"That's backwards isn't it? You meant breathe in the good and send out the bad, right?" she said, not unkindly. Being gracious, she was making a space for me to realize that my aging brain cells had gone dyslexic.
I had been chatting 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, to relax and reconnect with an Open Mind -- and to make sure that I really 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 with the aspiration that myself and others be free from such suffering and the roots of such suffering. Then I breathe out a sense of relief and healing energy. "
She paused for awhile (perhaps to relax and reconnect with a basic openness of mind herself ), and simply replied, "Oh?" She didn't sound convinced.
Hers was not an uncommon response. Raised in a highly individualistic and materialistic society, the basic premise of this ancient Tibetan Buddhist system of mind training, that opening our hearts to the entire gamut of human emotions, rather than grasping at the "good" and pushing away the "bad,"is actually the path of Awakening to our True Nature, seems a bit 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 Practice (Shamatha-Vippasyana) and Tonglen. Each has a role in cultivating our Connection to the essentially miraculous nature of life. Each contributes to our deepening ability to be Present -- moment to moment -- to the Sacred Perfection in which we are immersed .
As I sit here and pay attention, I become aware of a clear, bright, vast, and open sense of spaciousness. Pausing, aware of my body and breath, eyes and ears wide open, lowering my center of attention into my heart, 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 is flinging words across the screen of an old Mac laptop. 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, they appear to be emerging by themselves, quite mysteriously.
Although Western science doesn't really know what to make of these "brain secretions," labeling them some sort of "epiphenoma," this moment feels much grander than that. I have come to trust that feeling. There is a Presence, a boundless sense of wonder and joy that emerges from the luminous silence that embraces me, the letters emerging on the screen, the clicking contact of my fingers on the keyboard, the wind outside the window, the soft humming of the computer.
But, I digress -- sort of.
In a Flash
In a Flash
Although the ease with which I can usually get in touch with this quality of consciousness has been cultivated by hours and years of Basic Sitting Practice, this experience isn't all that uncommon.
We all have such moments. It can be as simple as noticing what happens when the refrigerator compressor motor stops whining in the background, or we turn off the radio and, at that instant, there is a shift. A perceptible sense of spaciousness emerges. Sometimes it emerges as the claustrophic dominance of our thoughts melt into the vastness of a sunset. (Or the tunnel vision of self-absorption dissolves into the grandeur of a late autumn hillside adorned in bronze as it did as I walked to store this morning.)
It is this sense of spaciousness that allows us to embrace and work with the energies of the more "challenging" emotions that characterizes Tonglen. Although Chodron speaks of "flashing" this open awareness briefly to initiate tonglen practice, she recommends actually beginning and ending a 15 minute period of Tonglen with a period of Basic Sitting Practice. (She is much more gentler in her expectations than her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, who expected his students to do 30 minutes of straight tonglen at a time.)
The second stage of formal practice, involves visualizing the textures of "openness of mind" as white, light, fresh, clear and cool, and radiating them into space in all directions from your heart during the out-breath. Then on the in-breath, the energies of suffering and it's causes, the fear, pain, anger, jealousy, sense of lack, etc. that emerge from ego-clinging and its fixations, is visualized as black, hot, solid, heavy, and claustrophic -- and drawn through all the pores of your body into your heart.
The third stage is to bring to mind someone specific who may be suffering and draw their pain into your heart on the in-breath, sending them relief, healing, kindness, or even imagining sending them something tangible ( a warm piece of pie, etc.) on the out-breath. This could be someone you know, or don't know -- or perhaps yourself. In fact, one of the Lojong slogans suggests beginning the process with your own difficult emotions.
In some of the traditional teachings the instruction is to bring to mind a person who is in an extremely dire situation. A modern, and, perhaps more useful parallel is to bring to mind a person or a real-life situation that evokes sadness, fear, anger, etc., and to use those emotions as the substance of practice, drawing them in, and sending out the energy of caring, relief, and healing. Some teachers advise visualizing those persons as being whole, perfect and healed in the light of the energy you are sending them.
In the fourth stage of tonglen you then widen the focus. After bringing to mind a specific person's plight (including your own), you generalize to all persons experiencing a similar situation or set of emotions, then expand your focus further to all beings everywhere. In actuality, it is sometimes quite helpful to move back and forth between the third and fourth stages to keep the emotional reality of the practice vibrant during a period of tonglen meditation. Otherwise, the attempt to include "all sentient beings" can become a bit too conceptual and theoretical.
On the other hand, at times, the force of the emotional energies encountered may seem too overwhelming. If this happens, and you are unable to find the expansiveness of an open mind and an open heart, you may choose to let go of tonglen and return to Basic Sitting Practice for awhile. Although challenging, this work is not a contest. It is important to be patient, to keep a sense of friendliness and balance engaged.
Then, when your ready, you can chose to feel a particular emotional energy in it's full intensity with the intention of releasing 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, in actuality its greatest practical value emerges in the reality of day to day life, where actual situations and real people evoke the entire gamut of thoughts and emotions. I was actually exposed to Tonglen "on the spot" at a retreat led by the venerable environmental activist and Buddhist Joanna Macy a few months before I came across the teachings of Pema Chodron in 2005.
Although I was amazed by Macy's teachings, and the guided meditations and exercises I experienced that week, "tonglen on the spot " was the main take away for me. She advised us to breathe in any "disturbing" emotions as they emerged and breathe out relief and healing. It was something I could readily use in the day to day reality of my life. This was reinforced when I read Start Where You Are and began my love affair with the teachings of Pema Chodron.
Through Practice, I've learned to trust my body and it's process. There, in the Heart of Hearts that we all share, these energies will be transmuted into compassion and released on the out-breath as out as relief and healing.
It certainly seems to make my life -- and the lives of those I encounter -- a lot easier these days.
It just takes Practice.
(This is just a brief treatment of a very deep and sophisticated technique. If you're drawn to it, please research it further. As well as a number of other works, videos, etc. on Tonglen that can be found through a web search, Pema Chodron's Tonglen: The Path of Transformation, is an excellent text, full of practical tips about the practice. Quite comprehensive for a brief, small format paperback, I found it to be extremely helpful.
The Lojong Teachings, the system of mind training that includes Tonglen, is also worth taking some time to investigate. You can find more information on this Tibetan Buddhist tradition of mind training at http://alaymanlooksatlojong.blogspot.com/p/another-disclaimer-although-decidedly.html )