As I sit down to write this, the late afternoon shadows have deepened nearly to evening, reminding me that the longest nights of the year will soon be upon us. The news is full of the angry protests over police violence and the systematic atrocities committed by the United States government in its program of “enhanced interrogation.” We’re bombarded with encouragements to engage in our annual orgy of consumer spending as too many struggle to stay warm and fed. If we needed any convincing that Gotama was right about the ubiquity of dukkha, we have only to look around us.
In the face of so much suffering, of problems that seem impossible to solve, it is easy to despair. To consume ourselves with rage and frustration, or to escape into all the distractions and false comforts on offer. All of these reactions serve only to reinforce our anger, frustration and fear, which in turn creates more reactivity, in ourselves and in the people we interact with.
Gotama taught that the way past grasping and aversion is to train the mind to see deeply into our suffering and the suffering of those around us. When we do, we notice something miraculous: the natural reaction of the heart to suffering is compassion. The root of that compassion is the recognition that we are not the isolated, alienated beings we imagine ourselves to be, but that we are joined at the heart with everyone, regardless of how difficult and unforgivable we may seem.
Tonglen is a practice that helps us apply mindfulness and imagination to recognizing and reinforcing this heart connection.
Tonglen is a practice that comes from Tibetan Buddhism; the word means “giving and taking”. There are many different styles of tonglen practice, but they all involve a sense of receiving and giving, imagining one can take suffering into one’s self and then release it, transforming it in the process to compassion and relief. Here is a style adapted from the work of Tara Brach:
Begin in a comfortable, alert posture, and settle your awareness into the body in the present moment. When your mind has settled a little, sense into the space around you. Become aware of a sense of the limitlessness of space, and how your awareness is open and limitless enough to hold it all. If it helps, you might imagine yourself as a mountain sitting upright in the vast, open sky of awareness. If you can, you might contemplate the openess of the sky where you’re sitting.
With your breathing, then, sense how your body receives the breath, and be aware of taking the breath into you; with the outbreath, fully sense into the feeling of release, of letting go. Practice this until you feel the rhythm of taking in and letting go with each breath.
Now, bring suffering to mind. You might not want to choose something overwhelming, but some hurt you suffer that you can be fully present with for a while. If you can’t think of suffering of your own, imagine the suffering of someone you know and care about. Bring the circumstances fully into your imagination, and see if it’s possible to allow your awareness to connect deeply with the pain.
Next, feel your breath come fully into the feeling of suffering, bringing your awareness deeply into it. If you are working with the pain of another, imagine you can bring that pain in to your heart with each inbreath. With the outbreath, sense yourself releasing that pain into the great, open sea of awareness. If it helps, you might offer a metta phrase, such as “May I be free of this suffering” or “May you know relief from suffering”, with the release on the outbreath.
Traditionally, a tonglen practitioner visualizes breathing in suffering as a dark, almost tarlike smoke, and breathing out compassion as a cool, white light.
You can change the balance of the practice as you need to. If you feel you are losing connection to the suffering, concentrate on the inbreath, and freshen the details of the suffering in your imagination. If the suffering becomes overwhelming, concentrate on the outbreath, on offering that pain into the open awareness that’s great enough to hold it all. When you come to balance, return to breathing in suffering, breathing out release.
After practicing this way for a while, broaden your tonglen to include all people who are suffering in the same way. Reflect on the millions of humans who also feel the emotional or physical pain you are feeling, and imagine you can bring their suffering into you with the inbreath, connecting with it as fully as you wish to and feel able to (remembering to be compassionate to yourself). On the outbreath, release that suffering into the ocean of awareness, perhaps also sending a wish that all people could be free of this suffering as you offer up that pain. Sense as you practice how your own heart has the amazing capacity to transform suffering and hurt into relief and compassion. Finally, see if it is possible to expand your practice to accept the suffering of all beings, and to release it all with a wish that they be free of suffering.
To close, sit quietly for a few minutes, allowing the images to dissolve from your imagination and your mind to deeply rest.
Tonglen is yet another practice that enables us to use our imagination to access what Dan Seigel calls “the resonance circuit,” the ability of our body and mind to recognize and atune to the emotions and intentions of others. There’s nothing magic about it – other than the magic of recognizing that, when we really allow ourselves to investigate suffering intimately, compassion is the natural response. Practicing in this way helps the neural circuitry of our compassion to strengthen and become more spontaneously available to us in our daily interactions with the world.
We invite you to join us for Practice Circle this Sunday evening, 12/14, at 8 pm CST. Check out our main Practice Circle page, https://secularbuddhism.org/2012/09/11/introducing-the-practice-circle/ , and follow the links at the bottom of the page to register.