Tonglen is an ancient meditation practice that originates in Tibetan Buddhism focused on the idea of turning towards and receiving suffering and pain, ‘breathing it in’ and then on the out breath breathing out love and compassion. Pema Chodron writes in a recent article, “In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath.”
While I learned of tonglen a while ago, it recently came to my mind when I heard a friend talking of how she practices this each day and has for many years. She writes that each morning… “I open the window and softly gaze on the trees around me, slowly and gladly breathing in all the suffering and breathing out love for tree. Just for a few minutes. Waves of gratitude filling me.” And says that she learned it intuitively from watching the trees, and later came to learn that it was part of this ancient practice.
Much of the literature talks about this approach being radically different from our dominant modern culture, in a time when we are encouraged to focus on ourselves, to distract ourselves from pain and suffering, particularly when we cannot do anything about it. This idea that facing it full on not only opens our hearts to others, but it also makes us more open to embracing the love and the joy.
I like to think about it as the potential for humans to act as an airfilter for suffering, the way that trees breathe in carbon dioxide and release oxygen back into the world.
Listening to my friend, and reflecting on my own journey I had a different insight. Historically I have not found it hard to turn towards the suffering in the world and to ‘breathe it in’. But at some point, possibly really early on, it was as though my filter got clogged and so, without knowing it, I kept on breathing in the pain and all that is wrong with the world, but rather than it transforming it just started clogging up the filter. Which meant that not only was I not breathing love back out into the world, I was holding on to the darkness.
There is no surprise ending here! I eventually got to a point where I hit overload – and it started to play out in all aspects of my life, my work, my health and how I was or was not able to show up for folks I loved. Fortunately, I was able to see what was happening in time and take a step back and start to make some changes. And to be more intentional about where I want to focus my energy. And to convalesce a little. I very much want to continue to show up as a healer and make my contribution in the eco-system. And I think that the language and greater understanding of a time tested practice will allow me to ease back. And then figure out what is the metaphorical way to get a maintenance service more often so that I don’t hold on to that which I can’t easily convert from darkness into light.