When we breathe, we take in oxygen and put out carbon dioxide. When a tree “breathes,” it takes in carbon dioxide and puts out oxygen. From our point of view, the tree inhales waste and exhales what we need to take in.
This is the image that came to mind when I heard American Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön talk about a meditation practice. She spoke of breathing in suffering and breathing out love. Inhale pain, exhale healing.
This is the opposite of what I expected. I thought it would be more logical to breath in love and exhale suffering. Suffering and pain were the waste we needed to get rid out, to push out of our bodies and minds and lives. We needed to fill ourselves up with love, healing, and light in order to live.
But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. Sometimes our efforts at exhaling suffering are really just attempts to ignore the brokenness within and around us. Sometimes they lead us to escapism and denial; sometimes they cause us to distance ourselves from the suffering of a brother or sister.
To inhale suffering is an act of courage. To take in something painful and destructive, not just into your mind but even into your body, requires a profound act of trust in your own strength and in the possibility of healing and redemption. To breathe in suffering and breathe out love is to say with your lungs and heart and mind: this can and will be transformed.
I’ve been thinking about and practicing this breathing technique in response to what’s going on in the country and in the world right now. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by it all and want to turn away, to exhale all the pain and close my eyes to it. But I’m practicing breathing it in.
Inhale the fear and confusion of Muslims arriving in the U.S. on visas and being held at airports. Inhale the uncertainty and worry of children of immigrants, who never know if they will come home only to find their parents have been deported. Inhale the desperation that causes refugees around the world to flee their homes.
Inhale the anguish of the families and community who lost loved ones in the shooting by a white supremacist that left 5 dead at a mosque in Quebec City last night. Inhale the names and stories of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and many more. Inhale the fear and defensiveness simmering in police departments around the country and the worry their families feel while waiting for them to come home.
Inhale the disenfranchisement of our native brothers and sisters who put their bodies on the line to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline but now see their triumph as fleeting. Inhale the despair of those caught in the throes of the heroin epidemic. Inhale the bitterness and anger of the working poor beaten down by growing income inequality. Inhale the fear that compels violence of thought, word, and deed in so many ways.
But don’t hold it in. If you hold it in, all that pain and suffering will poison you. That dirty air will strangle your lungs from the inside out and crush your hope. Don’t hold it in. Instead, let it be transformed into something new, and then release what has been redeemed.
Exhale love. Exhale hope. Exhale determination. Exhale perseverance. Exhale solidarity. Exhale beauty. Exhale courage. Exhale healing. Exhale life.
Exhale literally and figuratively. Breathe out, then call your representatives. Breathe out, then speak up against injustice. Breathe out, then stand up for what is right. Breathe out, then love your neighbor, whoever they are, whatever they look like, wherever they are from.
On the cross, Jesus inhaled all our sin and shame, all our brokenness and suffering. He breathed in the soldiers’ mockery and breathed out, “Father, forgive them.” He breathed in the anguish of the criminal next to him and breathed out, “today you will be with me in paradise.” He breathed in our sorrow and grief, our doubt and fear, our selfishness and short-sightedness, and he breathed out mercy, grace, forgiveness, healing, and love.
As we breathe in suffering and breathe out love, let’s not forget that God does this on our behalf, on the cross and every moment of every day from eternity to now. When our breathing becomes shallow, when our footsteps falter, when we are overwhelmed by suffering and paralyzed from loving, we can rest in the rhythm of the divine breath until we catch ours.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Breathe in. Breathe out.