Why I love Tonglen Practice

If you’re unfamiliar with Tonglen, perhaps you’d like to give it a try. Here’s a description from our companion site, The Faith-ing Project.

On the surface, it sounds pretty dreary: Bringing the suffering of others on to ourself. I mean, there’s always that unhealthy sort-of props we can give ourselves for being willing to sacrifice ourselves, being willing to take on someone else’s pain. But this isn’t really it. This isn’t why I love Tonglen. In fact, this mindset is a bit of a distraction. Maybe thinking good thoughts toward someone changes the world outside of us, maybe in some small way we actually take the pain from someone else and they experience less. But then again… maybe not.

Even if Tonglen was 100% only in my own mind, even if these thoughts for healing and health, these exhalations of light and joy, even if they didn’t change the world outside of me even the smallest bit…. I would still love Tonglen practice.

One of the things I explore at length in my upcoming book, Discovering the Essence: How to Grow a Spiritual Practice While Your Religion is Falling Apart (due out October 15, 2020 through Anamchara books) is the idea that spiritual practice is largely about facing our own pain and mortality. It is hard to sit, sometimes, because sitting is something we do with out distraction and all the thoughts and fears we usually run from we are now facing. It is hard, yes, but also good, because we discover that all these pains and fears can’t harm us. They are, in fact, a bit like a tiny, loud dog, one of those annoying creatures that doesn’t realize it couldn’t hurt us even if it wanted to.

In Tonglen, on the surface, the focus appears to be about someone else’s fears and pains. In some weird way, I am tricking myself. It’s really not there pain. Even if some sort of telepathy exists; even if somehow I am taking up the other person’s suffering, the simple reality is that I am filtering, projecting and interpreting. Normally, I would run away from my own pain. But because I have told myself that it isn’t my pain but someone elses, the pain sneaks into my awareness.

And that is good. This is all so strange and counter intuitve. It looks like the act is so noble and other-focused. But it is good for us precisely because it is not really about the other person at all.

But there is even more than all this!

Because this pain, which both is and is not my pain, is taken into my body and it is transformed. I sometimes see Christ within me, performing this profound alchemy. This transformation of the closed-off into wide open-ness, of the painful into the healing, of the anger into light; it is a testament to the strength and power of my own embodiement and to that which resides within me and yet at the same time is greater than me.

Tonglen is a strange and wonderful practice. The things I love about are surprising, and paradoxical.


Life is just this:

The first box is well-wrapped.

It is all lace and ribbon.

A work of art,

The medium equal parts scotch tape and imagination.


You look at the thing.

It is half as large as you, this great box.

So carefully wrapped.

You are almost ashamed to rend the sharp corners that have been battened down.


But with just a moments hesitation

You tear into it,

With equal parts delight and reget and you open the box.


There is only a thin layer or packing peanuts.  In them rests another box, just this much smaller.

This box has been wrapped with the sort of green wrapping paper easily found during the holidays.  

You pull it out and wonder.  You rip without hesitation. Discrard the red ribbon added, perhaps as an afterthought.


Only two boxes in,

You intuit what is next.

It is a little larger than a shoebox.  

Wrapped as it is in newspaper.  

You chuckle the disapointment away.


Life is just like this.

It is not what it seemed to be at the beginning.


This is what life is.

Knee deep in wrapping paper and fading glory.

Reduced to wondering on the troika:

How many boxes within boxes within boxes?


A shoebox, next of course,

Wrapped in a murdered brownpaper bag,  repurposed.


They, of course, are all laughing.

The ones who pretended to bring in this great kind gift.

Yours is a sad plastered on mockery of their glee

What else can you do, but open,

The shoebox,

Like a little coffin.


It is stuffed with bubble wrap.

You pop it once and twice between my thumb and index finger.

Pop! like a baby backfire

Pop!  Like a neutered murdered weapon.


There is the littlest box.  Nestled in the bubble wrap.

It must be the littlest box.

It held earings, once, perhaps.

From a now-defunct department store.  

It is not even wrapped.


This is life.

You open the littlest box.

It is empty.

It is like the monolith.


Can see eternity

In there.


Let Your Light Bring Me…

The excellent Book of Creation by J Philip Newell ends each chapter with a meditation.  After the chapter on the Celtic Christian understanding of light, he guides the reader in a sort-of breath prayer on psalm 43: “Send out your light; let it bring me to your dwelling.”

There are two things I would like to share with you about this lovely experience.

This moment of connection with people in a world before electricity.  I think this connection was born out of a couple experiences in camping, where I was unprepared.  There is a special kind of miserable that comes out of having not enough light or not enough heat.

If you have never struggled at creating these you don’t know how much they change everything.  As I meditated, I had this sense of being a weary traveler on a dark road, worried about thieves, worried about getting lost, worried about the creatures lurking in the darkness.

What would it be like, I wondered, to round a bend and see windows lit with a lantern, beacons telling you that you are going to make it?  As I thought about those words, I felt like an eager traveler, a pilgrim even, approaching his destination.

This sense of homecoming was made sweeter by the second thing.

“Know that in prayer we are opening ourselves to the One who dwells at the heart of life.  The light that we are seeking issues up from within…  Allow yourself to experience being led to the heart of light within you.”  He wrote.

This was not a journey upward and outward.  Like all great quests, it was downward and inward.  Intellectually, I get that, now.  But I was surprised at how freeing and novel it felt.

I am worthy of being a staging ground of the divine.  In my somewhat recent past, I would have been open to the idea that God might take up residence within…  But there was always this sense that God was slumming a little bit.

Like that song/ cliche, about ‘Jesus take the wheel’…  Generally speaking, He is cruising around in a brand new Rolls Royce.  He might be willing to teleport into my crappy little Honda, for a few minutes.  He is such a nice guy he won’t even talk about all the fast food wrappers on the floor or the fact that I can’t afford to fix the air conditioner.  But somewhere inside, I would have felt a little embarrassed that He would show up here.

Intellectually, I always knew we were made in God’s image.  But a lot more air time goes to the fall.  Living out the idea that there could be this permanent beacon within me…  That’s pretty cool.





Where I left it

I carry this hope.

That I might do this thing.

Or say those words.

Or look upon my brother or sister, with this expression of kindness….


I carry this hope:

That God watches the whole thing

With a smile of recognition.


“That’s where I put that.” He says, suddenly remembering.

“It’s just right where I left it.”


Turtles, Mangoes and Hearts

I was there in God’s heart.

It was not that I imagined myself there.  It was not that I brought myself there.  Rather, I awakened to that reality that I was already there: had always been there, would always be there.

I was there in God’s heart with Everything.  All the people I have ever loved.  All the people I thought I lost.  And I felt my boundaries being slowly absorbed, the things that comprise me preparing to return to the source they began in.

My own heart was like God’s heart: Deep calling out to deep.

And also, my heart was God’s heart.  Somehow they were the same thing, and impossibly, I was swimming there, within my own self, and in that me, a homunculus-clone within, there was a heart, and that inner heart that was also God’s heart: so it continued, an infinite regress.  Turtles, as they say, all the way down.

It was delicious and it was too much.  Almost like a mango.  Almost terrible.  I am thinking about the original meaning of the word ‘awesome.’  I am thinking about what it means to fear God.

And as I get further away from it, my memories seem to re-convey the experience with  increasing duplicity, and my awareness grows that words are such tiny little containers to try and cram Truth into.

Don’t Trust

All of the best things

Have an inevitability to them.


In retrospect,

That was how it had to end.

The logic of thing…

Defined as it is…

From the biggest picture.


A dinner, with those accompaniments

Could only ever have been capped off by that surprising tart.


That story!

I never would have seen that coming…

But that is the only climax such an oncoming ever could have merited.


There is just enough of


In me



Just enough that after the fact

I say “Of course!  That is what it had to be!”

And sometimes I laugh at just how fitting it all is.


Don’t trust the people

Who think they see it coming, though.

There never was going to be,

Quite that much of you

In us.


Open Hands

I was contemplating Christ on the cross, today: in my mind’s eye I was watching Jesus die.  I was doing my best to absorb the experience, to see it as part of the unfolding narrative.  I distanced myself, as best as I could, from theologies as best as I could.

I turned my hands up, as I sometimes do.  There is something in this small act that feels like an act of openness.  It is a request, of God, to rain something down to me.

As I turned my palms outward, I saw Jesus’ hands, also turned out.  I had this sudden and striking realization…  Sometimes, when we open up are hands, we don’t get grace and love rained down on us.  Sometimes, they drive a nail through it.  And it seems like just maybe this is how it is meant to be: we are called to have the courage of accepting whatever it is that is happening.


The Faith-ing Project

One of the things I have learned over the last couple years is that spiritual practices like meditation can be life-changing.  This lead to the creation of  The Contemplace.

The latest evolution in my spiritual journey and my online musings is the Faith-ing Project.  My vision is a place that can offer readers a new spiritual practice every day for a year.  I have been writing, organizing, and compiling for months.  I am just about ready to go!

The Faith-ing Project does not yet have a home or website.  But it does have a need.  And that need might just be you.  Are you:

  • Interested in spiritual practices?
  • Able to give these practices about 15 minutes a day?
  • Willing to offer feedback, criticism, and push back?

If this sound like you, please email otherjeffcampbell7@gmail.com   ask me your questions, or just let me know you are interested.

I am putting together a team of testers who will receive an email with each days practice.  In exchange for trying the practices out and sharing your experiences,  I will give testers free access to content that will eventually become paid on the site, and I will post thank yous, and links to content you might wish to direct others to.

Thanks for reading!


God’s first encounter with Moses is like a case study in what he was like; both us and beyond-us, both near and distant, both alien and human.  According to the book of Exodus, God said,

“And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I

have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.

 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh

to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and

bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

It seems to me that God was trying to help Moses see the close and human side.  He told the man that  he stands in solidarity with his people.  It seem like this wasn’t enough for Moses; he resists.  And he resists in a way I find particularly interesting.  He says, “Who am I?”

This is interesting because, up to a certain point, we have established that God knows who this is.  The whole thing begins with the burning bush saying Moses’ name.  What happens next, it seems to me, indicates that a related question Moses needed to ask was, “Who are you?”

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the

sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you

have brought the people out of Egypt, you[b] will

worship God on this mountain.”

 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites

and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’

and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

I have been there.  Maybe you have to.  Dealing with somebody intimidating, powerful, somebody it is hard to speak your mind to.  So we take this approach where we just say, “Hey, I am good with the whole thing.  But just in case somebody else isn’t, what are we supposed to say?”

 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.[c] This is what you are to say

to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,[d] the God

of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God

of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

“This is my name forever,
    the name you shall call me
    from generation to generation.

People so much smarter than me have said so many interesting things about the meaning and nature of the name that God gives here.  Richard Rohr talks about how the insights of a rabbi lead him to understand that the name, which we take to mean something like “I am who I am” sounds and feels like a breath.

Breath, which is where life begins.  Breath, that center piece of meditation.  Breath, that process that begins with birth and ends with death.  Just as God is both with us and beyond us, just as he as empathic and an alien, burning-not burning bush, God has a name which is much like our names, and also so very different than our names.

There is a tradition of declaring God’s name unsayable.  And yet, to the extent that God’s name is a breath itself, we say it more than we say any name at all.  Declaring His name unsayable is a way to point at God’s transcendence.  It is a declaration that we can not limit, contain, and fully understand God.  And yet, that act of breathing, is an act of waging peace, an act of taking control of ourselves.


So Near, So Far

There are many ways to follow Jesus.

The one that resonates with me these days is the path of the mystic.  I believe that a deep connection to God is possible.  I am experiencing a  connection that  runs deeper than words, ideas, and doctrine.  Experiencing this connection is an act of waking up to a reality that has been present all along.

I have been moved, recently, to take another look at Moses’ first encounter with God in the desert.  This passage, in Exodus chapter 3, has shaped my understanding of God… and perhaps more importantly, it has shaped my daily practice as a mystic.

At it’s most general, this encounter is a study in contrasts.  More than ever before, God is right there with us. And at the same time, he is so beyond us.  Where it begins, Moses’ life has fallen apart. He has fled the only life he has own. He has gone from being a prince to tending his father-in-law’s sheep.  He sees something strange: a bush which is on fire but not burned up, and he goes to investigate. And by the third verse, the God-is-here/ God-is there dynamic is already present:


When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  Then he said, “I am the God of your father,[a] the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

On the side of the fact that God is other:  he appears as a a burning bush. As if this isn’t weird enough, it’s a fire that doesn’t consume what it has taken over.  And as if that weren’t weird enough, he is an all-powerful, talking, ominiscient burning bush. When Moses approaches, he is told that he has entered some place new and special, and that he should not come any closer.

And yet!  The very first words that God speaks are Moses’ name.  God identifies himself as the god of Moses ancestors. This is a God who understands.  He expresses both knowledge and empathy. He beckons his child to him.

  Perhaps it is because he is overwhelmed with these two intense realities that this happens next:

Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God

And this is speculation, but perhaps God is responding to his overwhelmed prophet in what he says next.  Maybe this is God’s attempt to get Moses feeling close again:

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.”


So.  There is lots to be said.  And so much that can’t be said.  I feel that this is just a set up to some of the awesome stuff that will happen in the upcoming verses.  

But it’s pretty amazing all on it’s own.  I think it’s worth sitting with and chewing on:  A God transcendent of all our weaknesses and limitations, but one who is intimately involved with every aspect of our realities nonetheless.  

So for now, I think I will stop to breathe.