THE PRACTICE OF TONGLEN
For compassion to exist in our hearts for others, we have to embrace it first in ourselves.
Compassion is about caring for those who are fearful, bitter, enveous or overwhelmed by the daily contradictions of the heart, mind & soul. At it’s core are arrogance, pride, and all those traits that seperate us from one another. To understand their pain takes a willingness to find these things in ourselves. Our attitude toward inner reflection must originate from a core that is willing to see in the mirror a reflection of those things we do not like about ourselves. Instead of running or hiding from them, we must instead open our hearts and allow ourselves to feel the pain, feel it in a way that creates a transition from seeing to feeling to embracing all that makes us truly human. It is in our frailties that we truly see ourselves for who we are.
The practice of Tonglen is a means of connecting with a suffering heart—ours and that which is part of the global landscape. It is a process that helps us overcome our fear of all things painful by offering it’s polar opposite energetically into the world as a counter-weight. It is in essence a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us no matter how cruel or cold we as a creation might become.
To begin, imagine taking on the sorrow/pain of someone we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. As an example, if you have a friend or co-worker who seems down or in a state of flux, breathe in the wish to take away their pain and fear. As you exhale, send that individual happiness, joy or whatever you feel would relieve their pain. This is the core of Tonglen practice: breathing in the bitter taste of human suffering while exhaling the sweetness of love, compassion & hope. Do not be suprised as you first begin this practice that you have difficulty, because Tonglen forces you to come face to face with your own fears, frustrations, anger, or any other issues which might arise at that moment.
If you indeed find yourself at an empasse attempting this exercise, change your focus and begin to do Tonglen for what you are feeling and for the millions of others just like you who at that very moment in time are feeling exactly as you are. If you are able to pinpoint that which is overwhelming you, name it. Clearly embrace it for what it is; whether it be lonliness, revulsion, bitterness or even a sense of depression. Breathe in for all those caught in the same cycle of suffering you find yourself in, while sending out relief or whatever opens up the space for yourself and all those you offer peace. If you can’t name what you’re feeling, allow what you feel to speak to you. If you feel a tightness in your stomach, a sense of pervading darkness or whatever else your body speaks to you. Embrace what you’re feeling and breathe it in, taking it in for all, while sending out relief to all at the same time.
It is often said that this practice goes against the very grain of how we usually live day-today. In all honesty it does just that as it attempts to seperate us from wanting things on our own terms, of wanting it to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to the others. Tonglen dissolves the armor of self-protection we’ve tried so hard to create around ourselves. In Buddhism one would say that it dissolves the fixation of our clinging Ego.
The practice of Tonglen challenges our natural instinct for avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure while at the same time liberating us from the prison of selfishness. We begin to feel a deep sense of love both for ourselves and others the more selfless our imaginings become. Our sense of compassion is awakened as we realize that we are but a small footprint on the human landscape. It galvanizes for us in a very real way the unlimited power of the mind, while opening a sense of freedom to both the heart and body. The more we embrace the practice, the more we begin to connect with the openness of the universe which in her own way removes the obstacles that had been blocking us.
Tonglen can be offered for those who are ill, who are dying or have just died, or for those experiencing pain of any kind. It can be done either as a formal meditation practice or something practiced in the moment. For example, if you’re out walking and you see someone in pain —right on the spot you can begin to breathe in their pain and send some out relief. You can do Tonglen for all the people who are just like you, for everyone who desires compassion but instead embraces fear, for everyone who wishes to be brave but instead is a coward.
Rather than beating yourself up, use your own frailties as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against and breathe in all their fears while breathing out a sense of hope for all. Allow your prayer to be the antidote for all the poison the world throws at you. Use your personal suffering as a path to compassion for all beings.
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