it is only bodhichitta that heals.”
I had been chatting on the phone with an old friend for first time in quite awhile, talking about my continued wonder at the Lojong Teachings in general, and Tonglen Practice in particular. After a moment's pause, taking a breath to relax -- and to make sure that I hadn't verbally zigged when I had intended to zag -- I continued.
"No. I actually did mean that I breathe into my heart the difficult and challenging darker emotions that have emerged. This could be my own sadness, fear, frustration, or the perceived suffering of others. In fact, when I consider that there are countless others who have felt or are feeling what I'm feeling, my heart naturally expands with that in-breath and the energy is transformed in the boundless space of the One Love. Then I breathe out a sense of relief, a healing energy of light and love with the aspiration that myself and others be healed, at peace, resting in their True Nature. I imagine that that as radiating from my heart.
She paused for awhile (perhaps also to relax and reconnect with a basic openness of mind herself in light of my rant), and simply replied, "Oh?" She didn't sound convinced.
Hers was not an uncommon response. Raised in a highly materialistic capitalist society, the basic premise of this ancient Tibetan Buddhist system of mind training seems "counter-intuitive."Rather than grasping at the "good" and pushing away the "bad,"we do the exact opposite. Opening our hearts to the entire gamut of human emotions is seen as a path of Awakening. Crazy? It most certainly is.
Crazy like a fox.
The Lojong Teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, which consist of 59 training aphorisms are supported by two meditation practices: Basic Sitting Meditation (Shamatha-Vippasyana) and Tonglen. Although I had practice Basic Sitting Meditaton in several traditions over the course of thirty six years, I had never been exposed to Tonglen. It has changed my life. For the past 15 years, Tonglen has continued to expand my ability to better engage the world with an open heart and an open mind.
Although I still struggle at times with the various wounds of my conditioned personality, and am sometimes deeply saddened and confounded by the energies of greed, hatred, and ignorance that are all too prevalent in the world today, my life has changed for the better. I now experience many moments of deep wonder, appreciation, and gratitude for the sacred miracle that sings silently within and beyond us. I'm convinced that the One Love is always present.
As I sit here and pay attention, I become aware of a clear, bright, vast, and open sense of spaciousness. Pausing to breath and feel my body, I can rest in its embrace. Proceeding, still connected to this invisible, formless, seemingly limitless expanse of awareness, the dance of my fingers along the surface of this keyboard continues to fling words across the screen of this old Mac laptop.
Becoming aware of my body and my breath, I see that milliseconds before the fingers move, thoughts emerge instantaneously, seemingly from nowhere in particular. Although, these thoughts are most certainly prompted by my intention to write this blog post, and connected to the long lineage that crafted the English language -- an everything else -- they appear to be emerging by themselves, quite mysteriously.
Although Western science claims that they are merely "epiphenomena," brain secretions of some sort, at this moment this process feels much grander than that. There is a Presence, a boundless sense of wonder and joy that emerges from the luminous silence that embraces me as the letters emerge on the screen. The sensations of my body, my breath, the clicking contact of my fingers on the keyboard, the soft humming of the computer, the traffic outside the window are reminiscent of a being engaged with various psychedelics back in the day. (Oops. TMI? LOL)
But, I digress -- sort of.
Tonglen Practice: In a Flash
Although the ease with which I can often get in touch with this quality of consciousness has been cultivated by years of Basic Sitting Practice and dumb luck (known in some circles grace,) I have found that this experience is not that uncommon.
We've all had those moments. If we are paying attention, we have those moments of Presence each day. As children, before we were conditioned otherwise, they weren't uncommon.
It can be as simple as noticing what happens when the refrigerator compressor motor stops whining in the background, or we turn off the TV. At that instant, something eases, something opens up. A perceptible sense of spaciousness emerges. It may have emerged as the claustrophic dominance of our self-referenced thoughts melted into the vastness of a sunset, or into the sound of the wind in the trees, or into the open eyes of an infant. Present in the here and now, engaged fully with our senses and our extrasensory perceptions, our mind and heart open, we notice it's different. We are Present.
It is this sense of spacious awareness that allows us to embrace and work with the energies of the more "challenging" emotions that characterizes Tonglen Practice. Although Chodron speaks of "flashing" this open awareness briefly to initiate tonglen practice as the first stage as she was taught, she now recommends beginning and ending a 15 minute period of Tonglen with a period of Basic Sitting Meditation.
The second stage of the formal practice, as taught in her lineage, involves synchronizing two visualizations with our in and out breaths. In "sending and taking," we work with the basic qualities of emotions and energy involved in our suffering. On the in-breath, these energies are visualized as black, hot, solid, heavy, a claustrophic smokey goo -- and drawn through all the pores of your body into your heart. Breathing in, feeling our belly and chest expand, our heart opens and expands to embrace and heal that suffering. Rest assured, the goo doesn't stick to us. If we open to it, it dissolves and is transformed.
On the out breath, we visualize the textures of light, fresh, clear, cool, refreshing energy and radiate them into space in all directions from your heart. (Some of you may have already experienced a variation of this in Metta Practice.)
The third stage is to bring to mind someone specific who you know who may be suffering. It is often helpful to begin with your own challenges, pain, fear, confusion, resentment, etc. If you are still avoiding these experiences, it becomes more difficult to open to the suffering of others. Once again, on the in-breath you visualize and feel drawing the energy of this specific suffering into the boundless space of your open heart.
For some of us, it is helpful to employ a mental recitation. Traditionally, "may you be free of suffering and the root of suffering," is used. Although my major focus is on feeling the emotions and energies of that suffering, I sometimes find the recitation helpful. Often new phrases arise spontaneously. You may find it helpful to find specific phrases that seem to get to the heart of the matter. (ex. May I be free of this frustration and fear. May Joe be free of the arrogance that shields his fear of failure. May Sally be free of her chronic physical pain. )
Then, on the out-breath, you visualize sending out relief, healing, kindness, light, love, your best wishes for their happiness. Pema teaches that you can even imagine sending them (or yourself) something tangible that you believe they will enjoy, a good cup of coffee, a warm slice of apple pie. Some teachers also advise visualizing those persons as being happy, whole, healed in the light of the energy you are sending them. I've found that helpful at times, for myself and others.
In the fourth stage of tonglen you then widen the focus. After bringing to mind a specific person's plight (this can be your own), you generalize to all persons experiencing a similar situation or set of emotions. Than, when you are drawn to it, you expand your focus further to all beings everywhere. Breathing into the boundless love of your heart, breathing out the boundless love of the universe, (these are not two) you practice for all beings.
In Practice, I've found that opening my heart to the suffering of others has been healing in and of itself. In moving beyond the self-absorption of my conditioned ego to realize that what I am feeling is not exclusively mine, I feel connected to others. Although my specific conditions may be unique, the actual feelings and energies I'm experiencing are universal. It's the pain, the fear, the confusion. It's part of our shared humanity. At that point, the intention to breath it in and feel it fully for others, inspires me. The aspiration that we all be at peace emerges naturally with the outbreath.
Although formal Tonglen is divided into these four stages, I've found that it is often helpful to move back and forth among the stages during a session. Moving from "may all sentient beings" back to a specific person or group may he helpful if all sentient beings becomes too conceptual. There are times, when the initial first stage visualizations return for awhile before someone else specific comes to mind.
At times, the force of the emotional energies encountered may seem too overwhelming. If this happens, and its hard to find the expansiveness of an open mind and an open heart for a period of time, it is a good idea to let go of tonglen and return to Basic Sitting Practice for awhile. Or give it up entirely at that moment. Have a cup of tea or take a walk. Practice is not a contest. There are no winners and losers in this dimension. There's no deadline -- until your dead. Just be patient with yourself. Be gentle. Trust yourself to know what you need.
Then, when you're ready, you can again choose to feel that particular emotional energy in it's full intensity with the intention of releasing yourself and others from its grasp. Whether this is simply imagining or real (as if there is actually a absolute difference between those two), it has value. I've found that over the years, more and more, I am able to access a clear and warm Openness of Heart, to maintain that Connection as I embrace and transmute the energies of the darker emotions.
Tonglen on the Spot
Although formal Tonglen Practice on the zafu has been extremely worthwhile, its greatest practical value emerges in the reality of day to day life. There, where actual situations and real people evoke the entire gamut of thoughts and emotions, we have a perfect opportunity to practice. I was exposed to On the Spot Tonglen at a retreat led by the venerable environmental activist and Buddhist Teacher Joanna Macy a few months before I came across the teachings of Pema Chodron , back in 2005. On the Spot Tonglen was the main take away for me. Joanna advised us to simply breathe in any "disturbing" emotions as they emerged during the day and breathe out relief and healing.
OMG! Talk about opportunities to practice! The day after the retreat, I was standing in a long line, feeling uptight, impatient energy. Mine? Theirs? Doesn't matter, the Practice was clear -- just breath it in. It's ours. Here's a chance to breath deeply, relax my shoulders, open my heart -- and breath out a sense of relief, ease, patience. This, and a gazillion other opportunities arise to Practice in the course of each and every day.
How cool is that?
Through Practice, I've learned to trust that these energies will be embraced in the spaciousness of our shared Heart of Hearts. There they are transmuted, healed.
It certainly seems to make my life -- and the lives of those I encounter -- a lot easier these days.
It just takes Practice.