Wednesday, December 19, 2007


last night i closed myself away from the outside world, lit a candle and incense, turned off the lights, unwrapped the mala beads from my wrist and held them loosely in my hands. sat still in meditation for almost an hour. focused on a healing meditation called tonglen for a friend who needed it.

Tonglen is a beautiful Buddhist practice, a method, a meditation, for connecting with suffering--our own, but more importantly, the suffering that is all around us. Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, is one of the great teachers of Tonglen, and she describes it this way:

"Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from the very ancient patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality...

...It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness in our hearts. Primarily, it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us." from When Things Fall Apart

For me, it's sort of like...spiritual recycling. A deliberate receiving of the sadness or pain of someone I care about, almost like pulling in poison. (It's painful sometimes.)

I begin by visualizing a lake, clear, placid, glass-like, fresh, unpolluted, beautiful, that sits inside of me.

Then the Tonglen begins.

When breathing in, I think of the one who is suffering. I imagine a feeling of claustrophobia...a tightness. Something heavy and dark and thick as mud. That is my inhale.

I hold that breath inside of me, visualizing that clear placid lake, suddenly muddied, clouded, by the darkness i've let in.

and then i filter it with light, with pure and infinite space, with thoughts of calmness and peace, of healing and tranquility.

And when the pool of water is clear again, I push it back out, i push it out through every pore, every atom, every bit and piece of me that was before, that is now, that will ever be. I imagine the water washing over my loved one, cleansing them, freeing them from pain and suffering. That is my exhale.

I continue with this inhaling and exhaling, focusing on this one particular person, until finally I can reach a point in the meditation when the inhales no longer muddy that pool of water...when what I breathe in is lightness that is free of suffering.

And then I make the inhales grow beyond that one person, I take in and send out bigger breaths, until, finally, it becomes a meditation for all beings who suffer, all beings who carry darkness and pain.

What is extraordinary to me is that this practice of Tonglen has expanded, I hope, my capacity for compassion. It helps me to see that things are not quite as solid as I think. That suffering is impermanent. That by moving beyond those things within ourselves that scare us and cause us to suffer, and by reaching out to others and offering to hold their pain, we find, finally, that our compassion, our willingness to risk, to love, to feel it what ultimately releases us from suffering and heals us all.

And so liberates us.

1 comment:

Liz said...


That is such a beautiful way to describe tonglen.

Thanks for sharing it with us all.