When you are suffering, you become more understanding about yourself, but also about other people’s sufferings too. That’s the first step to understand somebody is to understand their sufferings. So then love follows. ~Yoko Ono
Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering. ~Matthieu Ricard
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. ~ H.H. The Dalai Lama
There’s a lot to like in Buddhism, the potential of finding total enlightenment, the reliance upon oneself and the trust in our own ability to make changes and free ourselves. I also enjoy the richness from the three limbs of Buddhism, Theravadin (the teaching of the elders), Zen, and Tibetan Vajrayana. Within each branch of Buddhism, there are sub-schools, different traditions, each with a slightly different flavor depending upon the lineage. One Pure Land monk described these diverse traditions as flowers in a bouquet, each one with its own beauty and fragrance, each offering a unique and distinct gift. And while I am not immersed in the Tibetan school of practice, I’ve had the good fortune to be introduced to a practice that I’ve relied on throughout the years when things get really tough. It’s the practice of Tonglen or sending and taking. What is so useful about Tonglen, is that you can practice it on the spot, in an emergency, or what feels like an emergency.
This winter, my son was missing school due to stomach pain. At first, we believed it was a virus, but after weeks he wasn’t improving. On the advice of our general practitioner, I booked an appointment with a Pediatric Gastroenterologist. Where I live, these specialists are pretty rare, and the first appointment I could get was for three weeks away at 8:30 am, on a weekday in Hartford, CT. I consulted my “maps” app, which told me it was 34 miles from home. To be safe, I estimated an hour’s drive.
The day finally came for our appointment and as we got into the car, I opened my app and saw the estimated travel time was an hour and a half. How could that be? I found out why as I sat and waited in the line of cars while the traffic light turned red for the third time; I was aware of the burn of adrenalin in my forearms and an infusion of frustration and anger. I felt absolutely helpless caught in this traffic. I couldn’t speak to a human at the doctor’s office; I kept getting an answering service; I couldn’t turn around. I was stuck. I believed I had failed my son and this time screw-up made me furious with myself. Why hadn’t I checked the night before? Why hadn’t I asked someone or known better?
I did my best to breathe and to remember my intention to be a presence of care of each moment, but my mind was churning. I wanted to be airlifted above this clogged morning commute and escape. The pain of my judgment and the physical sensations of helplessness and panic was making my trip a hell-realm. I told myself, “this feels terrible; I don’t know what to do,” and in that moment I remembered Tonglen.
I breathed in with all the tension in my body and mind, feeling this crunch of expectation and disappointment and breathed out the wish for ease and spaciousness. I breathed in again and felt the helplessness, the fear that I was going to miss this appointment, the doubt that I wouldn’t be able to care for my son, the binding frustration of being held in this line of traffic and breathed out understanding for the situation, the tender recognition that I care, and forgiveness for what I didn’t know. Then I widened my practice to include all the people in this world of more than 7 billion who, just like me, felt frustrated and blamed themselves. I breathed in with all the parents who were afraid that they couldn’t relieve their child’s suffering, felt the shared anger and disappointment, the feeling of injustice and hopelessness. I breathed out a breath of deep peace for all these people caught, just as I was, in situations we could not control. Breathing in I took in our shared pain and with each out-breath, I sent us all the wish for capacity to bear discomfort, forgiveness, and dispassion.
When I did this, I could become the witness to this experience, as well as the one who was in it. I knew that even though this moment felt so out of control and uncomfortable, it was a moment of shared experience and I was capable of transforming these emotions, no matter how fierce or unwanted. After practicing for a few minutes, I breathed in and accepted the pain of those who were suffering from this same frustration and feeling lost. I willingly breathed in the feeling of anger, hopelessness, and despair so others would not have to feel these things. Taking on their suffering and transforming it, I breathed out, sending all those who were in a panic, late, feeling frazzled and in trouble, peace, deep contentment, and non-fear.
This is the practice of Tonglen in action that moves us from victimhood, experiencing suffering as uniquely our, and connects us to all those who are suffering just like us. Tonglen reminds us of the impersonal nature of suffering and develops our compassion and bodhicitta—our Buddha nature and awakened loving heart.
The practice is simple, recognizing our pain, or the pain of another person and breathing in experiencing that discomfort, noticing the feeling, color, taste, and particulars of that suffering and breathing out the antidote to that poison. In this vast world, there must be a few other people feeling what we are feeling right now—it could be boredom, ill-health, grief, fear, or rage. We can know these emotions and breath them in with those who, just like us, are suffering. When we breathe out, we can offer them and ourselves the cooling intention of relief.
As we continue to practice, we can develop some more capacity to move through our own suffering and we can offer this practice exclusively for others by breathing in their anxiety, discomfort, and confusion, willing ourselves to take on these painful states to save others from suffering. Breathing out we offer the benefit of our merit and give them the fruits of our practice, our peace, happiness, and stillness—freely given to save others from future suffering.
Back in my car, practicing Tonglen, I recognized that maybe I would have to re-schedule, but it wasn’t the crisis that I was manufacturing. Tonglen isn’t a magic bullet, but it can transform our understanding of our situation and bring compassion to our actions. When we breathe in and recognize all those we share this moment with, we are no longer alone, or helpless. We become agents of our own well being and active participants in the wellbeing of all those on this planet who are caught, just as we are.
That day, we were 40 minutes late and we still got to see the doctor. I had gratitude for the understanding of the staff and for this practice that helped me transform pain and open my heart to all of our suffering. This week, please give this a try—you don’t have to have a crisis to start. Tonglen is as accessible as an inhale and an exhale and can join us to all those around the world, reestablish our sovereignty, and reconnect us with our true intention to live with kindness for ourselves and others.
May we all trust our light,
For a deeper guided experience with Tonglen, click here for writing from Roshi Joan Halifax.