Each week I seem to see a headline about yet another case of child abuse that has ended in the child’s death or a rescue from local authorities. I cannot even attempt to explain the internal movement that I experience when reading such things. Logically, I am able to communicate the feelings, but it does not explain what I am internally seeing.
Many of us go straight to anger, judgment or busy ourselves, so we do not have to discern what is going on at those moments when one's buttons are being pushed. The judgment is clearly coming from the mind. That says one is not aware of emotion or feelings in that moment. “You are stuck in the head” as my friend Rich would say.
Two years ago I began to practice Tonglen, but not truly constant. Now, I have found myself to be practicing it more. Some of the stories that I read, actions I see and words I sometimes hear out on the street push my buttons. By practicing Tonglen, it has brought about my own realizations and the ability to simply just be with and experience those feelings. There is no judgement.
Tonglen is an essential practice that anyone can do. It is more than just a prayer. You are actively participating in creating awareness and healing. By allowing yourself to essentially feel what the other person or people are feeling and breathing out what you wish for them, you may find yourself face to face with your own fear, anger, struggle and personal suffering. You end up seeing your own affixed state of being in that moment. Healing takes place when you realize this and compassion begins to emerge out of it.
In the cases of child abuse, animal cruelty and going into combat, I go straight into a deep sadness. This usually is accompanied with physically becoming ill and or experiencing physical pain. In these times, I will do the practice. That being said, I think it much easier to do Tonglen for someone who is an innocent or experiencing pain. The challenge becomes when I do this for the afflict-or. I am met with my own resistance. When malicious acts are done, it is usually done out of anger and behind the anger lies fear. My resistance is anger and that being a scary place for me. Why? We all experience anger at different times and some even walk around in that state for a good portion of their lives. It is the unknown. The fear that if anger sweeps over, I would be capable of anything. The interesting part of this that I have found, is if one allows yourself to hold any emotion and just watch, the emotion or feeling will dissolve in mere moments. I have recognized, acknowledged and "Oh, yea. That is not me."
By Pema Chödrön
THE PRACTICE OF TOGLEN
In order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves.
In particular, to care about other people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean —you name it— to have compassion and to care for these people, means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves. In fact, one's whole attitude toward pain can change. Instead of fending it off and hiding from it, one could open one's heart and allow oneself to feel that pain, feel it as something that will soften and purify us and make us far more loving and kind.
The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem
We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness. However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.
At that point you can change the focus and begin to do tonglen for what you are feeling and for millions of others just like you who at that very moment of time are feeling exactly the same stuckness and misery. Maybe you are able to name your pain. You recognize it clearly as terror or revulsion or anger or wanting to get revenge. So you breathe in for all the people who are caught with that same emotion and you send out relief or whatever opens up the space for yourself and all those countless others. Maybe you can't name what you're feeling. But you can feel it —a tightness in the stomach, a heavy darkness or whatever. Just contact what you are feeling and breathe in, take it in —for all of us and send out relief to all of us.
People often say that this practice goes against the grain of how we usually hold ourselves together. Truthfully, this practice does go against the grain of wanting things on our own terms, of wanting it to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to the others. The practice dissolves the armor of self-protection we've tried so hard to create around ourselves. In Buddhist language one would say that it dissolves the fixation and clinging of ego.
Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others and also we begin to take care of ourselves and others. It awakens our compassion and it also introduces us to a far larger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness that Buddhists call shunyata. By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being. At first we experience this as things not being such a big deal or so solid as they seemed before.
Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have just died, or for those that are in pain of any kind. It can be done either as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot at any time. For example, if you are out walking and you see someone in pain —right on the spot you can begin to breathe in their pain and send some out some relief. Or, more likely, you might see someone in pain and look away because it brings up your fear or anger; it brings up your resistance and confusion.
So on the spot you can do tonglen for all the people who are just like you, for everyone who wishes to be compassionate but instead is afraid, for everyone who wishes to be brave but instead is a coward.
Rather than beating yourself up, use your own stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world.
Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us.
Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.