"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Tonglen Practice: Taking It to Heart

 “You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion.  It is said that in difficult times, 
it is only bodhichitta that heals.”
 -- The Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa
quoted by Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: 
Heart Advice for Difficult Times

"So, when we are willing, intentionally, with this kind of attitude, this vision, to breathe in the suffering, we are able to transform it easily and naturally; it doesn't take a major effort on our part, other than allow it."
-- Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: 
Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong

"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 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

What I just experienced was akin to the first stage of Tonglen Practice as taught by Pema Chodron and others. Using the term her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa used,  I "flashed on absolute bodhichitta."  I shifted and expanded the focus of my attention away from the realm of thought.  I became mindful of the present moment.  

In this instance, I consciously got in touch with the space between thoughts that exposes the ever-present presence of Presence.  This sheer, unfettered awareness, sometimes referred to as Primordial Wisdom, is always there, whether we are aware of it or not.   It is the quintessential "open-mindedness."  

At other times, I've been able to come into the present moment more fully by taking a full conscious breath, then focusing my attention on the sights and sounds and space that I am in at that moment.   If your paying attention -- it can be somewhat subtle --  a sense of expansive presence emerges. 

Although the ease with which I can often get in touch with this quality of consciousness has been cultivated by decades of a daily 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?

At this point it's become a habit, quite automatic at times.  Often, as I sense the energies of fear, pain, humiliation, or any permutation of judgment mind as it arises (theirs or mine,) I am able to immediately let go of the narratives and story lines that have emerged in my skull and begin to practice Tonglen -- on the Spot.

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.


Ren Shapiro said...

Thanks for describing the specific details of how to do this practice. (I can't believe I didn't know this already -- but yet, I didn't!!!)


Carol said...

Nice post of defining a practice for a way for someone to journey through this experience. Not one size fits all however. As an empath with underlining conditions, I can tell you taking in someone else pain and feeling it for yourself can be devastating physically. However, sending out compassionate love to someone to help them help themselves is a 'more sensible' way for me to view and respond with high energy request to pass through using self as a conduit only.
The lotus of 10,000 petals, to say each petal opens differently, and each with different gusto for everyone. It's a life of growth and blossoming that can never be fully opened, not even by the best of spiritual teachers while living out this human experience. You expressed that yourself in saying that even though you have practiced and have had the privilege to be in the company of such thought provoking spiritual teachers, you still struggle with the same haunting grooves of your conditioning. This....is true until you yourself stop and repave the path of your personal journey. A look inside of self can be better than following a look inside someone else's self and their way of changing their journey. The petals all look different, feel different, as each one opens and closes, and our personal divine connection between earth and God continues to unfold by awakenings of knowing who we really are!
Sometimes I want to escape the sounds of the air conditioner, noises of indoor living with nowhere to go that looks familiar out of doors any longer. Then...just one petal from one little teacher will vibrate and remind me to have strength and appreciation. For this particular moment, I'm reminded of Ann Frank.
You have a gift of understanding the logical end of some teachers, and express that well to your readers. Your words help your lotus open to charge most of your chakras and that....is grace we all look to for awakenings. Very cool!

Lance Smith said...

Right? You've certainly heard the word enough. LOL

I did a serious rewrite and posted this because as the stars aligned several people in the Circle were looking for more information.

You're welcome, Ren. Hope it was helpful.

Lance Smith said...

Hey Carol,
Yeah. I hear that. There's definitely not a "one size fits all, way to the One Love. At the best of times, in Practicing Tonglen, I can feel the Boundless Space of my heart chakra opening, so "I" don't take on the other person's suffering. You know the drill. At those times, I'm just being a conduit.

This doesn't always happen, but it's happening more and more as the years unfold. Many of those "grooves" are no longer ruts. I'm grateful to the One Love for that.

And, yes, I totally agree. Looking inside is absolutely necessary. That's why I meditate every day. You can only rewire yourself if you can see that wiring clearly. Most of meditation is about making the subconscious conscious. Yet, I always encourage my friends to not take my word about any of this stuff. Each of us have to see it for ourselves, and work it out for ourselves -- from the inside out. Thanks for chiming in on that point.

I love your imagery of the 10,000 petals -- and that one petal vibrating as a reminder of your strength and appreciation. As always, it just take One to remind us of the One, right?
Be Well and Stay Safe, Friend.
One Love,

Cynthia Ennis said...

See if I can do this right this time...I loved the saying by Thich Nhat Hahn! I have no idea if I spelled this right, but you know what I mean. πŸ‘£πŸΎπŸΎ

Ren Shapiro said...

I still like this! :)