“Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In this process…we begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality.” ~Pema Chodron
It was challenging to focus during the summer months, with my six-year-old son at home more than usual. I had tons of ideas to write about, but my creative energies were exhausted from hours of playing. When the school year started, I finally sat down to write. The words took their own path and directed me into a memory that had surfaced a few days earlier.
It was a memory of the first days of my son’s life. It came as nostalgic remembrance of his life so far, as he reached the milestone of first grade. I wanted to write about how Pema Chodron’s Tonglen practice saved me during these challenging days. I had no idea that there was much more in this story for me.
Even though I was forty-three when I was about to give birth for the first time in my life, I insisted on having a natural birth at a birthing center, despite my parents’ protests. I wanted to show them, and the world, that women can give birth naturally at my age. I envisioned the book I would write, and the courses I would teach to give women like me more confidence.
Many of my dreams come true, but not this one.
I went into labor on the morning of the full moon in March. After twenty hours of rapid contractions and vomiting at the birthing center with no progress, I was moved to the nearby hospital.
This was not the time for idealism. I surrendered under complete exhaustion. I gave in and took an epidural, willing to do anything to have my baby in my arms.
During my pregnancy, I envisioned that once my son would be born, he would stay cuddled with me at the comfort of the birthing center and that we would return home shortly after. I wanted him to feel nourished, loved, and welcomed right away.
Again, reality hit me in my face. My son had severe jaundice and was forced to spend most of his first few days in the nurses’ room under therapeutic lights.
One of the reasons I wanted to avoid birthing at a hospital was that as soon as I walk through the big swing doors, I feel my blood is washed away from me and I turn into a ghost. How many times I walked the white, sterile, cold corridors, feeling that I was turning white, sterile, and cold myself. It did not matter if I came to greet a friend’s newborn or to visit my dying mother. The reaction was always the same.
And there I was, living in a hospital during the first days of motherhood, barely carrying my body, depleted by lack of sleep and nonstop breast-pumping. I kept asking why? Why? Why?
Why did it have to start like this? Why can’t my child be with me? Why do I have to pass by the nurses’ room and see him crying while no one pays attention? Why did they have to poke his finger for blood every few hours?
My husband and I were thrown into our worst nightmare, fearing our son’s brain would be damaged. We knew that even if he would eventually be healthy and well, the trauma of these first days would be forever imprinted on him. What hurt the most was that we could not even embrace him with our loving support.
During one of the short nursing breaks we got, my son was lying on top of me, resting in my arms. I felt his heartbeat and his little breaths. I patted him and cried, “Please be healthy, please be healthy, please be healthy.” The pain was breaking me into a thousand little pieces.
Then I remembered Tonglen. I had read about it in Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart. I had practiced Tonglen throughout three challenging years of fertility treatments and three miscarriages. It was weird that I hadn’t thought of it earlier, but then again, I was in the midst of a whirlpool of suffering; I could barely even remember my own name.
I started the practice with breathing in my son’s pain and breathing out healing for him. As I was doing that, I felt a new sense of power. I was no longer helplessly lying there. There was something I could do for my son; I could take away his pain and heal him.
After a few minutes, I moved on to breathing in my own suffering, and breathing out healing to all the struggling parents whose babies were sick or hospitalized. Suddenly, I was not alone. I was a part of a group of parents. I was a parent for the first time in my life, and I felt all the emotions that came with it: the joy, the gratitude, the pain, and the fear, of a magnitude that I’d never experienced before.
Not only was I a part of a community of struggling parents, but I was also helping to ease their pain and healing their children. This exercise connected me to my power, and my wisdom. I was no longer a broken body, but an empowered soul.
My perspective shifted. I stopped taking it personally. I understood that what happened to my son, to me, and to my husband, happens to others too. It was all a part of the journey of life, which contains suffering as well as joy. I was connected to something bigger than me. I was supported by it and supporting it.
A good friend told me, “You cannot control your child’s path, you can only support it.” I could not change his journey. I could only make it easier on him and help him grow through his challenges.
Once we were finally released from the hospital, life did not get easy right away. My son was crying a lot and had difficulties nursing. I kept practicing Tonglen all that time. It took us about a month to settle in and shift from hardship to joy. Since then, I haven’t noticed any traces of trauma in my son so far.
But what about my trauma?
Through writing about this memory, I acknowledge that these were the hardest days of my life. I also realize that I have never really processed this hardship. I have worked on my disappointment from the vacuum extraction delivery at the hospital. But I have never talked about the days that followed with anyone, not even my husband or my therapist.
At first, I thought that the trauma was so deep that I had to repress it. But on second thought, it did not feel like an open wound. I believe that thanks to practicing Tonglen, the healing occurred in real time. I did not repress the pain when it was present; I allowed it to manifest in me. I processed the pain so well that it went away and left us clean and clear to start our new lives as a family.