"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

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

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

A grin comes to my face as I remember her voice on the telephone.

"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 of Tibetan Buddhism in general, and Tonglen Practice in particular.  

After a moment's pause, to relax and reconnect with the basic openness of 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 shift my attention from the thoughts running through my head to the feelings coursing through my body.  Then I breathe into my heart the difficult and challenging darker emotions that had emerged.  There in my heart of hearts I get in touch with reality that countless people are feeling   this same form of energy and my aspiration that we all be free of such suffering.  Then, at a certain point, I'm able to send out a sense of relief and healing energy on each exhalation.

She paused for awhile (perhaps, to relax and reconnect with a basic openness of mind herself? LOL)  Then she 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 seems counterintuitive.  Making the decision to open our hearts to the entire gamut of human emotions, rather than always grasping at the "good" and pushing away the "bad?  Seems a bit crazy, right? 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.  Each of these practices has a role in cultivating our Connection to the essentially miraculous nature of life.  Each contributes to our deepening ability to be Present moment by moment -- with clarity and compassion -- to the Sacred Perfection in which we are immersed. 

To wit:

As I sit here and pay attention, I become aware of a clear, bright, vast, and open sense of spaciousness beyond the tunnel vision of my thoughts.  

As I pause and expand my attention to become aware of my body, my breath, and the sights and sounds of the room that I am sitting in and of the world outside the window, there a palpable shift in my consciousness.  As I come into the present moment more fully,  I can feel its expansiveness in my heart.  I can relax and rest in its embrace. 

Sitting here, breathing in, breathing out,  I'm aware of the dance of my fingers along the surface of this keyboard.  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 claims that these thoughts are merely epiphenoma, just brain secretions of some sort, at this moment they appear to be connected to something much grander than that.  My heart feels that connection.  I have come to trust that feeling.  A boundless sense of wonder and joy emerges from the luminous silence that embraces me as I embrace it.   Aware of my feet on the floor, the clicking contact of my fingers on the keyboard, the soft humming of the computer, the wind outside the window, the vast, open spaciousness of a clear and boundless open mind, my heart opens.  I feel the Presence of the Sacred.

But, I digress -- sort of.

Tonglen Practice: Stage One

What I just did, actually, was the initial stage of formal Tonglen Practice as taught by Pema Chodron and others.  In the terminology used in her tradition, I "flashed on absolute bodhichitta." 

Although that sounds pretty esoteric, it's actually pretty simple.  I paused and consciously got in touch with what Pema Chodron sometimes calls "the gap." I turned my attention to the present moment and relaxed into the open space that presents itself between and beyond thoughts.  

To do this, I simply paused, took a deep breath, and focused my attention on something besides the ongoing prattle of thoughts that habitually take center stage in the play of my waking consciousness.  I noticed the sensations of my breathing and my body.  Then I noticed what my eyes were seeing in the room around me, what my ears were hearing.  Rather than remain lost in my thoughts,  I came to my senses to get more fully in touch with the present moment.

Although the ease with which I can usually get in touch with this open, spacious quality of consciousness has been cultivated by a lot of time spent in formal meditation, the experience of Open Awareness isn't all that uncommon.  You see it in kids all the time.  They are often Present in a way that most of us adults aren't.

I'm convinced, though, that even in adulthood, we each have such moments in the midst of our day to day lives. These moments of Presence can emerge spontaneously.  Have you ever noticed the moment that the refrigerator compressor motor stops whining in the background, or when we turn off the radio or television.  In that instant, there is a shift.  Something eases.  A perceptible sense of spaciousness emerges.

For many of us, a walk outside (or even just looking out the window) can bring about this shift. The sights and sounds of the world draw us out.  This happens easily as the sun paints the sky in majestic colors at sunrise or sunset.  Yet, it can also happen as a garbage truck goes growling down the street.  If we aren't too mired in our own habitual tendency to be lost in thought, our self-created bubble pops and, in a flash, we are Present in a qualitatively different way.  

With Practice our ability to connect with and sustain this quality of consciousness increases.  Our Connection to this sense of spaciousness becomes the foundation of our ability to embrace and work with the energies of our difficult and challenging emotions through Tonglen Practice.  Although Pema Chodron mentions "flashing" this open awareness briefly as the formal first stage of this meditation practice, these days she actually recommends beginning and ending a 15 minute period of formal Tonglen with periods of Basic Sitting Practice. 

That makes sense to me.  In this, she is much gentler in her expectations than her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa.  Being an American, I think she gets us a bit better.  Trungpa expected his students to just "flash on ultimate bodhichitta" for a moment, then do 30 minutes of straight Tonglen, consciously bringing to mind gnarly events in our lives and the lives of others that elicit "negative" feelings in each meditation session.  


Stage Two

The second stage of formal practice involves two visualizations.  On the in-breath, we draw into our hearts the energies of suffering and its causes.  The fear, pain, anger, jealousy, sense of lack, etc. that emerge from ego-clinging and its habitual fixations is visualized as black, hot, solid, heavy, and claustrophic on the in-breath.  During the out-breath, we visualize the textures of our kindness and caring  as white light, fresh, clear and cool, and radiate them into space in all directions from your heart. Although when I first heard this particular technique presented by Ram Dass back in the early 70's,  it didn't compute.  For the past 18 tears, I've increasingly found this to be a useful way to work with emotional energy. 

Stage Three

The third stage of formal Tonglen Practice is to bring to mind someone specific who we sense is suffering.  Connecting with our intention to relieve their suffering, we are instructed to draw the emotional energies of their suffering into our heart on the in-breath.  Connecting with our heart, we then send them relief, healing, kindness, or even imagining sending them something tangible ( a warm piece of pie, etc.) on the out-breath.  Some teachers advise visualizing that person as being whole, perfect and healed in the light of the energy we are sending them. The specific person that you choose as the focus can be someone you know well or, perhaps, even a stranger on the street.  

The specific focus of this stage of Tonglen can be yourself, as well.  In fact, one of the Lojong slogans recommends beginning this practice with yourself. You are guided to draw in and open to the emotional energies of your own fear, disappointment, frustration, sorrow, etc., on the in-breath.  From the expansiveness of this opening, you can then release and radiate a sense of relief and healing on the out-breath. I've found this to be profoundly healing.  It continues to allow me to melt away that moment's "negativity," as well as continue to soften the scar tissue of past wounds.  It allows me to re-connect with the open, accepting, spaciousness of an open heart.

Stage Four

In the fourth stage of tonglen, we are guided to expand the focus.  After bringing to mind a specific person's plight, we widen our gaze to include all persons experiencing a similar situation or set of emotions.  As your vision expands, you can readily see that there are numerous people experiencing what you or another specific person are going through.  In fact, this realization, and the willingness to include others as the recipients of our concern, can be healing in itself.  This stage continues as you then expand your focus to include all sentient beings throughout time and space.

I've found that it is quite helpful to move back and forth between the formal stages of Tonglen Practice, to re-connect more deeply with a basic sense of openness, or to work with the stage two visualizations.  It can also be helpful to move back to the third stage of a specific focus when the notion of "all sentient beings' becomes too conceptual in the fourth stage and looses its energy. 

One Step at a Time

It is important to be gentle with yourself as you explore Tonglen Practice.  Take your time.  At the beginning -- and even after you've worked with this technique for quite awhile --  there are times that the emotional energies encountered may seem too overwhelming.  If this happens, and you are unable to find or maintain the expansiveness of an open mind and an open heart, just let go of tonglen and return to Basic Sitting Practice for awhile.  This work is not a hundred yard dash, it's a marathon.  It is important to be patient with yourself.

When you're ready, you will be able to feel a particular emotional energy in it's full intensity.  This sometimes involves tears.  Just continue breathing through them.  They will pass.  Your intention to release yourself and others from the grasp of suffering will draw forth the energy of an open heart.  Whether this is simply "imagining" or real (as if there is actually a absolute difference between those two), Tonglen Practice has a great value.  I've found that over the years, more and more,  I am able to access the clarity, expansiveness, and warmth of an open heart and an open mind.  There, in the embrace of the compassionate awareness that is our human birthright, I am embraced by the One Love that permeates the universe.  There, a transmutation of energy occurs.  Healing happens.

Tonglen on the Spot

Although formal Tonglen Practice on the zafu is extremely worthwhile, I've found that its greatest practical value emerges in the reality of day to day life.  I first learned Tonglen "on the spot" in 2005 at a retreat led by the venerable environmental activist and Buddhist Joanna Macy a few months before I came across it again in the teachings of Pema Chodron. 

Although I was amazed by Macy's teachings and many of the guided meditations and exercises I experienced that week, "tonglen on the spot ," was the main take away for me.  She advised us to simply breathe in any "disturbing" emotions as they emerged during the day and breathe out a sense of relief and healing. This seemed like something I could readily use in the day to day life. 

I immediately engaged it the day after the retreat as I was waiting in a long line at the supermarket.  Noticing my own frustration and restless emerge, noticing it in others, I immediately began to breath those feelings into my heart, connect with my aspiration to relieve the suffering involved, and breathed out a sense of relief and ease.  It certainly changed my experience of the situation quickly.  As I relaxed, my sense of humor returned.  I was able to come up with a quick, quip about our "plight,"-- and the energy shifted.  Folks loosened up.  In the long journey toward Universal Peace, it's one step at a time.  It all counts.

And Now...

At this point, Tonglen has become quite automatic much of the time. As I sense suffering, either my own fear, disappointment, frustration, pain, humiliation, or that of others, I often remember immediately to let go of the narratives and story lines that habitually arise, and get in touch with, and breathe in, the darker emotional energies emerging in my body.  As my chest expands, my heart opens. 

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 can and will be transmuted.
This certainly seems to make my life -- and the lives of those I encounter -- a lot easier these days.

It just takes Practice.

Originally posted, October 2015. Revised.

(As I was revising this post and preparing to send it along, I received the latest Lion's Roar online newsletter.  It was entitled "Cultivate Your Compassion with Tonglen Meditation!    If you're interested in learning more about this valuable practice, it  contains links to articles by Pema Chodron, Judy Lief, and Carla Beharry and announces an on-line course by Judy Lief.   I love the synchronicity!  

There is also a brief (11:41) audio Guided Tonglen Meditation by Pema Chodron on YouTube which you may find helpful. 


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