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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Either, or; Both/And

Sometimes, I delude myself into thinking there is this either/or.

One way of expressing this dualism is through the question,  ” Which is best: prayer or meditation?”

A deeper way to view this is to think about positioning myself to hear from a God who is outside of me versus orienting myself to quiet the mind.

The problem is that the prayer road seems rather ignorant of the convoluted workings of my inner landscape, and The meditative path seems to be functionally agnostic.

I began to find a way beyond this either/or when I realized that quieting all the noise that happens in my head (meditation) is the best way to hear from God (prayer.)  But this?  It is just the tip of the iceberg!

Today, I had this realization that an encounter with God is a thing that is so awesome, so holy, so worthy.  It is something like sex, in that it is an interaction which happens on so many levels at once.

More than any other interaction, this is the one that demands the fullest, most authentic ‘me.’  And so, a self-centered act of meditation is a necessary preamble to an other-centered reaching out.  And at the same time, the best way I find God is not by reaching out and out and out, beyond me…   Despite all appearances, the place I really find God, is by an inward journey, finding God at the very most inner place of all!

And so it seems that suddenly, these are not different acts at all, but meditation and prayer live in the same kind of mutually interdependent dance that God and I exist in.

 

Who am I?

It is said that St. Francis passed an entire night asking, “Who are you, God?” and  “Who am I?”

 

Turning this into a breath prayer: “Who are you”?” (exhale)  “Who am I?” (inhale) is one of my favorite practices.

 

Tonight, there were moments of transcendence.

 

There was a timeless time that I lost myself.  I was asking the questions but would have been unable to tell you which question applied to me, the asker, and which question applied to the entity who is not (at least apparently) me.

 

My inability to know who I was doesn’t feel like I lost the knowledge of myself.  Rather, it feels like I fell into a deeper truth that I am, in some way, God. I think this might be connecting to that divine breath that turned the primal fist full of Earth into the first person.  I believe we still carry this divine spark, this image of God. I think, for just a moment, I was there, at that part of me so deep that it stops being me and it starts being something… magnificent.

 

I Just Want One More Hug

When my kids were younger,  all 3 of them went through a stage that was equal parts endearing and frustrating.   It was a time of not wanting to go to bed.   A period of inventing countless,  increasingly absurd excuses.

“I need a drink.   I have to go to the bathroom.   I forgot my stuffed animal.”  Children are deeply manipulative creatures.   Eventually they would happen upon reasons that were hard to resist.   “I need a hug.  I need a kiss.   Can I have a back rub?”

I broach this topic here because I am learning that there are parts of me that are like my children.   They don’t want to let go.   They don’t want to release their hold.

People call it the false self.   And the monkey mind.  It is the reason that meditation needs to be learned; because there is a part of us that resists.

It takes the form of needing to move,  wiggle and itch.   Or the thoughts and feelings that just won’t be released,  that keep coming back,  as annoying as the single fly that threatens to ruin the picnic.   Or the desire to shave a few minutes off the end of a meditation session to respond to a facebook notification.

My false self,  my monkey mind, it is no less clever than young kids.   I am a thinker.   And when I’m letting go,  my mind offers me these tantalizing rabbit trails,  fragments of thoughts,  compelling metaphors.   Much like kids,  my mind closes in on my weakness.

I totally understand the value of an approach I associate with  Zen Buddhism:  Ignore every itch.   Sit for the entire time.   Do not compromise anywhere.

I get it just as much as I get parents who draw a line in the sand.  No you may not have another drink,  a stuffed animal,  or even a hug.    Bed time is bed time.   End of story.

I could just never make that work.   Treating my kids that way just created this tornado of ugly emotions and suddenly everybody is wide awake  and feeling unloved. (or maybe that was just me.)

In the same way, when I take that militaristic stance to an intrusive thought,  I get pulled into dualistic experiencing of the world.   When I refuse to scratch an itch,  I grow to hate that itch…   In the words of eminent sage  and theologian Pauly Shore,  I harsh my mellow.

Perhaps my wonderful kids were a bit spoiled.   Maybe my meditation practice suffers.   I can live with those possibilities.

 

Swallowing the Key

I am learning that most of the difficulties we face are self-created: If we could only get out of our own way, things would be so much easier.

There was a time I believed that their was this impenetrable wall between myself and God.  I thought that there was no way to cross this divide.  I thought there was no possibility of union.

I am learning that I built this wall.  The good news is that I built a door in the wall.  The bad news is that I locked it up and swallowed the key.

A lifetime ago, I would have told you that my brokenness and failings are what keep me away from God.  And that is a little bit true.  I have this sense that this is, at best, half the story, though.

The other half of the story?

This separation from God is really about my unwillingness to own the best parts of “me.”  Sometimes I think about this as the primal breath that God breathed into dirt that made me a human being.  I have heard it called my true self.  And also Christ within me.

This unnameable place is both mine and God’s.  My failure to experience his connection to me is my failure to own these most intimate parts of my very nature.

The Broken Heart Above

I was in prayerful meditation, and the Leonard Cohen song, “Come Healing” was playing.

He sang:

“O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above”

And I was so struck by this image; it is not, perhaps, what was intended, but it welled up within me, forcefully.  It is something that felt right and true.

The image was of a broken hearted God, saddened by the fact that the world is far from where it could be.  I have been deeply pondering the idea of “I am” recently, and the idea of mindfullness and presence.  I am convinced that a divine attribute is to be wholly here and now, in this very moment.  Assuming this is true, God would, be fully aware of hurt, pain, and heart ache.  Every ounce of it in every single being alive.

And at the same time, we are headed to this redemption, this mending of all that is broken.  God’s awareness of this, too, must be much more complete than mine.  And so, while God is fully aware of the pain he is also, I think fully hopeful of a time beyond our current hurt.

*******

I feel like two post scripts are necessary to the above paragraphs.  If you are untroubled by the things I wrote above, you might not find it necessary to consider the following…

Post Script #1:

I am keenly aware that the idea of a disapointed, sad, and angry God have been used as a manipulation tactic for far too long.  I do not endorse or believe in a God that is broken-hearted by every single choice we make which falls short of perfection.  I think his sadness would be an act of solidarity with our sadness.

Post Script #2:

The idea of attributing any emotions to God at all, is a mixed bag for me.  I do not think that God’s experience of sadness fully resembles my experience of sadness.  One major reason for this is that God, being infinite, could I think be fully broken-hearted and fully hopeful at exactly the same time.  It seems that this would be very different than my human, finite experience of being half-way broken hearted and halfway hopeful at the same time.

Inspired!

You are divinely inspired.

God-breathed: that’s what divinely inspired means.  People wonder, and argue, and get hung up on questions about what it means that the bible is divinely inspired.  I can understand why this is a conversation worth having.

But I think it fades a little bit, when I consider the idea that  “the Lord God formed a man[c] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

The idea that you, and I, are God-breathed, that we are divinely inspired is way more interesting, important, and inspiring than any questions about which part of the bible is true.

The breath, is of course, such an important thing.  Like so many other things, it can hover in the back of our awareness for our whole lives.  But when we turn our attention to it, we are filled with wonder and equipped to go so much deeper.  Breath, is of course, the cornerstone of meditative and contemplative practices.

I grow increasingly convinced that the breathing we engage in is a rehearsal of that first primal breath.  It occurred at the very beginning of humanity.  It also occurred at the very beginning of our own, individual life.  God breathed once into us, a long time ago.  All the breaths that follow are nothing but our attempt to do that breath right.

In a sense, breathing is this picture of our attempt to return to God.

And at the same time, I am sure that each breath we breathe is God breathing with us, through us, and for us.  His ongoing work in humanity is this act of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation which continues for as long as we live.

In another sense, breathing is this picture of our ongoing interactions with God.

And finally, breathing, I think, is this act of connection.  Perhaps it was in that first breath that God placed his very image inside of us.  However it was, their is God/Christ/Spirit within me.  And yet, God is outside to.   The act of breathing is this reaching out, of God within to hold hands with the God that is outside of me.

And so, finally, breathing is this picture of God reconnecting with Godself.

And also?  It’s good to get rid of carbon dioxide and get a fresh lungfull of oxygen.