Oh my gosh y’all, I have had a head cold for three days now. All I want to do is like wallow in bed, because I gotta tell you – I am a WUSS when it comes to suffering. If I can avoid it, I will. If I can end it, I do. But suffering is inevitable – that’s the first Noble Truth of Buddhism. Suffering is also central to the story of Jesus, and now is the time of year that Christians across the world share in that suffering.
Some more than others.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which kicks off Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent is a time to sit with suffering. Not to wallow, but also not to shy away from it. To invite suffering in for a 40-day visit.
Why, why would anyone do that?
I haven’t. Not since my heart attack. The first Lent after my heart attack, I decided that I really didn’t need to engage in a 40-day practice to remind me that I am dust and to dust I shall return. I was still in heart failure; that was reminder enough. The second year I was still dealing with a lot of anxiety and post-traumatic stress, so no. The third year was the pandemic and by golly I had given up enough already!
It’s been a rough three years.
The Buddha says that the root of all suffering is attachment. Lent gives us the opportunity to practice releasing these attachments – our attachments to our desire to have (cravings), to our desire not to have (aversions), and to our delusions (ignorance).
Growing up, I didn’t know much about Lent except that you were supposed to give up something you love, like chocolate. But Lent is so much deeper than that. It’s a time to look suffering square in the eye and say “I see you, I feel you.”
You know what though? I’m kind of bored with my own suffering. And that’s okay because one thing Jesus and the Buddha agree on is that we should be focused on alleviating the suffering of others. And not just alleviating it, either, but taking it on. Sharing the yoke. So this Lent, I am going to spend my 40 days in the wilderness focused on social suffering.
I have a lot planned for this Lent (gotta make up for lost time). But I want to start with this form of meditation called tonglen. It’s meant to awaken our compassion, and it’s a perfect practice to pick up this Lent. Tonglen can be pretty detailed, involving lots of steps and visualization, but it can also be something you do in the moment. A simple action of breathing in the suffering and pain of another person or group of people, and breathing out love, compassion, relief, peace. In short, you breathe suffering, and you breathe out peace. It sounds a lot like what Jesus did, doesn’t it – taking on the suffering of the world, and offering back a new life in return? And that is exactly what Lent is all about.