"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

Sunday, July 4, 2021

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

I was chatting on the phone with an old friend, rambling on about my continued wonder at the Lojong Teachings in general, and Tonglen Practice in particular, when she stopped me in my tracks.

 "That's backwards isn't it? You meant breathe in the good and send out the bad, right?" she said, not unkindly.  I think she was politely trying to point out that my aging brain cells had gone dyslexic.

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 do 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 pause to consider that there are countless others who have felt or are feeling what I'm feeling at the moment, my heart naturally expands with that in-breath and the energy is transformed.  Then I am able to breathe out a sense of relief, a healing energy of light and love with the aspiration that myself and others be healed, be at peace.  I visualize that as an energy radiating from my heart.

She paused for awhile -- perhaps to relax and reconnect with a basic openness of mind herself in light of my rant.  Then she 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.  To be sure,  I still struggle at times with the blindness of my Aries, male ego and the various wounds of my conditioned personality.  And, at times, I am deeply saddened and confounded by the energies of greed, hatred, and ignorance that are all too prevalent in the world today.  Yet, my life has changed for the better.  I no longer plunge into the long periods of depression and anxiety that plagued my younger years.  Instead,  I now am fairly content and at ease most the time.  I also experience many moments of deep wonder, appreciation, and gratitude for the sacred miracle that sings silently within and beyond us.  I'm now convinced that the One Love is always present. 

Bringing It hOMe Here and Now

As I sit here now and pay attention, pausing to become aware of the sensations of my breath and feel my body, I also become aware of a clear, bright, vast, and open sense of spaciousness.  Sitting here, 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 my own experiences over time, they are also connected to the long lineage of human beings that crafted the English language -- and to everything else.   They appear to be emerging by themselves, quite mysteriously.  

Although Western science claims that our thoughts 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 woven into a tapestry of experience that is reminiscent of dabbling with psychedelics back in the day.  (Oops. TMI? LOL)

But, I digress -- sort of.

Tonglen Practice: In a Flash

What I just experienced sitting here was akin to the first stage of Tonglen Practice as taught by Pema Chodron.  Using the term her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa used,  I "flashed on absolute bodhichitta."  I simply got out of my head and widened my awareness to become mindful of the vastness of the present moment.      

Over the years, I've come to see that a sheer, unfettered, spacious awareness, what some Tibetan teachers have called Primordial Wisdom, is always existent.  It is the quintessential "open mindedness."  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 the dumb luck known in some circles as grace), I have found that this experience is not that uncommon!         


After having compared notes with hundreds of people over the course of decades of spiritual practice, I'm convinced we've probably all had these moments.  As children, before we were conditioned otherwise, these moments weren't uncommon.  We were Present much of the time.  Even now, if we are paying attention, we have moments of Presence each day. 

These moments can be as simple as noticing what happens when the refrigerator compressor motor stops whining in the background, or when we turn off the TV.  At that instant, there is a "gap." Something eases, something opens up.  Our state of mind shifts.  A perceptible sense of clarity and spaciousness emerges.  

This quality of consciousness may have emerged as the claustrophic dominance of our self-referenced thoughts melted into the vastness and beauty of a sunset, or into the sound of the wind in the trees, or into the open eyes of an infant.  In those moments, engaged fully with our senses, our mind and heart open, with no set agenda, 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,  she now recommends beginning and ending a 15 minute period of Tonglen Practice with a period of Basic Sitting Meditation.  It may take a bit of time to slow our minds down to settle into an open awareness of the present moment.

Tonglen: Step Two

The second stage of the formal practice she teaches involves synchronizing two visualizations with the flow of our in and out breaths.   In "sending and taking," we work with the basic qualities of the emotions and energies involved in human 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 this in Metta Practice as we use our power of imagination to radiate our kindness and care outward.) 

Step Three

With the third phase of Tonglen we bring to mind someone specific who you know who may be suffering.  It is often helpful to begin with your own pain, fear, confusion, resentment, etc.   If you are still avoiding these experiences, it becomes difficult to open to the suffering of others.  Once again, on the in-breath you feel this emotional energy and draw it 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, related to a specific person or situation arise spontaneously.  You may find it quite 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, etc. )

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.

May All Beings Be Free

In the fourth stage of tonglen you 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.  Then, when you are drawn to it, you expand your focus further to all beings everywhere.  Breathing in and out of  the boundless love of that exists within and beyond your own heart, 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.  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 the human condition, our shared humanity.  At this point in my life, the intention to breath it all in and feel it fully for others, inspires me.  The aspiration that we all be at peace arises naturally in my heart of hearts and I release it outward with the out breath. 

Putting It All Together

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 returning to simply sitting still or returning to the second step visualizations can be helpful.

There may times that the body will naturally release these darker emotional energies as tears as you practice.  This is a good thing!  Heartbreak is sometimes essential in the process of becoming a loving human being.  Oftentimes these experiences can melt away the armoring around our heart, releasing the grief that we've held in our bodies for a long time.  (See "A Good Cry" MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call, Sunday, October 4, 2020.)

Yet, sometimes 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 as you practice, it is a good idea to let go of Tonglen and return to Basic Sitting Practice for awhile.  Or you may choose to give it up entirely for awhile.  Get up.  Stretch. Relax. Have a cup of tea, write in your journal, or take a walk.  You can come back to it later.

Tonglen Practice is not a contest.   There are no winners and losers here.  It's all just Practice.  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, and to maintain that Connection as I embrace and transmute the energies of the darker emotions that are part of the human condition.

Tonglen on the Spot

Although formal Tonglen Practice on the meditation cushion can be 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 week-long retreat led by the venerable environmental activist and Buddhist Teacher Joanna Macy in 2005, a few months before I came across the teachings of Pema Chodron.  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.  

The day after the retreat, I was standing in a long line, feeling an uptight, impatient energy.  Was it mine? Was it theirs? Ours? It didn't matter. With On the Spot Tonglen, the guidance was clear -- just breath it in.  I took the opportunity to  breath deeply, relax my shoulders,  open my heart  -- and breath out a sense of relief, ease, goodwill, patience.  It worked.  The entire scene softened and soon a few folks were chatting and joking about the line.

This type of opportunity arises in the course of each and every day.  We have myriad opportunities to Practice.  How cool is that?

At this point, Tonglen has 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.


Sue said...

Good stuff, my friend.

I'm leading a Music and Mindfulness weekly group here at the Senior Living Community where my mom and now I live. It's been a lovely unfolding and a welcome challenge to see how what I offered at the Addiction Recovery Center (Northern Hope) in Greenfield can be applied to the universality of the human condition.

And really, old age is a terminal dis-ease (any age really, but it's harder to deny when the body's aches and pains are up close and personal!) :)

Carry on...


Lance Smith said...

Good to hear from you, Sue. Yup, life itself is a terminal process. One of my favorite Suzuki Roshi quotes is “Life is like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink.”

What a blessing to be able to accompany your Mom and share Practice with others at the Senior Living Community. I have often thought that the various recovery skills, practices, group meetings, etc. that have been developed for treatment in those settings would be a very useful set of experiences for everyone.

Be well, Sister. Stay in Touch.
One Love,