Joan Jiko Halifax — a Zen roshi, anthropologist, author, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care who's featured in our Living Spiritual Teachers Project — often speaks of the importance of cultivating "strong back, soft front." In addition to being a meditation posture, this practice entails being brave and holding ourselves upright even amid troubles, while at the same time harboring empathy and sensitivity.
It's exactly what Sophie, the main character in this book, learns. She seems to come naturally by the "soft front" part of the equation, walking gently in nature and savoring its beauty. But when she's caught in a thunder-and-lightning storm and then sees something strange move behind an ancient sycamore tree, she's scared and runs to her Grandma for support. Her Grandma, who understands about "strong back," tells her:
"Dear one, when I am afraid, I take a deep breath and say to myself: 'Breathing in, I am safe.' And then, I say: 'Breathing out, I am free.' "
These phrases become a litany that Sophie carries with her as she literally confronts her fear by returning to the tree, from behind which emerges a soaked and shivering old dog. Their blossoming friendship and the discovery that the dog actually belongs to someone else eventually leads to Sophie exhibiting yet another kind of courage, that of loving and letting go.
Illustrator Kiersten Eagan has a strong interest in visual storytelling and provides pictures that make this book easy to share with children even younger than the four to eight year olds for whom it's written. The breathing practice for knowing we're safe and free can be used by anyone old enough to understand it.
Roshi Joan's Author's Note gives additional context for how to use this practice for others as well as ourselves. She observes, "Wishing for the well-being of others is very powerful, very kind, and very brave."
For an extra treat, you can listen to Roshi Joan read the book to her dog Jaya while sharing some of the wonderful pictures with viewers. She's spent a lifetime embodying courage, so this reading — and her book — have the quality of a direct transmission. In these times we could not ask for a greater gift for ourselves and our children than encouragement.