A Prayer For Our Suffering World

I live in a rural sanctuary, but who can forget the pain of the world—the environmental, pandemic, and political threats, racism, families separated, and people dying alone? Who can forget that many won’t help others stay well by wearing a mask? I feel safe staying close to home, but can’t do much to help other than donate to those who struggle for safety and food and write many postcards encouraging people to vote.

Still, I believe in the healing power of remembrance and witnessing, so I turn to the practice I used when my husband was dying and adapt tonglen as taught by Pema Chodron for these times.

Pema Chodron (Flickr)

Breathe in pain, my personal struggles with vertigo and hearing and the overwhelming pain of the world. Breathe out love and comfort to myself and others.

Breathe in my helplessness in the face of world crisis. Breathe out compassion for all who suffer.

As I walk, breathe in the sadness of the parched earth in a normally wet climate. Breathe out gratitude for my deep well for watering vegetables for me and flowers for Monarchs and Swallowtails.

Breathe in the anguish of the bluebird male as he searched for his mate for days after her disappearance and the longing for my own lost mate that never goes away. Breathe out comfort for the bluebird and comfort for my aching heart.

Breathe in the hurt of living. Breathe out compassion and a desire to soothe what hurts.

Does the practice help with the pain of the world? I don’t know. It helped when I accompanied my husband to the chemotherapy room. I breathed in fear and anguish and breathed out compassion for the patients receiving chemo and their companions. We all suffered. Together. Was I helping them? I don’t know, but it helped me remember life hurts for everyone—sometimes more and sometimes less, but always there or right around the corner.

This realization is a Teacher. It balances me. Life is not all roses and ice cream. It’s also thorns and suffocating heat with no rain in sight. Both sides are here, so why be surprised?

Golisano Children’s Hospital, Strong Memorial (arthouse)

In moments of overwhelming hurt, I look for a way to touch joy or beauty. While my husband had a stem cell transplant, I walked the hospital halls at night to visit the colorful murals in the children’s wing. I breathed in the suffering of these children and their families and breathed out hope for recovery.

Before entering my husband’s quarantined room, I stopped at the coffee shop in the hospital lobby and bought him a decaf latte with soy milk and a muffin for me. Since he couldn’t eat muffins, I nibbled mine in a comfortable chair in the lobby, grateful for muffin comfort.

I watched rushing people head for their destinations, those on crutches and in wheelchairs, those alone and obviously afraid, and sent a silent prayer for them and for me. I send out this same prayer to those who are ill now, those who risk their lives to care for them, and those who must die alone.

I remember you. You hurt and suffer, and it softens my heart to remember our connection. May we all find help and comfort.


How do you handle the suffering of the world? This tonglen practice allows me to take in the world’s suffering in digestible bites. Each inhalation is a recognition of our common experience of living and dying. Each exhalation is a prayer for compassion. For another post about Pema Chodron’s tonglen teachings, see The Wounds We Carry: Help from Pema Chodron’s Tonglen Practice.  For a post about surrender to a loss we can’t overcome, see The Peace of Surrender.

  1. Thank you Elaine for your deep feeling and your ability to universalize these poignant feelings for me and everyone… Your sharing is most appreciated, Sending love to you…

  2. So beautiful and necessary

  3. thank you Elaine so much for your reminder of tonglen … it’s a powerful practice. An invisible force … for the giver and receiver and of our connection, invisible that is also.

    Any feeling that comes from an inward heart and soul ripples out into the world. From the micro to the macro. And a rose would not be as beautiful without its thorns. Love, Susan

    • Blessings to you in South Africa, Susan. I know things are harder there and have been for a long time. This practice helps me turn my tendency toward exhausted depression into a more active and helpful spiritual perspective. I loved seeing a photo of you by the ocean.

  4. This is beautiful, Elaine. Those who are truly alive can breathe in and breathe out the respiration of prayer. In my practice, I rely on the Holy Spirit who interprets my prayer “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Romans 8:26

    It’s true, these days we don’t know exactly what to pray for or how, but having an attitude of prayer helps, as you illustrate going through your daily life now – and with Vic during his illness. When we focus on others, our own pain is diminished, or so I think. Pema Chodron, though she suffered at one time physically with chronic fatigue and emotionally through two divorces, knew the value of such a practice.

    I like your lines: “I remember you. You hurt and suffer, and it softens my heart to remember our connection. May we all find help and comfort.” Thank you for the challenge to begin the day with the breathings of prayer, my next move as I begin today. Here’s to the healing breath of prayer, petition for others, and compassion. 🙂

    • A perfect Biblical passage for these confusing times, Marian. It’s hard to know what to pray for other than the relief of suffering. I always feel that Pema Chodron teaches what she truly knows from experience and is not pretending to be more realized than she is. Your reflections on breathe remind me that singing is powerful as prayer (I loved being in choirs that sang sacred music until my hearing made it impossible. One of our most popular programs for grievers at Hospicare has been “Women Singin’.”) Now, opening the diaphragm and breath energizes the heart so my walking becomes something more than walking, but brings in the sacred dimension. I know you know this, too.

  5. Suffering is a gift – in it is hidden mercy; Rumi
    I recall this Rumi’s quote though, it is easier said than done! but I think it is a true word because we can surely learn to know ourselves better. as always thank you, dearest Elaine, for this wonderful teachable tell. Blessing

    • I agree, Aladin. (Don’t I always agree with Rumi?) Just like suffering ties to remembrance of what we love, but then I haven’t suffered the worst of being in war or being hungry or feeling threatened night and day. So far I’ve been spared and even when Vic was suffering, I could be grateful he had doctors trying to ease his situation and that he had clean water to drink and medicines he needed. Thank you, dear Aladin.

      • You might haven’t experienced these but you can feel them all and you recognise them, it’s much worth. I have experienced all variations in my life; I was once poor once rich! And have got all the fear which I had to fight them back but I regret nothing. Thank you ❤ for your wonderful friendship ❤

        • I don’t live with regret, Aladin. During the Vietnam War, we were ready to immigrate, but then Vic didn’t get drafted so we stayed in the US. It was another immoral war and we didn’t want to be part of it. I’ve never been rich, but didn’t long to be. I’m good at growing a garden and don’t have expensive tastes. May all be safe in your world.

          • You know that, because you are wise, your eyes of your mind and soul are open. I am very happy to have you as my friend ❤

  6. Lovely, Elaine. Everyone in the world suffers, sometimes more, sometimes less, but it is knowing this that helps me walk my way in this troubled walk on our beautiful planet.

    • It’s hard for me to accept, Joan, especially in the middle of the night. So much to be concerned about, including my dear friend surrounded by fire in CA. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is burning. I’m trying to practice what I preach. Breathe in fear and heat. Breathe out courage and cool rain.

  7. This is a beauty, Elaine. It sends out softness all around.

    • Thank you, Harriet. I’m concerned about Lauren because the Carmel Valley was 5 miles from her house and she had an evacuation warning. Breathe in fear. Breathe out cool rain. I can’t imagine facing a fire like that.

  8. Hello Elaine, As always your posts make me reflect different aspects of my response. I am so pleased that there are means of us finding comfort in our suffering, and that we can sometimes find a way of feeling that we can connect with and perhaps ease some of the suffering of others . I find myself listening to 2 different voices, the one which seeks harmony and reassurance and another which is raging and critical of my own passivity and need for comfort . Here is a poem from earlier this year when I wanted to find the voice of comfort but found another voice. It seems important that we listen to the different voices within us,and try to understand the contradictions.(Though this is not easy)

    Pandemic Easter reflection 2020

    Did you never notice
    the millions starving
    the blank encrusted eyes
    the swollen bellies
    of dying children ?

    Did you never notice
    the families from distant lands
    fleeing from homes
    flattened by bombs
    risking all on flimsy
    leaking boats

    Do you not remember
    the tiny hands and feet
    of the little boy
    washed up lifeless
    on a foreign beach

    Did you never notice,
    the belching chimneys
    the rainforests torn from their root
    the polluted seas
    poisoned by us
    the mass extinctions
    the precious creature
    lost for ever.

    Did you never stop to think of
    the destruction that follows
    our footsteps
    Did you never stop to look
    at all the heartless leaders
    preaching greed
    and endless vanities.

    Will you ever hear the cry
    of the Dying Earth

    • Thank you, Gary. Your poem is beautiful and true. These reflections make our small personal pains seem much less significant–and they usually are–, but I try not to rage at my own need for comfort. I’ve done plenty of that and it does no good. I’m better at supporting others and the Dying Earth if I also support myself and turn toward my own grief. It feels important to include ourselves since we’re part of the suffering whole, but it’s easy for the dark hole of personal grief to make us forget that pain and deprivation are the constants in life for so many. Be well and safe and keep sharing your powerful poems.

  9. Thank you, Elaine. I used to wonder what good Tonglen & such practices had. But then I tried it. It reverberated through my mind & heart. And by taking in pain instead of running away, I discovered I was beginning to do what Buddhist teachers thought would happen– disentangling automatic responses to fear and pain. Or, at least, a little bit. It worked well with my regular meditation.

    • Ira, I found tonglen essential when I was so mired in personal grief that I needed to remind myself that my suffering wasn’t unique. I first took the practice seriously in chemotherapy rooms and found it so helpful for letting in the suffering of others there along with my own suffering and Vic’s. It’s a practice I often find myself doing in the car or at the grocery store (until March when I stopped going to grocery stores) and when volunteering at Hospicare (also not happening now). I do lots of tonglen to acknowledge the suffering of the fires in CA when I find myself complaining that my area again missed yesterday’s rain. And then there is the vertigo and hearing loss–to remember I’m not alone and I’m a fortunate one with access to doctors. It makes me feel more connected to the world when I realize we’re all in this together. Sometimes I do tonglen at the beginning of meditation practice and then go to watching my breath.

  10. Moving, needed prayer of acknowledging the brokenness of the world, and responding with compassion. Of being present to this and to the suffering of those we love.

  11. I was soothed just from reading your post, Elaine. Thank you for sharing. My Word for 2020 is Metta and in light of what’s happening in our world, it seems like such a good choice. Let’s continue to offer light and love and pray for healing of our shared woundedness.

    • Thank you, Corinne. “Metta” is always a good choice and more needed now than ever. The world needs more people willing to extend kindness, forgiveness, and love outside their family and tribe to people who seem “other.” May healing happen.

  12. I don’t know if I ever mentioned it, but I work with a lot of unfortunate people who made bad choices or were dealt a bad hand by life or experienced more than their share of abuse. There’s always, in the back of my mind, a kind of discomfort at witnessing their stories and traumas and knowing that I am far more fortunate in life than they are or have been. It’s something I wrestle with, I guess, and it can be extended to people around the world experiencing far more upheaval and pain than I am. So this practice of tonglen is something new to reflect on. Thank you.

    • Joe, thank you. You hadn’t mentioned that. I suggest reading anything Pema Chodron wrote about tonglen because she’s so practical and never takes herself or her spiritual attainment too seriously. She knows how to laugh at herself and the ridiculousness of life as it is. Tonglen has been tremendously helpful for me and it still is. I include a link to another piece I wrote in 2013 about practicing tonglen soon after Vic died when I felt overwhelmed by grief and by caring for Vic’s angry mother–and the practice helped me know we all have to go through this. I hope it helps. https://elainemansfield.com/2013/the-wounds-we-carry-help-from-pema-chodrons-tonglen-practice/

      • It does help, so thank you. I’m currently struggling with whether to stay here or move somewhere else. Nothing out there really “grabs” me as yet, and there are practicalities like a job, and I kinda don’t want to do all this homeowning by myself but at the same time, liking my solitude. I want to stay yet I have times of wishing to be free of it all, aggravated by the awareness of having a ridiculous amount of space to myself while homeless people are camping in city parks not a mile away and I don’t want to deal with other people’s issues at home; that’s too much like my job. I just don’t know. This is such a confusing time. I keep getting The Moon and the 9 of Pentacles when I ask the cards what I should do, so I guess, perforce, I’m staying here for now.

        • Joe, I’ve struggled with that for a while, but during this pandemic, I’m glad to be here where I can take long walks and see no one other than my dogs. I understand the struggle of house-owning. My house is 200 years old and when one thing is messed up, lots of things are messed up. So far, I have dedicated and skilled local helpers and a few of them were here for weeks in August repairing and repainting the outside trim. I also have too much space in a house set up for family, but not for roommates which require more privacy and 2 full bathrooms. (I’m spoiled.) It is a confusing time. I know more about astrology than Tarot, but the message is similar. No big changes right now while the world is going through massive transformation. May we all hang on and survive this alarming ride.

  13. When providing home hospice care for my father, I too used the practice of tonglen, daily, while at his bedside. At times it felt like the only thing I could actively do for him…a way to put my deep compassion to work. For me it provided moments for quiet concentration; to help me gather my strength.

    • Thanks for commenting, Laura. I’m glad you had that practice to help you and your dad. I agree, it’s often the only thing we can do–a kind of compassionate witnessing (or mindfulness). I often felt overwhelmed when my husband was sick, but meditation calmed me and I found myself doing tonglen practice everywhere from riding in an ambulance, to going to the grocery store, or just sitting at my husband’s side reading poetry to him while he struggled to breathe. I relate to Pema Chodron calling this “tonglen on the spot.”

  14. I have not been handling the suffering of the world well. It’s been easier to not think of it, to keep myself busy and moving and engaged in my own survival. But now, six months into living in my private bubble, I’m getting tired of this. It’s worked for me to lose myself in the woods, hiking each morning while the weather was hot and dry. With fall and winter coming on I’m considering what this prolonged hiding from the world will be like. I’m wondering what can possibly help me get through the next months as COVID fears keep me self-isolating. Thank you for this simple breathing exercise that might help me feel connected to the rest of the world.

    • Robin, I hear you. I’ve depended on Nature’s beauty and my Monarch nursery chores to get me through the summer and today it’s September. The nights have been cool and it gets dark much earlier. I’ll continue with my weekly writing group and that keeps me creating and reflecting. I could easily spend the winter clearing out closets and creating order, especially now that the ReUseIt Center is open again and the Library booksale will accept books until Sept. 10. Disco will insist on 2 long walks each day no matter how I feel about it. Walking, conscious breathing, tonglen, and some good books will get us through. A political change would give me a huge boost.

  15. Thank you for this beautiful, meaningful, and perfectly timed piece, Elaine. The practice of tonglen does help me and, as you wrote, “makes me feel more connected to the world when I realize we’re all in this together.” It must be true that what makes us feel more connected is healing for all of us. And what you wrote to Mark, “The world feels so very broken right now and I feel my own brokenness, too,” also resonates for me. Touching my own brokenness is, I believe, what allows me to truly connect with others.

    I hope your friend Lauren is safe in her home as the wildfires subside. May we all find a place of safety in the midst of so much personal and global suffering.

    • Anne, thank you for thinking of Lauren. The fire evacuation line was 1 mile from their home for 2 days and it was hard to breathe. They were packed and ready to go because the weather forecast said there would be more lightning, but it stayed out to sea, the sky cleared and after days of smoke, evacuation orders were lifted. She and her husband are going to North Dakota to the Lakota reservation to help get out the vote (he makes documentary films) and then they’re moving to New Mexico, maybe permanently. CA and New York City have lost their luster.

      This stay at home time has meant not pushing so hard to overcome my Meniere’s symptoms, getting more rest, and expecting less of life and myself. In some ways it’s a relief. Zoom auditory is hard, but I can still join my much loved writing group and not have to drive home in the dark in snow this winter. I can give in more to my limitations and not live on will as I allow myself a slower more introverted pace. Yes, I get lonely and especially miss volunteering with hospice, but I’m OK and glad I have a few close friends in the neighborhood. The Monarchs will be gone by fall equinox and I’ll miss their spectacular transformations. Like you, like me, they’re fragile and tough.

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