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BREATHING THROUGH

Basic to most spiritual traditions, as well as to the systems view of the world, is the recognition that we are not separate, isolated entities, but integral and organic parts of the vast web of life. As such, we are like neurons in a neural net, through which flow currents of awareness of what is happening to us, as a species and as a planet. In that context, the pain we feel for our world is a living testimony to our interconnectedness with it. If we deny this pain, we become like blocked and atrophied neurons, deprived of life's flow and weakening the larger body in which we take being. But if we let it move through us, we affirm our belonging; our collective awareness increases. We can open to the pain of the world in confidence that it can neither shatter nor isolate us, for we are not objects that can break. We are resilient patterns within a vaster web of knowing.

Because we have been conditioned to view ourselves as separate, competitive and thus fragile entities, it takes practice to relearn this kind of resilience. A good way to begin is by practicing simple openness, as in the exercise of "breathing through," adapted from an ancient Buddhist meditation for the development of compassion.

Closing your eyes, focus attention on your breathing. Don't try to breathe any special way, slow or long. Just watch the breathing as it happens in and out. Note the accompanying sensations at the nostrils or upper lip, in the chest or abdomen. Stay passive and alert, like a cat by a mouse hole......

As you watch the breath, you note that it happens by itself; without your will, without your deciding each time to inhale or exhale...It's as though you're being breathed--being breathed by life...Just as everyone in this room, in this city, in this planet now, is being breathed, sustained in a vast, breathing web of life
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Now visualize your breath as a stream or ribbon of air passing through you. See it flow up through your nose, down through your windpipe and into your lungs. Now from your lungs take it through your heart. Picture it flowing through your heart and out through an opening there to recon-nect with the larger web of life. Let the breath-stream, as it passes through you, appear as one loop within that vast web, connecting you with it
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Now open your awareness to the suffering that is present in the world. Drop for now all defenses and open to your knowledge of that suffering. Let it come as concretely as you can...concrete images of your fellow beings in pain and need, in fear and isolation, in prisons, hospitals, tenements, hunger camps...no need to strain for these images, they are present to you by virtue of our interexistence. Relax and just let them surface...the vast and countless hardships of our fellow humans, and of our animal brothers and sisters as well, as they swim the seas and fly the air of this ailing planet...Now breathe in the pain like dark granules on the stream of air; up through your nose, down through your trachea, lungs and heart, and out again into the world net...You are asked to do nothing for now, but let it pass through your heart......Be sure that stream flows through and out again; don't hang on to the pain...surrender it for now to the healing resources of life's vast web......

With Shantideva, the Buddhist saint, we can say, "Let all sorrows ripen in me." We help them ripen by passing them through our hearts...making good rich compost out of all that grief...so we can learn from it, enhancing our larger, collective knowing
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If no images or feelings arise and there is only blankness, grey and numb, breathe that through. The numbness itself is a very real part of our world...

And if what surfaces for you is not the pain of other beings so much as your own personal suffering, breathe that through, too. Your own anguish is an integral part of the grief of our world, and arises with it
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Should you feel an ache in the chest, a pressure in the rib cage, as if the heart would break, that is all right. Your heart is not an object that can break...But if it were, they say the heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing......

This guided meditation serves to introduce the process of breathing through, which, once familiar, becomes useful in daily life in the many situations that confront us with painful information. By breathing through the bad news, rather than bracing ourselves against it, we can let it strengthen our sense of belonging in the larger web of being. It helps us remain alert and open, whether reading the newspaper, receiving criticism, or simply being present to a person who suffers.

For activists working for peace and justice, and those dealing most directly with the griefs of our time, the practice helps prevent burnout. Reminding us of the collective nature of both our prob-lems and our power, it offers a healing measure of humility. It can save us from self-righteousness. For when we can take in our world's pain, accepting it as the price of our caring, we let it inform our acts without needing to inflict it as a punishment on others who are, at the present moment, less involved.