|As we look around the world, there is a crisis taking place somewhere
every moment, reminding us of the vulnerability we share with every other human on Earth. We are all, literally,
in the same boat.
We can send money, food and prayers to the stricken parts of the world, but what do we do with our shock and grief
at the death and suffering we witness? Whole villages demolished in distant parts of the world, neighborhoods lost
closer to home in the California fires. What do we do with the overwhelming emotions we feel? What do we do if
we feel too shut down or overwhelmed to allow ourselves to feel the reality of these horrific situations?
An answer to this question may lie in the Buddhist practice of "tonglen", which is a way of using our
bodies to transmute the energy of personal and global suffering through the simple act of breathing in distress
and breathing out relief.
The effects of this practice are many. Buddhists believe that through this inch by inch process we can gradually
reduce the level of suffering in the world while dramatically diminishing our own. The technique has the effect
of penetrating the armor which imprisons the softness of our hearts. The insightful quote: "A man in armor
is his armor's slave", reflects the dilemma we find ourselves in when we recognize that the defenses we have
so carefully built up over a lifetime of unconsciousness are now holding us hostage. To the degree we are defended,
we are not available to life. To the degree we are not available to life, we are deadened and numb.
The practice of tonglen can facilitate the reawakening of our childlike softness and along with it - our joy. You
may wonder if this is a good thing - don't we need all those defenses to survive in this world? A Course in Miracles
would agree with the Buddhist viewpoint when it says: "My defense lies in my defenselessness." The background
to this point of view is the subject of another article, but suffice here to say that if you understand and subscribe
to that viewpoint, tonglen is a way for you to begin to move into the softness of your own heart, while helping
those suffering everywhere in the world.
In her excellent book, "When Things Fall Apart", Buddhist nun Pema Chodron describes the concept and
process of tonglen in detail. In general however, if you would like to experiment with this practice, follow these
1. Begin by intending to be in a state of openness and stillness.
2. Imagine you are breathing in dense heaviness and breathing out lightness. Imagine your whole body is breathing
through all of your pores.
3. Identify a painful situation which you would like to change. Begin to imagine breathing it into your own body,
and breathing out relief. If this brings up feelings of fear or inadequacy, breathe in these emotions for the benefit
of yourself and all others who may be having similar feelings of fear. Then breathe out confidence or relief or
whatever you think might help. Do this until you have a sense of balance between your in breath and out breath.
4. Expand the scope. Imagine you are doing this process for more than one person, more than for yourself, more
than for a small group - expand it to larger and larger groups. Do this practice at your own pace and as often
as feels right to you. In so doing, you will feel your heart open wider and your compassion expand, and from under
that compassion will begin to spring joy.
When I began practicing tonglen, I was nervous about breathing pain into my body, but was amazed at the overwhelming
amount of love I felt throughout the process. I realized that the intention we hold impacts the effect of the process
on us personally. It is the intention to contribute relief and love which enables us to transmute the pain of ourselves
There is a wonderful chant by Michael Stillwater which is based on the practice of tonglen. Click here to listen
and to chant with the song if you wish. You can also use this chant to assist you in the tonglen process.
By participating in tonglen, you will give a great gift to yourself, your fellow man, and to the planet.
Susan Letourneau is a spiritual counsellor who since
1986 has been assisting women to access, and work with, their inner resources. You can reach Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org