Changing the World One Breath at a Time

With the state of affairs in the world as it is, I feel the need to do something. But what? I was discussing this topic with my thoughtful cousin over the weekend. She looked to me for inspiration. “You’re all zen,” she said, “What do you do?” “What?” I exclaimed, “I’m not!” Most of the time I feel like a cold mess (I’m always cold). She pointed out that I do yoga, I meditate, I try to follow philosophies and principles that help me understand and be in the world. But I do those things because I feel a mess – to seek out a state of zen that I often feel far from.

Where I feel like a mess the most is in the area of compassion. I too feel the need to do something when I hear of the Amazon burning, species becoming endangered or extinct, people terrified in Syria and Yemen. I must start a movement, a charity, raise billions and make an impact, organize thousands of people and tackle a world crisis. But where do I even begin? There are loads of charities helping already - and even though they’re slowing the demise of our planet/society/government, the problems seem to multiply. I’m not famous and I don’t have a million Instagram followers. Who would even pay attention to little me? I think I’ve always been a compassionate person. How do I exercise my compassion now? Volunteering on a local level seems too small. Meditation seems too solitary. Yoga helps me in my small life but not the world. My life is cushy and the world is burning. What can I do?

First, as a friend once told me, be grateful that you can worry about these things. If you were struggling to survive, you wouldn’t be able to have concerns about the world’s problems. It takes someone living a comfortable life to address the big crises. When you practice yoga, you spend time quietly where you’re able to clear your head somewhat. In your quietness and self-study, you can understand what’s important and what’s unnecessary, whether worrying about an issue is useful or not. You can pepper your intellect with your instincts instead of living in your brain. Yay for yoga.

Next, you can meditate. There are various forms to calm your mind and bring a higher level of awareness. A meditation practice I’ve been working on lately is tonglen, where you breathe in darkness and breathe out joy, love and kindness. This seems small, but in my experience, it’s quite large. Pain is pain. We all know it. Whether we live through physical or emotional pain in our “cushy” lives or we live through a war, we know pain. Breathing in the pain of the world and sending out a wish for that pain to dissipate does actually accomplish something. It cultivates compassion.

In yoga class we’re often taught to breathe in the light and breathe out the darkness. Why do tonglen, which seems to be the opposite? Something we begin to understand through yoga and meditation is that we’re all one. Breathing in light and breathing out darkness is a good place to start, so you can rid yourself of any darkness that may live inside you. But to connect to others, which is what we’re doing in compassion, we breathe in their suffering, register that feeling we’re familiar with, and send them love and freedom from suffering. We breathe in their fear and send out security. We breathe in physical pain and breathe out comfort.

This is hard, I have to tell you. So hard. It has taken time, but doing it has built strength within me. Strength that I can use to have compassion. I don’t know how to fix all of the world’s problems or even how to alleviate them somewhat. But this seems to be a crucial step. Sending out light is action. Expressing care and compassion can change the world – even if it’s only one breath at a time.