An excerpt from Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap

“The loss of my mother and the pain of seeing so clearly how we impose judgments and values, prejudices, likes, and dis-likes, onto the world made me feel great compassion for our shared human predicament. I remember explaining to myself that the whole world consisted of people just like me who were making much ado about nothing and suffering from it tremendously. When my second marriage fell apart, I tasted the rawness of grief, the utter groundlessness of sorrow, and all the protective shields I had always managed to keep in place fell to pieces. To my surprise, along with the pain, I also felt an uncontrived tenderness for other people. I remember the complete openness and gentleness I felt for those I met briefly in the post office or at the grocery store. I found myself approaching the people I encountered as just like me—fully alive, fully capable of meanness and kindness, of stumbling and falling down, and of standing up again. I’d never before experienced that much intimacy with unknown people. I could look into the eyes of store clerks and car mechanics, beggars and children, and feel our sameness. somehow when my heart broke, the qualities of natural warmth, qualities like kindness and empathy and appreciation, just spontaneously emerged. People say it was like that in New York City for a few weeks after September 11. When the world as they’d known it fell apart, a whole city full of people reached out to one another, took care of one another, and had no trouble looking into one another’s eyes. It is fairly common for crisis and pain to connect people with their capacity to love and care about one another. It is also common that this openness and compassion fades rather quickly, and that people then become afraid and far more guarded and closed than they ever were before. The question, then, is not only how to uncover our fundamental tenderness and warmth but also how to abide there with the fragile, often bittersweet vulnerability. How can we relax and open to the uncertainty of it?”
I first heard of Tonglen at a retread I attended…

It’s a Buddhist practice to ease suffering. We learned that this practice is a way to be with the suffering and sadness we experience — both our own and the stuff that goes on in the lives of those we know and the larger world around us.

It is a way to be with or bear the suffering and ease the tension we feel, lessen the burden on our hearts.

It helps me to be with the un-be-able… it helps me build compassion and the ability to not have to fly away when something “bad” is happening. The ability to not have to numb out because we cannot handle what is happening.

How to do to it

The way I was taught was to breathe in the suffering of the person we wish to help, (remember this can be done for ourselves too). We breathe in our wish to take away the suffering and as we exhale, send ease or peace or love…whatever we feel would most benefit the person.

Pema Chodron says:

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.