaningful conversation, sharing hugs and meals, reigniting our sense of community after two years of time apart. We can bolster one another.

In 1973, E.B. White responded to a despairing reader with the following letter of hope. While written in the context of that moment in history, the message's timeless and brought me some comfort. I hope his words will resonate with you as well.

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out. Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

Elizabeth Venart is the Founder and the Director of The Resiliency Center and a Licensed Professional Counselor whose practice focuses on supporting Highly Sensitive Persons and other therapists (through counseling, clinical consultation and training). Her counseling and consulting work integrates EMDR Therapy and IFS to help people heal past trauma and experience transformational change. Her free offerings include  a weekly laughter yoga class, a monthly Rumi and Friends Spiritual Poetry Evening, and a monthly gathering for EMDR Therapists in the Greater Philadelphia area. To learn more, visit her website.