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Ah, but did you know the rain does not know that it is rain? And that the birds do not know that they are birds? And where does the rain end and the birds begin? And my pain, is it really mine? Does it have the beginning? The end?
From “Kabbalah, a Love Story” by Rabbi Kushner, “we have a word for leaf, twig, branch, trunk, roots. The words make it easier for us to categorize and comprehend reality. But we must not think that just because we have words for all parts of a tree, a tree really has all those parts. The leaf does not know, for instance, when it stops being a leaf and becomes a twig. And the trunk is not aware that it has stopped being a trunk and has become the roots. Indeed, the roots do not know when they stop being roots and become soil, nor the soil the moisture, not the moisture the atmosphere, not the atmosphere the sunlight. All our names are arbitrarily superimposed on what is, in truth, the seamless unity of all being”.
Once in a while, you read something so precious, so delicious, so inspiring, that you must share it with others. As I watch this gorgeous morning take hold outside my window, I feel the breeze enter my breathing passages and caress my skin, the birdsongs echo each other in the tippy tops of the trees, the rain cool and nourishing, a cacophony of joy, beauty, awakening. Grateful to give up control, to not resist, to lose over and over again, self, inside this magnificent unity.
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?