On-the-Spot Tonglen

On-the-Spot Tonglen – from Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron

Doing tonglen throughout the day can feel more natural than doing it on the cushion.  For one thing, there is never any lack of subject matter.  Daily-life practice is never abstract.  As soon as uncomfortable emotions come up, we train ourselves in breathing them in and dropping the story line.  At the same time, we extend our thoughts and concern to other people who feel the same discomfort, and we breathe in with the wish that all of us could be free of this particular brand of confusion.  Then, as we breathe out, we send ourselves and others whatever kind of relief we think would help.  We also practice like this when we encounter animals and people who are in pain.  We can try to do this whenever difficult situations and feelings arise.  Over time it will become more automatic.

It is also helpful to notice anything in our daily life that brings us happiness.  As soon as we become aware of it, we can think of sending it out to others, further cultivating the tonglen attitude.

As warrior-bodhisattvas, the more we train in cultivating this attitude, the more we uncover our capacity for joy and equanimity.  Because of our bravery and willingness to work with the practice, we are more able to experience the basic goodness of ourselves and others.  We’re more able to appreciate the potential of all kinds of people: those we find pleasant, those we find unpleasant, and those we don’t even know.  Thus tonglen begins to ventilate our prejudices and introduce us to a more tender and open-minded world.

From a Retreat Talk Given by Pema @ the Berkeley Shambhala Center [pemachodron.org]

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
to be.

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.

From Alcoholics Anonymous

I believe that when we were active alcoholics we drank mostly to kill the pain of one kind or another – physical or emotional or psychic.  Of course, everybody has a cracking point, and I suppose you reached yours—hence the resort once more to the bottle. . . . If I were you, I wouldn’t heap devastating blame on myself for this; on the other hand, the experience should redouble your conviction that alcohol has no permanent value as a pain-killer.  Letter 1959.

In every AA story, pain has been the price of admission into a new life.  But this admission price purchased more than we expected.  It led us to a measure of humility, which we soon discovered to be a healer of pain.  We began to fear pain less, and desire humility more than ever.   12 & 12, p. 75.