Welcoming the Unwelcome

I bought this book shortly after the coronavirus stormed into the United States. Pema is one of my favorite spiritual writers and this is her first book in several years. It was published in October 2019. Before the virus, before one hundred thousand American lives were lost in a few short months, before massive unemployment, before the nationally televised murder of George Lloyd by a police officer, before the peaceful protests that troublemakers turned ugly.

I’m so glad I’ve had it to read, had these words to hold on to, in such dark times. It helps. Just from the title, you’d think “Welcoming the Unwelcome” why would you want to do that? If the unwelcome knocks at your door, or smashes a window to get in, it’s there. The unwelcome is here. It is not only at our door, it’s in our house, it’s standing before us.

In that moment, when the unwelcome stands right in front of us, there is something we can do. We breath it in with a prayer, we take this terrible truth in, hold it in our hearts, ask for it to be transformed and breath out hope, peace, calm. This is the Buddhist practice of tonglen. You do not have to be a Buddhist to use it.

It can be used in any situation, at any moment. Now, after the brutal week we have all had, is a good time to practice this simple way of being wide awake, fully human. It’s like a prayer, but it’s a little more active than a prayer. It’s just you, taking on this terrible time, taking it in, welcoming it, even. Holding it in your heart in the hope that one day all being will be free from suffering.

I finished the book last night and I’ll be starting it over again tonight. It is a book for our times, for people in pain. The last chapter “Mission Impossible” explains that by practicing tonglen, which is really the “longing to help all beings” is something that can “draw us out of ourselves, out and out, until we enter the realm of vast mind and vast heart.”

Vast mind. Vast heart. That sounds better than where I’ve been hanging out this week, watching, over and over, an innocent man be murdered by a cop, while other cops stood around and watched like it was no big deal. Instead of staying there passively watching that endless loop of quietly violent video, we can step outside a little. Instead of seeing the world as brutal and happiness as futile, instead of becoming depressed or anxious, we can, with practice, have hope, become optimistic.

This is the value of meditation and the special form of mediation called tonglen. This is how we welcome the unwelcome. It’s here anyway, we might as well use it to heal our hearts. And when we do this, we plant seeds for a peaceful future.