Monday, May 9, 2011

Tonglen

Mother's Day, Pico Blvd., Los Angeles 2011


Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us.

I had tea yesterday with a dear friend who shares many of the same problems that I have -- balancing a life of one's own with a family, a husband, financial difficulties, a child with special needs and the siblings of that child. We also share a similar sense of humor. We joked about the circus aspect of our lives, about our roles as ringmasters, about how impossible it all is and seems and how relentless. We even joked about gassing ourselves, pantomiming the method. At one point in our conversation, she looked at me and asked Do you ever wonder why it's so hard for us? I know she meant why our lives are so much harder than many of those we know -- many of our friends and most of our families -- and I don't have an answer other than a deep, abiding knowing that life is hard. It's hard, anyway. 


Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us.


Those words are the great Pema Chodron's, a Buddhist teacher whose essay about Tonglen, the Tibetan word for giving and taking, a meditation practice, sustains me when I'm feeling down or overwhelmed, when life's suffering threatens to muffle its joy. 


Tonglen is a practice where one works with our tendency to avoid suffering and resist pain, a habit that also causes us to armor ourselves, separate ourselves from both interior experiences and those of others. It is a practice of compassion where you use your own suffering to alleviate the sufferings of others. Instead of resisting your feelings of anger, fear, despair, grief, pain, etc., you acknowledge them with your breath -- you even embrace them with your breath. And then you breathe out. When you breathe in again, you might acknowledge all the suffering of all the people you know and embrace that, too. And then you breathe out. When I am near to despair over Sophie's seizures I practice tonglen by breathing in the sufferings of all the mothers I know who have children that seize and all the mothers I don't know who have children that seize. And then I breathe out. I breathe out love and compassion and health and happiness for all those mothers and all those children.

I believe that embracing suffering, meeting it, accepting it and even embracing it might lead to understanding it, and that understanding connects me, deeply, to others.

Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others and also we begin to take care of ourselves and others. It awakens our compassion and it also introduces us to a far larger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness that Buddhists call shunyata. By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being. At first we experience this as things not being such a big deal or so solid as they seemed before. 
--Pema Chodron




22 comments:

  1. Beautiful post. (long lovely exhale)

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  2. I am breathing in and out.

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  3. I want to believe. The white balloons look like floating moons. Wonderful.
    xr

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  4. Tonglen is so simple and so hard! But I truly believe it is incredibly important in giving perspective and connecting us to others. So pleased to know you have a friend you can joke and talk seriously with like this. It makes such a difference.

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  5. I say that whatever works is what works and this is a beautiful belief.

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  6. you have to know how this speaks straight to my heart.
    breathing in....breathing out...
    tying my heart to this wheel of life in compassion.

    and this shot from a moving car....
    you know. yes, you know this delights me so.

    xoxoxoxoxox

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  7. Such a powerful post...so much to take in and learn.

    I am breathing in and out with you.

    much love,
    steph

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  8. Thank you. I have never heard of this practice and can use it right now.

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  9. Which may be why I understand the teachings of the I Ching better than those of the Bible for instance. Nothing teaches patience better than to go to Eastern Oregon in search of the white yarrow to dry and whittle the proper stalks. Or how to embrace what the Universe brings, to me at least, never clearly than this:

    " Thunder on the mountain:
    The image of Preponderance of the Small.
    Thus in his conduct the superior man gives preponderance to reverence.
    In bereavement he gives preponderance to grief.
    In his expenditures he gives preponderance to thrift."

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  10. So wise. I am so glad you found this practice and shared it with us. x0 N2

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  11. This just might be the best blog post I've ever read. Thank you.

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  12. Embracing, tonglen, and not asking why - thank you for this post.

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  13. This is lovely Elizabeth. Such a beautiful spiritual and very human perspective. Thank you for sharing it.

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  14. Elizabeth -- I LOVE THIS post.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

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  15. What I find so amazing about tonglen is that I feel better at the end of it. Cause it's all about me:)

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  16. I loved Pema Chodron. Thank you for this reminder. Working with "what is" seems to be the only way through...offering love, compassion and awareness does bring peace. We can't prevent suffering, but we can learn to work with it. xoxoxo

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  17. This is wonderful. Thank you.

    My beloved baby sister (51 this year, but she'll always be the baby of the family) just had an operation to remove a cancer. And we've felt stricken, all of us. This idea about accepting in the breath and then returning love really strikes a chord of peace. Thank you.

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  18. I practice this breathing with my little ones at school, but when things get tough at home...completely forget my breathing.

    I had a conversation just the other day regarding how hard my life seems to be in comparison with others. I know that there is an element of choice on some level... it's interesting.

    Love this post, Elizabeth. xo

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  19. Thank you for this. Breathing love.

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  20. How beautiful. In listening to various of Pema Chodron's talks, I'd missed this. Intuition sent me to your blog today, after too long an absence, where lessons waited. Thank you. xo

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