Opening to the Heartbreak of the World: An Experiment in Expanding Practice


by Mary Jane Yates, Alberta, Canada

I have heard from those who knew him that Fr. Thomas was fond of using the word “experiment” when it came to discerning how best to fulfill CO’s vision of sharing the practice of Centering Prayer and its contemplative vision as widely as possible. Such ‘experiments’ in teaching and practice were important especially in the early days of CO, before the Introductory Workshop and format for intensive retreats was developed.  And perhaps as we reach our 40th year in a world that has changed and continues to change so quickly, new ways of sharing the prayer are still waiting to be discovered, along with their ancient and deep connections to other religious traditions and ways of knowing.

Two traditions that may help us experiment with more engaged or embodied approaches to contemplation are Buddhism and the practice of Nature & Forest Therapy.  According to the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, the practice of tonglen is one in which we “visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath.”  In some ways, this practice is similar to the Welcoming Prayer with its emphasis on ‘feeling and sinking into’ the sensations coming to us from our own pain or the pain of others.  In tonglen, however, the outbreath is focused on actively sending out blessing and love, rather than on letting go of our own desire for security, affection or control that may be blocking this outflow of love.  Similarly, the focus of Nature Therapy is for participants to ‘feel and sink into’ the sensations, messages, and energy of the natural world around us, and to return this love in kind:  in other words, to foster a reciprocal give & take of both beauty and pain in an ever-deepening relationship of inter-beingness.

In February of this year, Alberta area Centering Prayer practitioners experimented with these approaches to contemplation along with the usual periods of Centering Prayer during our annual “Deepening Centering Prayer” retreat.  Working first with the theme of ‘opening to beauty,’ participants were invited to spend time with a natural item such as a stone, shell or pine branch to awaken their senses to any energy it held.  After watching Fr. Thomas’s “Closing Homily on Beauty” we then engaged in a practice to breathe with the goodness of our lives:  to breathe in beauty, space, and light, and to allow this energy to flow through to others on the out-breath.  Starting with this focus on goodness was an important complement to the practice of breathing in pain since it reminded us of the immense compassion and love that holds us even as we seek to hold the pain of others.

Moving then to the theme of “Opening to Heartbreak”, we watched Part 5 of the Heartfulness series in which Fr. Thomas talks about suffering and then spent time with material symbols of suffering such as barbed wire, broken cement, syringes and face masks.  This was followed by another session of intentional breathing:  first breathing in the beauty and love that we experienced earlier in the day and then breathing in the felt experience of the pain symbols we had been holding.  The out-breath throughout this 20 minute practice was of space, love and beauty –helping us to realize our breath as simply a channel for welcoming the toxins of the world and exchanging them for the pure goodness of divine love.  Before our Centering Prayer sit on Saturday evening, participants were then invited to watch this interview with Fr. Adam Bucko which further explains the importance of contemplative approaches to holding the world’s pain.

Judging by participant evaluations, this experiment with both tonglen and nature therapy practices was welcomed as an important and timely complement to the communal practice of Centering Prayer that is the foundation for these weekend retreats.  Based on this feedback we thought it might be worthwhile to share the experience with you in case your community is also looking for ways to deepen your collective response to both the beauty and pain of these extraordinary times.