My dear auntie Jean in London has been sending me photos of rainbows she encounters on her daily walks; rainbows drawn on the pavements, pinned in windows and hung on gates; a spontaneous phenomenal creative response to the personal, local, national and global crisis we find ourselves in. The images themselves appear as symbols of unity, solidarity, like a visual prayer; for staff in the NHS facing our fears on our behalf – my rainbow is a bridge from me to you – we are with you, THANK YOU we are scared but we are with you. We are staying home but we are thinking of you!
The motivation to connect symbolically in a situation where the possibility physical connection has been taken away – has come from that deeper still place in us and it speaks to that same still place in others. It’s powerful, it goes straight to the heart. When I see a rainbow, and they are popping up all over the place here in rural west Wales, I am immediately connected to that collective sentiment. Clive Holmes on one of his teachings at Samye Ling shared this gem with us:
“When the sunshine of loving kindness
meets the raindrops of suffering,
the rainbow of compassion arises.”
Once a very powerful and unexpected image of a rainbow appeared for me during a tonglen practice. Tonglen as a practice, took a while for me to settle into, it took a while for my mind to assimilate the teaching to relax into the visualization and then let it go (and not get obsessed with the visualization!)(grasping!); and it took a few different teachings for me to find my own way with it.
I had been experimenting with different visualisations for Tonglen ‘sending and receiving’ practice, which is part of our Level 2 Responding with Compassion training– traditional black smoke, coloured smoke, light, sparkles, flowers I ‘tried’ lots of different ways to accept and transform suffering! On this particular occasion I was having a particularly traumatic experience with a dear friend which involved terrible emotional pain on both sides and which had no obvious solution; tonglen was all I could do to hold the whole thing with acceptance and compassion rather than resistance, fear and dread. My intention was to find a way through this horrible emotional mess. I was just sitting there, in despair, and really feeling into the sadness so profoundly. I began ‘taking in’ – and what came to me was dark rain clouds. As I ‘took in’ the suffering from the whole situation (which included me) and from the other in the form of these heavy and stormy rain clouds, the pain flashed from the other like a thunderbolt to my suffering heart, which cracked open to reveal a diamond which emitted the most powerful rainbow light (loving kindness) which radiated out in all directions and towards the other. It was unexpected; I had not tried; I had not ‘thought up’ the visualization like I had been trying to do with the others. The thunderbolt, the rainbow, the light emitting diamond appeared spontaneously and powerfully. My heart was broken.
Leonard Cohen sings in his song ‘Anthem’:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
My heart was broken open. That’s the soft spot that Pema Chodron talks about, it’s the heart of compassion, to acknowledge my own pain, and to wish to alleviate that suffering for myself and for the other. There was a release. In the morning my friend unexpectedly rang me, and I was aware of an openness and acceptance in my attitude that had not been there before. The pain hadn’t gone, but I was open to it all.
When I look back at that, and consider my early striving to achieve tonglen a couple of things come to mind. Continued mindfulness, compassion and insight practices have really put a stop to striving, generally in my life. I do still get frustration sometimes if I find myself judging my practice – and maybe there is residual striving just beneath the surface if I’m honest! so that has helped, and also the other thing is that the compassion practices transformed my ability to access my own feelings; gave me permission and a means to feel my feelings – and without that, I don’t think I would have ever cracked through my frozen heart to get anywhere near allowing the other person’s feelings to be acceptable to me; I was always so wrapped up in my own, blocked feelings- I had a fear of other people expressing their feelings, of taking their feelings personally, making it ‘all about me’ and actually I just didn’t know what to do with them! The feeling of helplessness in the face of strong emotions either my own or another’s is a theme that has come unravelled thanks to the Mindfulness and Compassion practices. I don’t think tonglen was actually accessible to me until I’d practised and experienced metta, self compassion. And that unravelling came out with a rainbow…
Maybe it’s the acknowledging and the acceptance of the acute pain, and acute suffering that holds the key to deep transformation, and it seems that that is what society is going through right now. So rainbows – appearing spontaneously and radiating out from the hearts of households touches something in me personally – all over the country rainbows are bringing a message of hope and connection: in the most vulnerable, darkest, most stormy of times, the rainbow offers us this delicate beauty of compassion, connection, and of our common humanity.
Weekly challenge. Each time you encounter a rainbow this week, whether inside, outside, or on tv or social media, use it as a reminder to check in with your feelings – acknowledge your emotions, and to notice how and where you might be holding tension in your body. When you see a rainbow this week why not offer yourself a self-compassion break. Maybe you could even create a rainbow for your window whether or not you think anyone will notice it.