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.