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Tonglen Meditation Practice

Posted Aug 24 2008 9:53pm


I’ve just about committed to the practice of Buddhism though I’m still feeling it out. I’ve been meditating every day for the past week. It’s not an easy endeavor; I feel my restlessness and my anxiety. Sometimes I settle into the meditation and my discomfort begins to disperse and other times I just sit breathing in the discomfort. I’ve been listening to audio tapes of Western Buddhist teachers and I’ve been reading books by them as well, especially Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun who follows the traditions from Tibet.



I first encountered the teachings of Pema Chodron soon after my last psychotic break six years ago. I had gone to Borders’ bookstore and bought one of her audio tapes. It was called Awakening Compassion , meditation practice for difficult times. I was about to go on a week long trip with my family and I felt fragile and unprepared. I thought this meditation might offer me some relief, some guidance and so I listened to the tapes on that trip. Pema Chodron talked about an in depth practice called lojong or “mind training”. This includes meditation on 59 pithy slogans in conjunction with a meditation practice called tonglen . Tonglen means “taking in and sending out”; you take in pain and discomfort and you send out healing and joy. First you do this for yourself in an abstract way, then you focus on a particular pain such as anxiety or depression and finally you imagine that you are breathing in other people’s pain and breathing out or sending to them healing. So the first part is the in-breath; you take in, breath in, make room in your heart for discomfort and suffering. You get in touch with it in a visceral way.



The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths. The First Truth is the fact of suffering. Breathing in pain is getting in touch with this First Truth. But what is also true for most of us? We want to run away from suffering, our own and others, not always, but often. We look for pleasure to mask the pain. And so, choosing to breathe in the pain, to sit with it for the span of an in-breath and then keep returning to it breath after breath is extraordinary. Instead of running away, we face the problem, we give suffering it’s due attention and respect. And then comes the out breath, the release, the healing, repeated over and over. It’s like saying--face the problems in life, embrace them and transform them, first for yourself and then for all others.



Sounds great, but the practice takes courage. Sometimes the courage is there and sometimes it’s not, either way the practice is rich. When the courage is there you can embrace the pain, love it and release it, which feels wonderful. When the courage is not there, you sit with the pain and feel it. You are the pain. You acknowledge that you are tense, fearful, angry, restless or sad and you stay put. You remember the core of what you are working on, the fact of suffering in yourself and all others. This propels your spiritual quest, to understand suffering and to end it. I’m finding that both states, those with and without personal courage, are very valuable. This may be why many teachers instruct that the point of meditation is not to feel better. The point is to wake up to your present moment by cultivating love and compassion for yourself. If you’re having a “good” meditation, then you feel a calm, deep pleasure, a cessation of suffering, which is essential to experience. But if you’re having a “bad” meditation, you are struggling to sit still and breath through the suffering. That is also essential to experience. This practice involves commitment and a gentle, lovingkind discipline.



“The Second Noble Truth is the origin, roots, nature, creation, or arising of suffering. After we touch our suffering, we need to look deeply into it to see how it came to be. We need to recognize and identify the spiritual and material foods we have ingested that are causing us to suffer.” --Thich Nhat Hanh ( The Heart Of The Buddha’s Teaching )



I think tonglen practice continues to echo the Noble Truths. Breathing in the pain we “touch our suffering”. Returning to it again and again we have a chance “to look deeply into it to see how it came to be.” The Third Noble Truth tells us that an end to suffering is possible by refraining from doing the things that harm us. And so we breathe out all the suffering, release it into the wide open. I’ve found that I visualize being trapped in a box on the in-breath and then on the out-breath I feel as if I am breaking into a breast stroke in calm waters, a sudden release. I am held by gentle waters, buoyant, relaxed and free.



“The Fourth Noble Truth is the path that leads to refraining from doing the things that cause us to suffer. This is the path we need the most. The Buddha called it the Noble Eightfold Path. The Chinese translate it as the ‘Path of Eight Right Practices’: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.” (ibid)



Except for Right Speech and Right Livelihood, I think the tonglen practice can be seen as an expression of the other Right Practices--View, Thought, Action, Diligence, Mindfulness and Concentration. But I have only just rediscovered the tonglen practice and the Four Noble Truths and may be caught up in enthusiasm.



Since the onset of winter, I’ve been detached from people online and offline. I dug myself a hole I wasn’t sure that I could get out of, but now, returning to Buddhism has given me a way to reconnect with others. I start with myself, my suffering and my happiness. When I feel how I suffer, I can also know how others suffer the same way and when I feel my moments of happiness, I can know others feel the same way and wish for more of it to come for all of us. I can cultivate sympathy for myself and empathy for others, day in and day out. I continually lose my way, but then I remember my breath and the practice and I return and keep working on it.



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I leave Tuesday morning to go down to Florida to visit my parents for the first time in six months. My mother’s eightieth birthday is in a week; it will be so good to see them. I’ll be back by the nineteenth. Take care and stay well.







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