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Updated: Sep 8, 2023

A lot of the time I find myself under the illusion that certain things are going to stay the same. Or maybe I just have a tendency to grasp for something external to be stable and secure. I have come to understand that one of my lessons in this lifetime is to learn, experientially, that states of being like safety and security, really only exist, unchangingly and unconditionally, deep inside me.

When I find myself hooked by the grab of uncomfortable emotions like: anxiety, helplessness, frustration, or any number of emotions that manifest as physical sensation, behavioral reactivity, ruminative inner dialogue, or some combination, I find help from a practice called Tonglen. Tonglen is a very simple and profound technique that helps us to connect with pain and suffering—our own and that which is all around us, instead of trying to avoid it. Beyond just connecting with our suffering, this practice is more predominately a skill for increasing out tolerance for the discomfort of certain emotions we may experience as painful. The focus of this practice is generating a tender and receptive place inside ourselves to be with emotional pain and discomfort. When we are able to generate a compassionate and welcoming heart in our internal environment we start to experience more kindness in the world around us. Before learning this practice, I often found myself tightening inside at the presence or anticipation of emotional pain and discomfort. I have learned, through Tonglen practice, that no matter how cruel or cold the world around me might seem to be, when I can soften internally and be open to the existence of that coldness or cruelty, I am more quickly able remember and experience the stillness and peace that exists just beyond or underneath the pain and suffering.

Tonglen practice starts by allowing ourselves to soften or unclinch in face of another persons suffering. This softening can happen on many different layers within the body: physically in the muscular and facia system, mentally in pausing the inner dialogue, emotionally in slowing the physical sensations, and behaviorally in the urge for action or 'doing' something. For example, if we were to see another being in pain or crying, the practice would be to breathe in that pain or sadness, to open ourselves to the experience of sadness. Then, on the exhale, imagine sending out the feeling that would bring them relief, like comfort. We often resist this practice because we think we do have the emotional fortitude or capacity to handle the pain or discomfort. This practice can help us learn that we do have capacity to be with not only the pain and suffering of others, but our own as well.

Another way to practice Tonglen is to shift from the external witnessing of pain to the internal witnessing of pain. In this way we are feeling the internal sensations of our own pain and suffering. We may be able to clearly recognize and name the painful emotion or we be able to identify it through the inner dialogue, physical experience of pain, or the desire to engage in behaviors that allow us avoid the experience all together. Wherever we have access to connecting with the discomfort: emotion, inner dialogue, behavior tendencies, or physical pain, we first pause. Then on an breath in, we soften to the pain for ourselves and all people caught by that same experience and felt sense. On our out breath, we imagine offering to ourselves and everyone else what would bring relief to that experience. In essence, we relaxing to the experience of pain, instead of contracting to it. We are becoming bigger in the face of pain, instead of shrinking to it.

Tonglen is a practice that seems counterintuitive because it goes against much of the way we been trained and seen modeled in day to day living. Typically we are avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. Truthfully, this practice is counterintuitive because instead of wanting things to be the way we want them to be, it a practice of surrendering to exactly what is, which might not be what we hoped. The value of this practice is that in disarmoring or melting the walls we have built to keep us from pain, we get access around to our most vulnerable and precious parts of ourselves. Because we have tried so hard to protect these tender places inside of us, we have inadvertently cut ourselves off from them. Reconnecting to them is the feeling we were looking for, when we built walls to protect them.

Over the years of doing this practice I have gotten to witness many of the strategies I use to protect myself and avoid the experience of pain. I have also learned that every time I avoid pain, I am communicating to myself that I am not strong or capable enough to endure it. I realize now, that only strengthen my protective parts and took me further away from being able to access the feelings I was longing for: peace and connection. As I have more regularly engaged with this practice I began realized and strengthen and capacity for tenderness and vulnerability, which has allowed me to access peace and connection.

When you practice Tonglen, simply breathe in and breathe out, take in pain and send out spaciousness and relief.

When engaging with Tonglen as a formal meditation practice, there are four stages:

  1. First, rest and focus your mind by giving it something to pay attention to. That soft focus creates a state of openness or stillness.

  2. Second, work with texture to help imagine and illicit sensation. This can help engage curiosity, which increases soft focus and openness. Breathe in a sensation feeling like: hot, dark, thick and heavy, which might mimic the experience of claustrophobia, and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright, crisp and light, which can mimic a sense of freshness and spaciousness. Breathe in completely, imagine breathing in through all the pores of your body. Then breathe out, imagine radiating out, completely, through all the pores of your body. Do this until there is some rhythm to your in and out-breaths.

  3. Third, work with a personal situation. Any painful situation that’s real or imagined to you. Traditionally you begin by Tonglen for someone you care about and wish to help. However, as I described, if you are stuck, you can practice with the pain you are feeling. For instance, if you are feeling fearful, you breathe in tightness or contraction for yourself and all the others. On your breath out you imagine send out the sense of softening or unclinching like a fist that uncoils.

  4. Finally, allow the imagining to become vaster. If you are practicing Tonglen for a friend or any person in pain, extend on the breath out what you image would be comforting to ALL people who are in the same situation. If you are engaging in Tonglen for someone you see on television or on the street, do it for ALL being in the same boat. Make it bigger than just that one person. You can even practice Tonglen for people you consider to be your enemy, or those who have hurt you or others. As you practice Tonglen for them, think of them as having the same confusion and stuckness you see yourself or others experience. Breathe in confusion and frustration and send out clarity and forgiveness.

Tonglen can extend infinitely. As you do the practice, gradually over time your compassion and tenderness to yourself and everyone around you naturally expands. Gradually and at your own pace, you will be surprised to find yourself more capable of being there for others, even in what used to seem like impossible situations.

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