Finding Your True Home for the Holidays

By Ian C. Edwards, Ph.D.
Director, Duquesne University Counseling Center

Many of us return home for the holidays but seldom do we contemplate what it means to either go or return to the place we call "home." For many of us, the idea of "home" will immediately conjure associations to a physical space in time, whether that space is a place, town, city, and/or a community of persons, such as family and friends. Returning to such a space can bring forth stress, worry, sadness, and grief as well as happiness, joy, belongingness, and love. Whatever the anticipated and actual experience may be, it will no doubt be affective in nature. During this holiday season, when you return to the place you call "home" I would like to invite you to take the opportunity to either discover or re-connect with your true home.
What I call your "true home" is not bound by space and time. Moreover, it is not even a physical space that you can enter and subsequently dwell. It is also not tied up with a place, town, city, or even a community of persons. Thus, what is this "true home"? While it is much easier to say what your true home is not, it can be described or better yet pointed to with affirmative words and phrases. Your true home is that very space within you that Jesus Christ described as the "Kingdom of God" and the Buddha described as your "Buddha Nature." It is the very essence of who you are as a person - it is absolute acceptance, unconditional love, and total surrender. By realizing that this is who you are, who you were meant to be, and that very nature which you were called to live, you are no longer imprisoned by the desire or need to be happy all the time. This compulsion toward having to be happy all the time is the foundation for many addictive and self-destructive behaviors. By letting go of this and accepting yourself as you are, whether you are in sad, worried, or angry mood, you will be less inclined to identify with the mood itself. And when you don't identify with it, you will be less inclined to act on it.
From your true home, you welcome all experiences to the point of befriending them and even loving them. This is a way of practicing "loving your enemy," whether that "enemy" is an actual person or afflictive emotional experience. Surrendering or accepting an experience is not the same as giving in to it. Rather, it is letting go of the desire to either control it or not feel it. You would simply allow the experience in, pay attention to it without judging it as being either "bad" or "good," describe the experience using a simple label such as "fear," "sadness," "anger," etc. and then permit it to leave as it is want to do on its own. If the experience returns, whether by way of a specific trigger or seemingly "out of the blue," repeat the aforementioned practice. You are most free in your responses to thoughts, feelings, emotions, and situations. Your true home is that very freedom itself and by remembering this as your true identity you can accept and tolerate any thought, feeling, emotion, or situation, whether the experience be so-called "positive" or "negative."
As a way of concluding this article, I would like to offer you an exercise that has been helpful to me and to many others for thousands of years. It is a Tibetan Buddhist practice called "Tonglen." I have taken the practice as described by the Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. It is very powerful as it can help you learn how to connect with your own suffering as well as with the suffering of others, and instead of withdrawing or retracting from it, respond to it with acceptance, freedom, compassion, and love (you true home, your home for the holidays and for every day).

The Practice of Tonglen
By Pema Chodron
"In order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves.

In particular, to care about other people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean -you name it- to have compassion and to care for these people, means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves. In fact, one's whole attitude toward pain can change. Instead of fending it off and hiding from it, one could open one's heart and allow oneself to feel that pain, feel it as something that will soften and purify us and make us far more loving and kind.

The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering -ours and that which is all around us- everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem
to be.

We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness. However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.

At that point you can change the focus and begin to do tonglen for what you are feeling and for millions of others just like you who at that very moment of time are feeling exactly the same stuckness and misery. Maybe you are able to name your pain. You recognize it clearly as terror or revulsion or anger or wanting to get revenge. So you breathe in for all the people who are caught with that same emotion and you send out relief or whatever opens up the space for yourself and all those countless others. Maybe you can't name what you're feeling. But you can feel it -a tightness in the stomach, a heavy darkness or whatever. Just contact what you are feeling and breathe in, take it in -for all of us and send out relief to all of us.

People often say that this practice goes against the grain of how we usually hold ourselves together. Truthfully, this practice does go against the grain of wanting things on our own terms, of wanting it to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to the others. The practice dissolves the armor of self-protection we've tried so hard to create around ourselves. In Buddhist language one would say that it dissolves the fixation and clinging of ego.

Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others and also we begin to take care of ourselves and others. It awakens our compassion and it also introduces us to a far larger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness that Buddhists call shunyata. By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being. At first we experience this as things not being such a big deal or so solid as they seemed before.

Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have just died, or for those that are in pain of any kind. It can be done either as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot at any time. For example, if you are out walking and you see someone in pain -right on the spot you can begin to breathe in their pain and send some out some relief. Or, more likely, you might see someone in pain and look away because it brings up your fear or anger; it brings up your resistance and confusion.

So on the spot you can do tonglen for all the people who are just like you, for everyone who wishes to be compassionate but instead is afraid, for everyone who wishes to be brave but instead is a coward.

Rather than beating yourself up, use your own stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world.

Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us.

Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings."