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Giving No Fear--Transforming Poison into Medicine


All the passages below are taken from the book,” Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death” by Joan Halifax. It was published in 2008.


WHY DO WE ever follow the first arrow of pain with that second arrow of suffering? We saw how suffering and pain are different, and that one is a story about the other; but if suffering keeps arising--and it certainly seems to--then what is it that drives the stories of our misery and sorrow?

The Tibetan Wheel of Life offers a colorful folk image that illustrates how we get caught in the clutches of our various mental traps. In the nasty, fingernailed grasp of the Lord of Death, a wheel goes around and around. And at the wheel’s center, propelling its axle, are three animals: a rooster, representing greed; a snake, which stands for anger; and a pig, which represents ignorance. In Buddhism, greed, hatred, and delusion are called the three poisons, and Buddha taught that it’s precisely these three self-involved states that feed our suffering.

Out of his own direct experience, the Buddha saw that a hungry, hateful, or confused mind has little or no sense of connection with other beings. This kind of mind is out for itself, involved with itself, and caught in the trap of narcissism, preferences, and self-references. He also realized that our firm belief in our own identity drives us to try to change or fix the beings and things around us, creating an attitude of possessiveness, a realm of possessions, and a mind possessed by its separateness and sense of specialness. This is the stuff that makes dying hard, caregiving tiring, and grieving prolonged. If the roots of suffering are the three poisons of passion, aggression, and ignorance, then suffering’s taproot is our experience of fear--a fear based in the need to preserve our sense of a fixed and separate identity.

We ask then, can we really end suffering? Is there a path, a way, that can help us change our poisons into the medicines of generosity, clarity, and fearlessness? How can we develop mercy and taste boundlessness and the ease of freedom, even in the presence of death? I once heard a Tibetan teacher say that suffering also has beneficial qualities: it can nourish our longing for freedom. Then he went on to say that our compassion is ignited when we are in the presence of the suffering of others.

By being with his own suffering, the Buddha learned how to transform it, ultimately awakening to what is real, what is true. He did not avoid his own misery or that of others. He saw that in the mess of our misery many gifts may be discovered, including the gift of mercy. Suffering brought him closer to the heart of his spiritual life, and suffering led him to freedom.

An old joke goes, “Religion is for people who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for people who have been through hell.” Buddha went through hell. Most of us have been through some version of the underworld, and strangely enough, we are usually better off for having gone through these difficulties. Even complexity theory illustrates this truth--living systems become more robust when they break down and then learn how to repair themselves. You and I are more robust for the challenges we have faced. But it takes a lot of courage to flail and fail, courage to let go into not-knowing, and to let go of our attachment to a good outcome. And this is particularly challenging if we are caregivers. We are there to help. So how do we both help and let go of any gain?

I think it is important to remember that the Buddha was simply a man who looked directly at suffering and death and let these two guide him to a more meaningful and merciful life. Others have done the same. The Buddha seems to have been a very brave human being. We can be brave, too. What he went through is not so far from what you and I have experienced in our own lives.

Had the Buddha been a god or divine or filled with inherent knowledge or completely blessed, he probably would not have left home and embarked on his difficult spiritual search. Like many of us, he pursued a quest for meaning and awakening, and in the course of it, he suffered even more. He sat in the fire, and like the metal of a fine sword, was strengthened through the encounter with elemental energies.

Aware of his own suffering and the suffering of others, he realized that it is essential to be in touch with the truth that there is suffering in this life; he also saw that there is a way through suffering, and one can be free of suffering. He saw this from the perspective of having confronted his difficulties, not having fled from them. It seems that maturation is not an easy process for most of us, not even for a Buddha.

And yes, suffering is a sword that cuts both ways: it can free us or send us into hiding. Whether we are dying, caring, or grieving, if we run from suffering to nowhere or into addiction--be it hyperactivity, drugs, food, sex, shopping, or even sleep--we will only be driven into deeper confusion, making it all the more difficult to see what’s really going on. This is why we step out of the rush of our lives periodically, to remember who we really are. Stopping to investigate the mind and heart is essential in our work of caregiving and in being with dying.

There exists a basic mind-state that is free from all dualities and that excludes nothing. This mental experience brings into our perception the presence of our true nature: Buddha-nature, Christ-nature, the great heart that is beyond all sorrow. Buddhism teaches that this basic nature of our mind is pure and bright. When we die, this is what is first liberated into the clear light of death.

From the perspective of many wisdom traditions, death is seen as the ultimate moment for the complete liberation of the mind from all entanglements, all sorrows, all separateness. If we look really deeply, we may see that suffering and freedom from suffering are embedded in each other. In the apparent darkness of death rests the light of freedom, if only we can perceive it. Our practice and our very lives are also where we can see the light of freedom.

Imagine sitting with a dying person, someone in intractable pain; or maybe you are that person: a person in intense discomfort, a dying person. Imagine really letting yourself open to what feelings might be present in this situation. Now, look through the pain to the deep ground of being, that unshakable heart where all categories, dualities, cravings, delusions and dislikes have never been. See your or her true nature, free from all pain--and at the same time, be present with the truth of suffering.

Can we see two things at one and the same moment, like seeing that the wave and water are not separate? Maybe, even if we can’t feel the truth of it right now, we can have faith that this is so. When we are caught in the tight grip of unhappiness, this is often hard to do. We can help ourselves by remembering what we have understood from teachings, reading, or our deepest insights. Remembering the truth when you cannot experience it in the present moment can be a lifeline tying us close to our open heart.

Another way you can begin to see with nondualistic vision is to consider your own life. You exist only through a vast web of interconnectedness. There are your ancestors and your parents; then all your relationships, from your family and community to the food you eat and the air you breathe. You are in relationship with literally everything in the phenomenal world, in the past, in the present, and even in the future.

You are nonduality itself because of this boundless, endless net that weaves through all of your life and the lives of all beings and things. Everything that happens in your life happens because of the reality of interconnectedness. You and I have no real separate and inherent self. We exist only through our connections with every single thing. And in the same way, we also can’t separate life from death or suffering from freedom.

Even though we might be able to figure this out logically, we must taste the experience of liberation ourselves to make this truth real. The Buddha knew that suffering could not be transformed by telling someone how to do it. He himself sat down under a tree for a long time, and vowed not to leave that spot till he saw the truth. He was determined and committed.

Realization comes about through direct experience. Since most of us haven’t savored real freedom just yet, it is important to have faith that freedom from suffering is possible. Faith like this is not an idea but an experience. It is a kind of bright longing from some place deep inside of ourselves that senses the mystery of boundlessness. Faith helps us to stop and look deeply.

I remember the first time I read Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.1 I had faith in Tolstoy’s words, and that faith forced me to stop and look more deeply into my own experience and into my mind. The ending of the novella depicts an unexpected liberation at the moment of death. Tolstoy’s wretched protagonist Ivan moves slowly toward his death in a state of depression and denial. His family is unhappy and distant, and he himself doesn’t seem to have a clue. Just on the threshold of death, Ivan appears to everyone around him to be in a state of utter misery. But Ivan is actually having realization after realization.

First he drops out of his experience of pain; pain falls away, and he realizes: there is no pain. Then he drops through the door of death only to realize: there is no death. To the wonder of the reader, at the deathless deathpoint he becomes one with that clear light. “What joy!” he exclaims inwardly, just as someone at his bedside says, “It is finished.”

When I sit with a dying person, or someone caught in the tight fist of pain or suffering, I might hope that he will be free of pain and suffering, live longer, and die well; or I might fear the possibility of future pain and suffering he may have to endure. Then I have to stop, give myself some time and space to let go of my hopes, and then reconsider. I wish the best for him, and I will do my best for him, and I also remember that death is inevitable, and perhaps for my patient, like Ivan Ilyich proclaimed, there is no pain, there is no death. I really can’t know. I then sit with the two truths: the truth of suffering and the truth of freedom from suffering. And I try to be open to what “wants” to happen.

 I also watch my priorities shift as I consider the preciousness of life at this moment. I consider what is really important to do or not do in this particular situation. I do not reject suffering, mine or that of another, for it brings many things to me, from compassion to a sense of immediacy. Also faith in basic goodness is the raft that carries me over the waters of misery. This faith brings me back again and again to the boundless shore of not-knowing.

I once sat for many hours with a friend dying of cancer. She had been sick for years, and the cancer had eaten into her abdominal area. This was a strong experience for me. There were times when the smell from her body was so pungent that it was difficult for people to come into her room.

This woman was unfailingly kind to her visitors, always asking, “How are you? Do you need anything?” Particularly toward the end of her days, when the thread tying her to life was so thin that it frayed with each breath, sitting in that room with her body unbinding, her breath uneven, her skin a coppery yellow, I felt the whole world present. Everything was there; nothing was left out. Her good works were there, and her anger and anguish as well. The suffering of many women was there, and so was the courage and compassion of women. Fear was present and so was fearlessness.

Suffering can give birth to a bigger perspective and greater resilience, and, strangely enough, suffering is the mother of kindness and compassion if we turn toward it with openness, making a friend of it. Suffering wrings us out, leaving the weave of our life more open. In this openness, we often can be with suffering in a bigger, kinder, and more tender way. Suffering is also the kindling that ignites compassion. This all might unfold as slowly as geological time or be like a flash of lightning. However, compassion, kindness, altruistic joy, and equanimity are already within us. Our circumstances awaken them in their own time.

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates said, “True philosophers make death and dying their profession.” I think our Greek meant that we should practice dying with every breath, and study dying in our every moment. I also think that the terrible squeezing of the heart we feel when first facing the unknown is the moment when our horizon begins to expand past the bounds of suffering. Just one person seeing both the sorrow and at the same time the great heart of who we really are can open shuttered eyes and let the light shine out even before the moment of death.

Up until the day before my father died, he told us the truth with his dry humor. One morning as I was sitting with him, he said, “Well, kid, it looks like I’m going to die.” I reached over, put my hand on his, and said quietly, “I think you’re right.” As I looked into his blue eyes, I watched a wave of apprehension pass through him. Then he punned, “Well, it’s about time.” We smiled at each other as each saw the truth in what the other had said. Then we sat together in silence for the rest of the morning, his eyes filled with peace and mine with gratitude.

In the end, my father was not afraid to die. He was a brave and realistic person, a person with natural spirituality guiding him. As he grew older and nearing death, peace of mind graced his days. He did not cling to any illusion of solidity. He did not resist the many reminders of his own impermanence, nor did he insulate himself from truth by hoping for a particular outcome.

Three days before he died, he reviewed his life with his children and grandchildren. It was not an easy task as his review included terrible experiences he had gone through in World War II. After his disclosures, he seemed to let go and relax into groundlessness. He had faced his suffering, and then he moved past what was already behind him to the road taking him toward the destination we call death.

Suffering usually pushes us onto the spiritual path. Often it takes an accident, a catastrophic diagnosis, a disaster, or great loss for us to break open. Then, when we begin to explore the truth of suffering, we often find within each poison the nectar of wisdom, kindness, and love. But we must first discard the belief that we can make our suffering go away. Instead, we learn to stay with it. Then we become curious about it. This is a fundamental change of attitude: we accept our suffering and determine to help ourselves by investigating its cause. We are forced to lie down in what the poet Yeats called “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”2 This is where most of us begin our journey home--among the rags and bones of our tender and awful brokenness.


The following practice of tonglen, or giving and receiving, develops our ability to be with dying, suffering, and to open to the vastness of our original nature. The great kindness of this rare practice releases our whole being to suffering’s overwhelming presence, cultivates our strength and willingness to transform alienation into compassion, and is one of the richest and bravest practices we can do. This one technique has helped countless dying people, family and professional caregivers attend to their own fears around pain, dying, and loss, and has given them a real basis for the joining of compassion and equanimity. This is one of the great meditation jewels that offers a way to nurture the natural energy of mercy and basic goodness.

We may discover that when we rest in basic goodness, ignorance and confusion are just the other side of the coin of not-knowing. When we stop directing aggression toward others or ourselves, the sharpness of anger enables us to look without fear at things as they are. And letting go of our desire for the four traps of confirmation, comfort, consolation, and security, then longing transforms into a commitment to engage with the world. This is truly giving no fear.

MEDITATION---Giving and Receiving through Tonglen

To begin the practice, sit in meditation posture, relax in a chair, or lie down, however you can be relaxed and open. Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. You can say the following prayer to help prepare you for the practice:


Having recognized the futility of my selfishness and the great benefit of loving others, may I bring all beings to joy. May I send all my virtues and happiness to others through the strength of my practice, and may I receive the suffering and difficulties of all beings in all realms.


Begin by breathing in whatever you are feeling--fear, agitation, anger, resistance. On the exhalation, accept whatever is present for you in this moment, giving it space to just be. Do this breath practice until you are calm and alert.

When you feel settled, begin the second stage of the practice, which is establishing a rhythm of breathing. On your in-breath imagine that you are inhaling heavy, hot air. On your out-breath visualize exhaling cool, light air. Continue with this pattern--breathing in heaviness and breathing out lightness--until it is familiar. The heaviness is suffering; the lightness is well-being. Then go further and imagine that you are breathing through all the pores of your body. On the in-breath heavy, hot air enters every pore. On the out-breath, cool light flows from every pore.

Now visualize a metal sheath around your heart. This metal sheath is everything about you that is difficult for you to accept: your self-importance, selfishness, self-cherishing, self-pity. It is the band of fear that hardens your heart.

Tonglen invites you to dissolve this sheath and open your heart to its natural nonjudgmental state of warmth, kindness, and spaciousness. You can do this by visualizing the metal breaking apart when the in-breath of suffering touches it. When the heart opens, the hot, heavy air vanishes into its vast space. What arises is natural mercy. It is this quality of unarmored heart that allows you to be with suffering and at the same time to see beneath the suffering.

Bring to your mind some being, dead or alive, with whom you feel a deep connection: a parent, child, pet, your grandmother, your dearest friend, your beloved teacher--someone who is suffering. You would do anything to help this person. Be with her and feel what she is experiencing. Let your whole being turn toward her suffering and your wish that it might be relieved. See how vulnerable she is. Like a mother who will do anything to help her child, you will do anything to help your friend.

Visualize the suffering of your beloved as polluted, hot smoke and breathe it in through your whole body. The instant that the in-breath of suffering touches the metal sheath of self-centeredness around your heart, the sheath breaks apart, and your heart opens. The hot smoke instantly vanishes into the great space of your heart, and from this space spontaneously arises an out-breath of mercy and healing. Send a deep, cool, light, and spacious healing breath to your friend. Let the out-breath flow through every pore of your body.

Let your loved one’s suffering remind you of the many others who find themselves suffering in the same way. This friend is your connection to them. Breathe in the suffering. Let your heart break open. Send this person healing with your out-breath. To bring the practice to your own life, remember a time when you were in a difficult situation. You may still hold energy around this difficulty. You may have been hurt, angry, depressed, outraged, or afraid. Remembering the feeling as vividly as possible, breathe it in as hot, heavy, polluted smoke. Let go of any sense of blame, any object of blame. Don’t be involved with the story. Rather, breathe in the raw feeling directly as the hot smoke of suffering. Take it in through every pore of your body. Own the heat and rawness of it completely.

This practice takes a lot of courage. You might find yourself resisting breathing in the suffering. If so, you can breathe in your resistance. You can breathe in alienation, piety, boredom, arrogance, confusion, grief, or clinging--whatever flavor your suffering of the moment takes. Breathe out the sense of spaciousness, kindness, and surrender that arises. Shower these qualities on yourself in a rain of cool, healing light. Aerating your suffering threatens the ego--that small, tight self that habitually clings to anger, blame, or shame as a way of fortifying its illusion of solidity and separateness. Don’t analyze what you are doing. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t justify it. Simply do the practice. Breathe in the hot smoke of your suffering and breathe out sympathetic space. As you breathe in your tarlike suffering, own it completely. Then breathe out clarity and surrender, relief and kindness.

Now imagine sitting with someone who is dying. See her as clearly as you can. You are sitting quietly and peacefully next to her, following her breath. You see that she is in pain. You can almost feel her pain. Visualize the sheath of fear around your heart, that tough membrane you use to protect yourself from the world. Breathe in her pain as hot, grimy smoke, through every pore in your body. Let your heart break open to her pain. Now release the pain completely as you breathe out kindness, giving her all the good you have known in your life.

Now imagine that this person who is dying is you. See yourself in a hospital bed. Your body feels tired and heavy. You might be fearful. Breathe in that fear as hot smoke. Let it dissolve the tightness around your heart. Feel your heart open to its natural greatness. Then let go of your breath completely as you send all the good in your heart to the world.

Imagine that this is the moment of your death. Let your heart completely relax and open like a flower as you let go of your last breath, giving the great merit of your life to all beings everywhere. Dissolve the visualization and rest your body and mind in openness and gratitude. [81-92]

1. Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (New York: Penguin, 1960).

2. William Butler Yeats, from “The Circus Animal’s Desertion,” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (Hertfordshire, U.K.: Wordsworth Editions, 2000), 297.


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