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Tonglen – Beginning to let go.
When a dear friend first told me about Tonglen meditation I frowned. So counterintuitive. You breathe in darkness, consisting of others’ pain and suffering, and you breathe out light onto them. Why would I want to do that, I questioned? Why inhale negativity and allow what we are used to calling “bad energy” to enter my body? Wouldn’t it stay there? Affect me? My desire to remain “whole” and “positive” was strong and I was certain that allowing in “evil things” would damage my haughty aspirations. In Tonglen you essentially serve as a filter for all which you see as unwanted and use your body to purify it and release it back as joy and kindness. You can apply it to people suffering as a result of natural disaster, domestic abuse, disease, fear, neglect, you can even apply it to animals experiencing pain for any reason.
Pema Chodrin writes that “Tonglen puts us in touch with all the others who are just like us, who feel the way we do. We all experience pain and pleasure. We all gravitate to what’s comfortable and have an aversion to what’s not.” As I began to practice Tonglen against my wishes, just to give it a try, I found myself experiencing the most profound revelations that meditation ever brought to me. Now I am only beginning this journey and have much much to learn, and most certainly always will. What I came to realize is that Tonglen is ultimate compassion. Tonglen brings us back to where we are one, before we were separated by birth, by rules, by countries, by race, by gender, by class, by politics, by opinions… While you visualize the dark cloud of suffering, you feel the pain of others’ and identify with it, you own it, because you understand what it is like to be there, you are there. It brings you as close it can to standing in “someone else’s shoes”, because “someone else” is a human construct, a synthesis, our own creation of separateness that pulls us further away from each other and cuts the cords by which we are all connected.
Tonglen Meditation is a solution not just when you have a specific situation or person (s) in mind, but also when you feel helpless, when you want to help but time and distance separates you, when you cannot give physically or financially, because all you need is your mind. Once again, Chodrin affirms that “Tonglen goes against the grain of how we usually deal with the world: wanting life on our own terms, wanting things to work out for our own benefit, no matter what happens to others. The practice begins to break down the walls we’ve built around ourselves, begins to liberate us from the prison of self. As this protective shield starts to come apart, we naturally feel a wish to reach out. People need help, and we can provide it – both literally and at the level of aspiration for their well-being”. For me, Tonglen is also about giving up control, letting go of the persistent thinking that I must avoid all pain and suffering and not letting it into my mind and body. When I feel the pain of others, I am much less likely to become the one that causes it, thus revealing my most intimate humanity, and what is more potent than that?