Every form of disaster, crisis or setback is actually a chance for us to create an opportunity. It’s a great space to be in actually. You know, we usually say, “Oh, it’s good because we learn from these things.” And that’s great, of course. But it’s not just that we learn from difficult experiences. It’s that when disaster strikes, suddenly there’s an open space in which we can create something new. Through the very process of dealing with that crisis, we can improve –– we can work with our mind.
Some of the most wonderful experiences of realization, realizing the nature of mind, were born out of a crisis in the practitioner’s life. If you look at the life stories of the great yogis, great masters, you can see that. It’s sad, but true, that most of their awakenings arose during a crisis of suffering.
So if you want awakening or realization, you need to have some suffering, some kind of crisis.
If you ask, “Why aren’t there stories of people experiencing realization or awakening in the midst of a happy moment?” the answer is simply that when people are happy they don’t practice dharma.
Usually when you’re happy, you go out somewhere. You’re enjoying being with friends and so on. Usually we don’t practice that much at those times. But then you get into a fight at the party and you feel bad, so you go back to the dharma center. Sometimes we treat dharma like a Bandaid.
That’s the reason you don’t see many stories about realization taking place when the practitioner was happy. Some of the greatest realizations took place during a time when the practitioner was going through a great difficulty or in the midst of painful obstacles.
So in times of suffering or crisis, whether we like it or not, that’s where we find the greatest opportunity.
Take a Chance, Make the Right Choice
We often think we need to wait for opportunity to come to us. But opportunities are present in every moment. In every moment we have a chance –– a chance to make the right choice.
That’s a great opportunity, isn’t it? Every moment, we have a chance to make a difference in our life and in the lives of others. We have a chance to make the right choice.
What is the right choice? However you can bring your best to that moment, that’s the right choice. It’s not a matter of right and wrong according to some set of rules or regulations. It’s nothing like that.
Every moment we have a chance not to think negative thoughts. Every moment we have a chance, a choice not to gossip. Isn’t that nice? Every moment we have a chance, a choice, to Go Kind. We have a chance to be kind to others.
Every moment we have the opportunity to do all these things. Of course, we can also choose to gossip, and we can choose not to be kind. But that’s how we miss the opportunity, too.
The Time Is Now
How can we know when the right moment has arrived? When can we truly succeed in seizing the opportunity?
Your greatest chance, the best time for you to succeed is today.
We cannot succeed in the past. We cannot succeed in the future. The only time we can succeed in turning our opportunity into something beneficial, productive and fruitful is now. The chance to succeed exists right here in every moment.
The opportunities we have missed in the past are gone. There’s no need to feel stressed about them. And don’t feel too anxious about possibly missing opportunities that may arise in the future –– that’s a recipe for missing the opportunity when it comes!
Now is the time. This very moment is the best, the only, time when we can make a big leap and actually get something done.
Crisis: An Opportunity for Contemplation
Everyone has experienced suffering, pain and distress in their lives. Sometimes when we are in the midst of a crisis, it feels as if we are completely alone in our situation, or that our suffering is the worst suffering of all. But of course, that’s not the case.
The Buddhist practice called tonglen does two things that help us work with our mind in the midst of suffering.
First, it reminds us that, at any given time throughout the world, so many other people are experiencing the same or even worse pain than what we’re experiencing now. Remembering this can be somewhat humbling and can help us open our hearts with empathy. It can help us develop a strong resolve to be free of our own suffering and to remember the suffering of those we love as well as strangers or other people with whom we may have a difficult time.
For these reasons, tonglen is a direct and very practical method for dealing with our difficulty, by connecting with others and transforming this suffering into something positive –– a compassionate heart.
How to Do Tonglen Practice
Sit comfortably in a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed for at least 15 minutes. Make a commitment to yourself to dedicate the next 5 to 10 minutes to experimenting with some curiosity, to see what happens with your suffering when you open your heart to others.
Close your eyes and connect with your difficulty or suffering. Really allow yourself to feel it in your body, without labeling it good or bad. It’s OK to take a break from telling yourself a story about your bad luck or stress.
From within that space of non-judgment, visualize yourself sitting in front of you as though you were someone else. Imagine breathing in your/their suffering as dark smoke and then breathing it out again as pure loving and peaceful energy in the form of white clouds. You can do this for a minute or two until you have a sense of transforming the suffering with love and kindness.
Now bring to mind someone you don’t know personally. It could be someone whose suffering you saw on the street or in the news. As you did with yourself, imagine breathing in their suffering and breathing out love, kindness and genuine care. Do this for a couple of minutes.
Next, bring to mind someone with who you have a difficult relationship, someone you know is suffering. Repeat the visualization process while breathing in and out. Connect with his/her suffering as a human being rather than thinking about the aspect of their behavior that bothers you. Notice your experience.
Now extend your visualization to include all beings in the world, those who are suffering right now as well as those who have suffered in the past or may suffer in the future. Keeping them in your awareness, repeat the same breathing practice.
Now open your eyes slightly and let the visualizations dissolve. As you do this, you can simply rest your mind for a few minutes, placing your attention in your breath.
To complete this session of tonglen, make a heartfelt aspiration that the difficulties you and others are facing right now may be transformed into kindness and compassion for others.
This practice can be very powerful and profound for opening up the tightness you tend to experience when you’re upset. As you imagine breathing in suffering as dark smoke, it’s not that now you have more suffering. Instead you’re focusing on your breath as though it’s a transformative filter. You visualize transforming your own and others’ suffering the way an air purifier removes impurities in the air.
When you find yourself in a situation of crisis or deep suffering, you can try practicing tonglen and notice your experience. You may find that it brings you some relief as well as greater perspective.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche originally taught on taking crisis as an opportunity during a public program given in Montréal, Canada in 2017.