Sunday, February 17, 2013


Tonglen. I learn that this is the practice in which I have been engaged for some time now. Without even knowing what it was or that it had a protocol and a name, I have been involved in the Buddhist practice of tonglen. Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun and writer, defines it simply: "when anything is painful or undesirable, breathe it in." But why? Why would we lean in to suffering, sadness, pain?

Though I didn't let it derail me, I have over the years wondered about the source of my interest in exploring volunteering with Hospice, reaching out to people I know have experienced tremendous loss,  teaching yoga to cancer patients, or even writing a book like Inertia. I knew it was possible to interpret these interests as morbid or even masochistic, but they felt too right to judge in this way, so I have pursued them...allowed myself to lean in to "what aches, what saves."

Funny, that little quote is from a poem I wrote almost ten years ago--before I began this unwitting tonglen practice. In a time when I was fervently resisting pain and sadness, protecting and shielding the soft spot of my boddhichitta, or tender heart, which had in recent years become fearful and incredibly vulnerable through having become the mother of two beautiful boys. Even then, I seemed to have a sense of the parallelism between "what aches" in the heart and "what saves" us in this lifetime. I knew intuitively, without even processing it cognitively, that these two things were one and the same. It was evidenced in my poetry, but I had yet to open myself to what that meant.

"In tonglen," Pema Chodron says, "we become willing to begin to expose this most tender part of ourselves" and doing so "tells us that there are people all over the world who are feeling exactly what [we're] feeling...the story lines vary, but the underlying feeling is the same for us all." In tonglen, one breathes in what is dark, painful and full of sorrow, and one breathes out, literally sends out in an ever-widening circle, that which is light, joyful and full of hope. "If you can know it in yourself, you can know it in everyone" and in this way tonglen is a practice that awakens our sense of kinship with all beings. It widens our circle of compassion while at the same time helping us to cultivate fearlessness.

It's a beautiful practice. We lean in to what hurts us: anger, disappointment, self-loathing, jealousy...we breathe it in, absorb it through our pores, and "use [this] poison as an opportunity to feel our heart, to feel the wound, and to connect with others who suffer in the same way." Yes. And we send into the world, with our breath, everything that is light and divine and full of happiness. These things are infinite by their nature. Radiating them like this in no way depletes our own abundance of light; instead that light is perpetuated and strengthened through this practice of sharing and extending the wish to help.

Tonglen. What beauty in its purpose. To cultivate fearlessness, to connect ourselves profoundly with all other beings. To know our own sorrow, acknowledge it and name it and sit with it, rather than acting out or repressing it. In practicing this, "we gradually begin to realize how profound it is just to let [that sorrow] go, not rejecting [it], not repressing [it]. We discover how to hold our seat and feel completely what's underneath all that hopelessness and despair...We find that there's something extremely soft, what is called boddhichitta. If we can relate directly with that, then all the rest is our wealth."

I sit with this idea of tonglen. I meditate on how it moves in my own heart and know it as the perfect expression of compassion. Empathy. It helps me to understand these 'interests' of mine and inspires me to follow them where they may lead. I am indeed practicing tonglen. It makes me brave. It lights my way.

**Thank you to Pema Chodron whose book Comfortable With Uncertainty my son Taiaroa chose for my Christmas stocking this year and from the pages of which all quotes in this post (with the exception of "what aches, what saves") are drawn. And thank you, Taiaroa, for such a wise choice. Namaste, my love.

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