i got calls from two of my dear friends today and both seemed to be swept up in a storm of harsh self-judgement. they did not sound at all happy and they seemed a bit untethered.
the first was describing his inability to get out of bed some days and has been feeling lost and disconnected for some time. i honestly think i could sense the hidden anger over the phone. i offered the idea of a medication and a provider which he had been considering. i also insisted he try to incorporate some loving-kindness into his day. the idea of loving-kindness can be the most challenging to give to ourselves. this is an awareness i have much personal experience. and it continues to baffle me some days.
so i asked him to breathe in loving-kindness for himself with each in breath. on the out breath he could offer loving kindness to the rest of the world who suffered as he did today. i don’t know if he engaged in it, but i felt sure it moved his understanding of his situation a little. or at least i hope so.
then another friend called and began to unravel some thoughts she was having about her life on this holiday. she had gone into the field to visit someone before court tomorrow and was about to write up a report. she was lamenting about her untidy home, her inability to keep track of everything, and her imperfections were laid out like hot coals she was forcing herself to walk across.
i reminded her that she is far from faulted. she is a single mother of 2 boys, works full time, has a house, was a caretaker for her ailing uncle, sponsors newbies, and still makes time to criticize herself. i offered her the idea of loving-kindness as well. it seemed so apropos. maybe she could take a walk and breathe in some loving kindness for herself, and then breathe out loving kindness for the rest of the world that was suffering as she was today.
tonglen- the practice of giving and receiving is a practice of balance that has found its way into my life’s toolbelt. somehow it always reminds me that i am not as alone as i think i am. giving is always a gift and receiving becomes more of one each time. today was a shining example of this. it was a good day.
reprinted from naljorprisondharmaservice
personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.
In Tonglen practice, through our compassion, we take on (embrace without resistance) the various sufferings of all beings: their fear, hurt, frustration, pain, anger, guilt, bitterness, loneliness, doubt, rage, and so forth. In return, we give them our loving-kindness, happiness, peace of mind, well-being, healing, and fulfillment.
1) Sit quietly, calm the mind, and center yourself. Reflect on the immense suffering that all beings everywhere experience. Allow their suffering to open your heart and awaken your compassion. You may also choose to invoke the presence of all the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and enlightened beings, so that through their inspiration and blessing, compassion may be born in your heart. In this way, you are resting in bodhicitta—the enlightened nature of the mind. Bodhicitta, is an inexhaustible source of purity, generosity, and compassion.
2) Imagine in front of you, as clearly as possible, someone you care for who is suffering. Although this may be more challenging, you may also imagine someone you feel indifferent toward, someone you consider to be an enemy, or those who have hurt you or others. Open yourself to this person’s suffering. Allow yourself to feel connected with him or her, aware of their difficulties, pain, and distress. Then, as you feel your heart opening in compassion toward the person, imagine that all of his or her suffering comes out and gathers itself into a mass of hot, black, grimy smoke.
3) Now, visualize breathing in this mass of black smoke, seeing it dissolve into the very core of your self-grasping (ego) at your heart center. There in your heart, it completely destroys all traces of fear and selfishness (self-cherishing) and purifies all of your negative karma.
4) Imagine, now that your fear, self-centeredness and negative karma has been completely destroyed, your enlightened heart (bodhicitta) is fully revealed. As you breathe out, imagine you are sending out the radiance of loving-kindness, compassion, peace, happiness, and well-being to this person. See this brilliant radiance purifying all of their negative karma. Send out any feelings that encourage healing, relaxation, and openness.
5) Continue this “giving and receiving” with each breath for as long as you wish. At the end of your practice, generate a firm inner conviction that this person has been freed of suffering and negative karma and is filled with peace, happiness and well-being. You may also wish to dedicate the merit and virtue of your practice to the benefit of all sentient beings.
i haven’t had much experience in identifying real courage. i certainly don’t think i have had the opportunity to display any (at least on purpose). it started out cattywampus and spiraled from there for me. i have always considered myself a misfit and assumed that i would never be the right fit for much of anything.
i have forgotten the zest with which i left home in my teens to live life on purpose and say “yes” to pleasure. to be so sure that anything or any unknown had to be better than the agony and frustration i was feeling then. i was convinced that i was being courageous by stepping outside the box. the truth though, in hindsight, was that i was running from myself. i didn’t have the courage to stay and work things through right where i was at.
this particular drama has played itself out repeatedly these last few years. i slip into a situation(either literally or in my own mind) where i feel that i can’t tolerate the bullshit any longer and i do what i always do. i run. i calculate a new move, sometimes forward, sometimes not, and bolt. like a cat with all those lives, i have managed to land with some balance. and all this time, i have done this ritualistic, history repeating itself, ceremonial dance, without even realizing that i had been like a tiny character in a music box, just replicating the same movements to the same tune by rote.
as this new layer of truth has revealed itself, i become disenchanted about my ability to determine my own motivation. am i in the throes of some old trauma? am i afraid of conflict? do i fear rejection enough to reject myself first? do i feel more comfortable running than i do settled? these are the questions and judgements that run through my mind like a cat in a cage. why am i always sure that i am in the wrong when i first consider an encounter?
i don’t have the answers to these persistent queries today. i don’t think i am close to knowing all the way around the truth. and i don’t think i have to know. what does come increasingly clearer to me is the painstaking forgiveness i need to breathe. breathe in and breathe out. tonglen as the buddhists named it. inhaling in the essence of letting go of judgement of myself and conversely exhaling the wonder and simplicity of acceptance of the world i live in.
this breathing exercise i have adopted is not automatic or second nature at all. it is almost against my nature actually. it requires work. it takes effort. it calls for being awake.
One very powerful and effective way to work with tendency to push away pain and hold onto pleasure is the practice of tonglen. Tonglen is a Tibetan word that literally means “sending and taking.” The practice originated in India and came to Tibet in the eleventh century. In tonglen practice, when we see or feel suffering, we breathe in with the notion of completely feeling it, accepting it, and owning it. Then we breathe out, radiating compassion, lovingkindness, freshness; anything that encourages relaxation and openness.
In this practice, it’s not uncommon to find yourself blocked, because you come face to face with your own fear, resistance, or whatever your personal stuckness happens to be at that moment. At that point, you can change the focus and do tonglen for yourself , and for millions of others just like you, at that very moment, who are feeling exactly the same misery.
I particularly like to encourage tonglen, on the spot. For example, you’re walking down the street and you see the pain of another human being. On-the-spot tonglen means that you just don’t rush by; you actually breathe in with the wish that this person can be free of suffering, and send them out some kind of good heart or well-being. If seeing that other person’s pain brings up fear or anger or confusion, which often happens, just start doing tonglen for yourself and all the other people who are stuck in the very same way…. Pema Chodron
the practice of tonglen is one that i am only beginning in my journey. i am certain that i have begun as i am much more aware of my habits of pushing away pain and trying to hold pleasure. the latter seems natural, truthfully, because we are socialized to do so. in 21st century america, the culture of sales pitch is geared around obtaining pleasure and ridding ourselves of pain. and the baggage of ptsd that i carry with me in life also i centered in pain and pleasure.
i am not sure i even understand the intricacies of tonglen yet, but i am aware that i have seemed a coward in my life. i run from my own emotional pain, because i have been damaged by it on more than one occasion. and in my efforts to sustain pleasure, i have thrown my life and my psyche out of balance on more than a thousand occasions. a practice of doing things differently seems almost what the scribes have concocted for me.
and play my part i shall try..