Tonglen: A Meditation Tool to Transform Suffering

Vis Companions Heidi and Bianca practice centering prayer

Vis Companions Heidi and Bianca practice

by Melissa Borgmann-KiemdeVisitation Companion

Heidi’s dad died this week. Margaret lost her daughter to a long battle with cancer. Karen endures chemo, fighting a malignancy in her breast. Serena showed up at our door, seeking cold-weather clothing. Our local priests and church leaders continue to discern a course of leadership and healing in the face of more sexual abuse accusations.  Khalilah recalls the passing of her mother; and Francois and I hold the memory of our son who lived for one hour. These struggles or sadnesses all inform our prayers this week.

As humans, we suffer. We wonder; we ache; we seek understanding in the face of our illnesses and all that we endure. And we lean into a loving God to show us the way.

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,
 and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed,
and after three days rise again.  -Mark 8:31
What is the role of prayer or meditation in easing our suffering? How does leaning into the holy, the divine, the mysteries of this universe and our alignment with all of creation, help us transform our ills, and make a way through our seasons of struggle?
He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, 
“Get behind me, Satan!
For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” –Mark 8:32-33
In session four of our “Following the Spirit” discernment series, we focus on the role of suffering in our vocations. As we prepare for this course, we consider different “tools” for helping our discerners navigate difficulty and find a way to hear God’s voice in their present circumstances and their larger life callings.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, 
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” 
-Mark 8:34-35 
Tonglen meditation is one tool we draw on to teach the transformation of struggle and suffering.
In this Buddhist-meditation practice, we find the intersecting Christian teachings of compassion and forgiveness and the Salesian virtue of gentleness. In the process of this practice, we may experience deep consolation and healing.We invite you to try it.


Here are the abbreviated steps of this meditation practice. For a lengthier explanation and teaching, see American Zen Buddhist Joan Halifax’s “Meditation: Tonglen or Giving and Receiving: A Practice of Great Mercy”  

Find a comfortable posture, palms up, eyes closed, feet on the ground. This work takes great courage. Trust your ability to do it, as you align with your heart’s deepest wells of love and the mercy and kindness you possess.

1) Identify a source of suffering or struggle within your own life. How have you experienced hurt? Fear? Resistance? Doubt? Shame? Breathe in the experience, imagining it as hot, heavy air or smoke, including the feelings that accompany your hurt. Let them touch every part of your being. Exhale loving kindness and mercy. Imagine this as light, loving air.

2) Consider the suffering or hurt of a beloved friend or family member. Breathe in their pain, recognizing you are not alone in your struggle. See how they hurt in their circumstances and invite the mercy and kindness of your heart to transform this woe. Exhale loving kindness.

3) Recognize the hurt or pain in an acquaintance – someone you see on the street, driving in a car, in your place of work, or at the gym or grocery store. Breathe in their pain, and exhale loving kindness.

4) See your would-be enemy, and envision how they hurt. Let their struggle enter your imagination, and trust your heart’s ability to be softened and hold their pain. Inhale deeply and exhale loving kindness and mercy.

5) Consider your pain, that of your beloved, what ails the acquaintance or stranger, and that of your would-be enemy as one: inhale the collective hurt of all and exhale loving-kindness. Recognize how connected all suffering is, and your power to send love and light, joy and kindness to all.

“Following the Spirit:” Discernment Tools for Your Life

Princess small group

How do we hear God’s voice?

by Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde, Visitation Companion

Monday, February 25, 2013, marks our second discernment session of the “Following the Spirit” series at St. Jane House. This evening will focus on how we tune in and hear God’s voice and invitation for our lives. What follows are a few links to resources for discernment that we are offering here for participants and blog readers alike.

These tools include:

Blessings on your journey!

“Discernment is Hard,” Sister Katherine shares a discernment story.

Today we commence the Fall Following the Spirit Discernment Series. What are you discerning? How does joy play a part in your discernment story? Sister Katherine reflects on joy in her own story by taking time to pray, reflect, and observe where she has basked in joy recently in her vowed life. Joy put another way can be an acronym J.O.Y. (just observe yourself). After reading Sister Katherine’s story, we invite you to note when you are deeply happy and engaged in something or someone…and share it with us in the comments section. Sister Katherine’s story grew out of the Writing Our Stories workshop held at St. Jane’s House in July, we will be sharing more stories from other discerners who gathered for the workshop throughout the fall. May we each learn from one another and our stories!

Written by Sister Katherine Mullin, VHM

Discernment is hard…but oh! the benefits if we stick with it!  One of my latest bout with it has to do with my 50th  anniversary of vows as a Vis nun.

Visitation May Day Joy! with the Sisters and community, north Minneapolis, MN

Sister Katherine Living her JOY on the north side! Visitation May Day Joy! with the Sisters and community, north Minneapolis, MN

I did not want to celebrate it in any way- except with just my family and community which could have been as small as 20 people.  But something inside me told me to broaden my invitation list and have a fitting celebration  of fifty years worth of loving my vocation. But inside me, I had this feeling of not wanting to be the center. (Believe me, I like being the center of attention but just not in this way!). I then ‘took it to prayer’  praying with the idea of CELBRATING IT BIG.  As I did that, over time, the feeling of wanting to limit it changed for me and  I realized that inviting many more was the authentic way for me to go.  My earlier thought of hardly having anybody come  was coming out of my ‘small self’, one that often puts limits on things, one that comes more out of self consciousness and fear. As my plans continued to grow and having all of the sisters, my family and others jump in to help me (my younger cousins offered to clean up/ rake the park area  that I had selected to have the mass ), everything was becoming  possible. There were other hurdles too that brought back those old feelings, but as I went step by step, and moved from one new idea to another in prayer, what was happening was I actually “saw” God’s hand working and I began to trust that understanding and my intuition and the ideas of others as I made decisions about details. Step by step I had a deep knowing of trust, trusting that God was transforming me in this process.

“…but as I went step by step, and moved from one new idea to another in prayer, what was happening was I actually “saw” God’s hand working and I began to trust that understanding and my intuition and the ideas of others….Step by step I had a deep knowing of trust, trusting that God was transforming me in this process.”

Now it has been exactly a year since that event, my Golden Jubilee. It is so clear to me that the satisfaction that I knew that day with what seemed like the gathering of hundreds of “my closest friends,” was a deep joy  in God’s providence. Today, as I observe it, that joy has taken the form of energy , energy to love in the ordinary things of my monastic life. I am not being ‘Pollyanna, I feel I am focused (graced?), to just carry out the day -to-day mission of Living Jesus on the north side as the door bell rings, as I empty the dishwasher, as I talk with a neighbor who has just been beaten by her significant other, as I clean the living room , as I am present in the alley with the young boys who found an injured squirrel. It doesn’t matter. And …it does matter a lot.

“…gathering of hundreds of “my closest friends,” was a deep joy  in God’s providence. Today, as I observe it, that joy has taken the form of energy , energy to love in the ordinary things of my monastic life.”

More Beauty

How will you make the world more beautiful?

A stunning question really, isn’t it? As today’s rains and last night’s thunderstorms soak into our spring soil promising the bounty of summer around the corner? How am I called to make the world more beautiful? You must see the origins of this question from one of my favorite bloggers Karen Maezen Miller.

Inner Beauty

Inner Beauty

Beauty is a value as an artist I treasure, both inside, and out, aesthetic and the intangible aspects of beauty. I have struggled with beauty since my alopecia has gone full throttle. Having hair or not having hair can be a profound impact on how I perceive myself and on how others encounter me. Shedding more traditional views of beauty has enlivened my spirit, emboldened me to be brave in situations where I might be tempted to shy away from a person’s gaze or unspoken question.

As my hair follicles begin to awaken, I hold hope. I have an awakened heart that has the capacity for beauty, I have open eyes that search for beauty, and I have hands willing to create beauty where one might not think there is any.

How are you making the world more beautiful today? Please share with us here.

Discernment and Leadership: Tuning into the Wisdom of Gamaliel

Before the Sanhedrin

Before the Sanhedrin

by Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde, Visitation Companion

“For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin,
it will destroy itself.
But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them;
you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” –Gamaliel, respected teacher of the law,  before the Sanhedrin Acts 5: 38-39

How do we discern whether our endeavors are of God’s will, or purely of our own human making and inclination? How are we to tease apart the roots of our intentions in engaging in any activity, or trust those intentions of others’? It’s messy stuff, I believe!

These words from Friday’s scripture give me pause this week, as I consider their context, and weigh their present possible applications in our church and world.

“How do we tune into what is of God’s good pleasure, and like the apostles in this reading, hold fast in our faith and living out Christ’s mission?”

Here are the apostles standing before the Sanhedrin, being judged for their efforts in proclaiming and living the Good News. A wise Pharisee and teacher among them named Gamaliel has the wherewithal to pause, and counsel his peers who seemingly have the power to destroy and/ or disband the apostles altogether. He invites the Sanhedrin to be careful and consider what they are judging and how they may choose to act. Gamaliel offers examples of previous prophetic agents whose efforts died with the Sanhedrin’s sanctions, and utters these true words cited above about the origin of each agent’s mission. Re-stated: “If the activity and mission is of God –divinely ordained — it shall flourish. If not, the endeavor shall die.”

In my vocations ministry with discerning individuals who are trying to lean into God’s call, and live His love, this scripture holds much power and weight. I think of the four young women from NET (National Evangelization Teams) Ministries who came this week to pray and be among the sisters for a short window of time, and tune into the vocational narratives of a number of the community who have and are discerning God’s will for their lives. How do they, and we alike, tune into what is of God’s good pleasure, and like the apostles in this reading, hold fast in our faith and living out Christ’s mission?

I think of all women religious in the United States, whose leadership has been put on notice as the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) appoints a team of bishops to oversee the reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). (USCCB, April 18, 2012.) I long for Gamaliel’s voice in reviewing the claims about women religious and their work. And simultaneously, my heart is filled with gratitude for the possibilities of this review process over the next five years.

I pose questions and I pray….

  • How are the apostles from 2000 years ago alive and at work in this day and age?
  • What Good News are we proclaiming with full voice?
  • How is God’s will present in all facets of our lives and in all charged or messy circumstances?
  • As faithful, faith-filled beings, how are each of us before a present day assembly of the Sanhedrin?
  • What roles are we each called to fill or claim?
  • Where is Gamaliel? Can we recognize Judas the Galilean, whose efforts amounted to naught?
  • Who among us will be flogged, but persist in our appointed goals and missions?
  • How will God himself be fought with?
  • How can we give God thanks for all of this activity and the guidance to move through it in a transformational, inspiring, life-giving manner?

I pray.