imagesAs 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, , and follow the links at the bottom of the page to register.


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  1. Jennifer Hawkins on December 12, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    I have to admit, I wonder if I will really find “Sense as you practice how your own heart has the amazing capacity to transform suffering and hurt into relief and compassion.”

    I understand the “danger” in being averse to suffering. It’s something to look at non-judgmentally to bring down your reactivity. But I don’t think I have a big capacity for suffering (of self or others). I wonder if there are some sufferings that will override my ability to consciously sense my compassion.

    Guess I’ll find out on Sunday

    • Ted Meissner on December 13, 2014 at 9:26 am

      The capacity is there, we sometimes miss it because our ideas about how compassionate we aren’t being get in the way of us seeing it. Patience with ourselves, and setting aside judgment about how we should be, open up the great potential that is there.

    • Mark Knickelbine on December 15, 2014 at 9:45 am

      Jenn, I’d be interested to hear how it went for you on Sunday.

      With tonglen practice, as with any other contemplative practice, our first compassion needs to be toward ourselves. One may not be ready to dive head first into their deepest suffering, and that’s not needed. We start by forming the intention to open our hearts, even if we may not feel very open at the time. Just forming the intention will begin to point our thoughts and perceptions in that direction. I know in my own case I felt like heart practices were silly and that they weren’t working for me, until one day that changed, suddenly and unpredictably. Patience, kindness, and as much non-judging as we can muster!

  2. Jennifer Hawkins on December 19, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    Hi Mark, Ted (et. al.?):

    Sorry for my long silence. I had been fairly ill the day before Practice Circle and it has lingered on in me and the hubby for a few days after too.

    Anyways, I was silent that day because Tonglen had exhausted me.

    I didn’t have any immediate suffering in my personal life that called to me, so I thought about Ferguson and some related things. I did feel compassion as I thought of a weeping mother out there somewhere.

    As practice continued, I found that this was the “most mindful” that I had ever been. I was really able to follow my breaths and shift my concentration to whatever most called to me without getting caught up in it so that I could come back to the breath. Believe it or not, I actually went into practice with a pretty open mind about Tonglen since my past experiences were modified by the new group I was practicing with and I was looking forward to seeing how I would view the practice as led by you, Mark. It was, overall, “better” with you than with that other group. However, I still think the idea of “breathing in the depression” (as I kind of conceptualize Tonglen – justly or not), makes the practice unusual to me, a bit of a reversal, something that I feel it best to be cautious around. I think this slight “aversion” made focusing on breathing or anything else more desirable, so it was easier for me to be “more mindful” – or at least that’s my theory.

    Anyways, between the strain of thinking of suffering and the usual amount of focus I found and maintained on breathing (etc), I got tired before the end of it. I almost stopped I was so exhausted. I just rested into mindful awareness and stayed there through our talk.

    As I thought and continue to think about Tonglen, I think it’s good to re-think the practice as “practice for when I need to meditate through a hardship” instead of “for the greater good, I breath in the suffering around me and release my good vibes” (as it was originally presented to me). I get both conceptualizations, but the former speaks more strongly to me. It’s good training for finding and better coping with our aversions – even our aversions to aversion (Tonglen) itself, lol. It’s not a practice that I want to stay “averse” to, but I do think it’s more advanced than I, personally, am ready for. When we do it again next winter, I may be more ready then (hopefully?). In the meantime, I’ve got to work on my “aversion to aversions” if that makes any sense.

    Oh and my improved ability to maintain mindfulness lasted a couple of days after Practice Circle even, so there’s that too. I don’t know exactly why, but it’s a concentration builder, I guess.

    I think that was the gist of what I got last session. I’ve had some important breakthroughs in the days since though, but that’s another topic, lol.

    • Mark Knickelbine on December 22, 2014 at 8:22 am

      Jenn, thanks for sharing your experience! You make a great point about any metta or compassion meditation. These practices typically involve projecting good intentions to others or receiving their suffering, but they are ultimately about cultivating our own open heartedness. I find having an open heart is a great way to see past the frustrations and annoyances of life, so I often turn to these practices when I’m having a rough spot. I also endorse your response when this or any practice becomes a struggle and we find that we’re straining with it — to rest, and just observe the thoughts and sensations of that struggle in open awareness.

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