My mother often says to me, with that long-suffering sigh only Irish Mammies can muster, that we cannot compare our pain to anothers. If I say, well, sure look it, others have it worse, she says ”Your own pain is your own pain” (insert long-suffering sigh), meaning that of course it feels worse than others, simply because it is your own.
(Not with her. I wouldn’t dare!)
Our own pain can be universalized. And this is a powerful practice for breaking down the illusion of separation between all of us Beings, and the illusion of separateness between us and Oneness. It is a method for loosening our natural clinging to the concepts of I-ness and mine-ness.
James Joyce said ”In the particular lies the Universal.” There are several layers of meaning to this, including that no matter what we are doing, whatever small inconsequential task, if we concentrate and still the mind during it, the whole Universe is present in this moment. It also means that the individual experience can (and should) be universalized. And this is what Tonglen does.
Tonglen is a Tibetan word meaning ”taking and sending”.
Tonglen recognises that no matter what sorrow or pain we experience personally, there are millions of others just like us in this very moment experiencing the same sorrow or pain.
In Tonglen we choose in that moment of compassionate recognition to breathe in that greater pain of our fellow Beings, and then to breathe out towards those fellow beings Happiness, Peace and Freedom from that particular suffering.
First, with loving kindness towards ourselves, we recognise and name the suffering we are experiencing. Thus we get into contact with the passing weather of our moods. This is important observation. Self knowledge.
And then, with loving kindness, we recognise that so many others have experienced, are experiencing and will experience this exact same suffering. And by recognising this truly, we slowly dissolve our ego-identification.
This may seem like a big ask, but if you try it, you will find it is an extraordinarily powerful practice, and liberating. Tonglen makes SPACE. That is the mercy of the practice, the blessed relief. It loosens up the clinging, the tightness. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, it vastly alleviates your own suffering.
Be aware if concepts like ”burdened” or ”drained” arise in the mind stream in response to Tonglen. Just be aware, and KNOW that you are INFINITE ENERGY. An infinite reservoir. There are no limits. You are infinitely loved.
Basically, first, you realise others feel this suffering I feel too.
Second, you consciously send them relief for that suffering.
And third, you may choose to breathe in all that type of suffering in the world, and breathe out relief for all of that type of suffering.
Don’t start with the big, incomprehensible suffering. The stuff that makes you recoil. Start with small things. What comes naturally to you. If you are a parent, be aware of the shared pain you feel when your child is hurt, physically or emotionally. Consciously breathe in that suffering into your heart space, and then breathe out relief of the suffering to that beloved child.
Work with these easier things, but keep gradually working up. When you feel a stab of personal anguish on any score, stop and recollect yourself, and realise that in this very moment this feeling is being shared by others. And breathe in that Universal suffering and Breathe Out Happiness to all those fellow Beings. Do it a few times. Be fully aware in that still, silent, shared moment. And then go on with your life.
There are lots of different ways described as to how you actually go about Tonglen, but I think it is best kept simple. Use whatever visualisation works for you, attracts your mind stream and holds it. For some this is visualising dark smoke from others being inhaled and bright smoke being exhaled towards them, and so on and so forth.I think it is irrelevant what visualisation you use. It is the INTENTION that is necessary and after that your mindstream will produce a visualisation that works for you.
Or it may be more of a kinetic process for you than a visualisation, more of a feeling. Or it will happen while you make dinner. Or whatever! You know the basic idea and you own it. It is the spirit of the practice that is most important.
The Dalai Lama says Tonglen is his essential key personal practice. He says he does not know whether it works or not, but it makes him feel better and loosens up personal pain so that he can be of greater service to others.
In conjunction with Tonglen, I would advise you practice Self Tonglen. Especially in the beginning when the idea of selfhood is strong. Visualise your own self right before you. See yourself as you would see a beloved child. And breathe in your own suffering of the moment. And then breathe back out to your own blessed self the relief of that suffering. Continue for a while. Bless yourself with happiness, Peace and Freedom from suffering.
If you can then, expand the practice to loved ones, friends, community. And finally to those who you might call ‘enemies’ or people to whom you feel indifferent.
Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others and also we begin to take care of ourselves and others. It awakens our compassion and it also introduces us to a far larger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness that Buddhists call shunyata (VOID). By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being. At first we experience this as things not being such a big deal or so solid as they seemed before.
~ Pema Chodron