Breathe in Pain, Breathe out Joy

divine flute

A friend was struggling with helping her sister overcome her problems and sorrows.  She said that she could see that all the problems were ‘stories’ in her sister’s mind, but she was unable to help her sister see this.  The situation was proving stressful and frustrating for my friend.   This sparked a conversation on Tonglen and it prompted some insights that I would like to share here.

The Wikipedia describes Tonglen as a meditation practice,  wherein ‘one visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving happiness and success to all sentient beings.  As such it is a training in altruism.’  A lovely detailed note on this practice can be viewed at  http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema/tonglen1.php.

I first came across this practice many years ago, in a book on Buddhist teachings.  For some reason, I was uncomfortable with it.  As my understanding and experience of energy work grew over the years, I realized that I am sensitive to changes in subtle energies.  Hence, the intention of breathing in another’s suffering would make me feel uncomfortable as I was not yet adept enough at harmonizing the disruptions I would experience.  Consequently, Tonglen never became one of my own preferred practices.  Nevertheless, the compassionate intention always left an impression on me.

My stance on the practice of empathy and compassion has changed significantly over time and the notable junctures have been as follows:

Empathize with the pain

My own journey as a healer, counselor or mentor unarguably developed from my own experiences with disease, pain and suffering.  The motivation to share whatever had worked to alleviate at least some of the suffering for me and my close ones had instilled a high degree of empathy in my approach.  It took me a while to realize that this identification and deep resonance with the other’s pain could be counter-productive.  Somewhere along the line, emotions can cloud your discernment and efficiency.  And as I observed the family and friends of patients in hospital over many hours, I saw that their empathy was driving them into suffering along with the patients.  Instead of remaining sensitive to the pain while not being lost in the ‘illusion’ of suffering, they themselves were struggling to maintain their balance.  I shared this observation in both my books ‘Its Your Life – A Practical Handbook for Chronic Ailments’ and ‘The Caregivers Manual’.

Detachment from the ‘story’

As my studies and practices deepened, books like ‘A Course in Miracles’ and Buddhist teachings have greatly influenced me.  Somewhere along the way, I grew centered in the understanding that I am not the ‘doer’, but only a ‘divine flute’.  Whatever needs to happen, happens ‘through’ me and my only job is to get myself out of the way.  Which also implied a greater move towards awareness and detachment.  As I applied the learnings to my own life, I understand that pain is real, but suffering is definitely optional. While we buy into the ‘story’ and forget that all of this is an illusion, we resist ‘what is’ and hence suffer.  I admit that all this sounds like a lot of theoretical philosophy with little relevance to daily challenges.  But I believe I have reached a point where I can remember this most of the time.  There are still instances where I forget all of it and succumb to the ‘story’.  But these are mercifully far less frequent, intense and short lived then before.  Hence, I have developed a respect for implementing this theory in practice.  Now when you move to a more detached space, especially when dealing with someone else, you see the ‘story’ objectively and tend to point this out rather dispassionately.  But to the other person, their pain and challenges are real and almost insurmountable.  Even if this approach is working for me in my own journey, it can be difficult to reach the merits of this to the other.

Compassionate Understanding and Non-Attachment

I feel that the juncture I have now reached is the one that Tonglen teaches.  Please note that I am no expert on Buddhism and that this is my personal interpretation of the practice.   But I believe, that when we are able to be in touch with the other’s pain and suffering and yet concurrently retain a deeper understanding of the true nature of things, then we are able to transform their suffering.  Perhaps this is what is meant by breathing in their suffering and breathing out joy.  You need to know and demonstrate that you are in touch with their pain and see that their challenges are very real to them.  Yet, you remain non attached to the results, as you remain aware that this is a story and sooner or later, the other will wake up from this dream (or nightmare).  If you can stay rooted in knowing that despite this story, their essence remains whole, perfect and untouched, no matter what the external appearance – then your compassion can truly be a transformative practice.

While this post chronicles my shifts over a period of time, a fundamental belief has stayed constant throughout.  All said and done, I believe that the very intent of good wishes has a profound blessing effect on not only the recipient, but also our self.  Never spare an opportunity to send your love, light and blessings another’s way!

So it would be appropriate to end this post with my favorite chant – ‘Lokasamastha Sukhino Bhavantu’ – May all sentient beings be happy!

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10 thoughts on “Breathe in Pain, Breathe out Joy

  1. Wonderful insight about Tonglen..the co-holding of the other’s experience of pain and accessing the Reality of perfection/joy behind everything. As we (can) do that, we transform the experience of pain to one of equanimity, returning it to One-ness, Wholeness.

    It is such a HUMAN practice, isn’t it? For Humans are given the honour of standing between Heaven and Earth and bridging the two.

    When we do Tonglen, we are stepping into our true purpose as Humans!

    And then we can bless the opportunity (that required Tonglen) for serving our HUMANITY.

  2. Hi.
    Thank u for this very useful post. Am struggling with this, as I see a friend harming herself and find myself unable to do anything. I then realized I am being judgemental and not realizing she is operating out of pain. I can hence change my approach to one of compassion, but I still don’t know how to make her see her ‘story of pain’ ? Am I to just wish her well (for that is all I can do) ?

    1. Hello Uzma,

      Thank you for stopping by 🙂

      Being compassionate and non-judgmental, without encouraging the other to stay locked in their story – is a fine line to walk. It comes gradually with practice and self awareness… at least that is how it has been for me.

      I suggest you focus on your part – of being centered in compassion and this will reach her. When she feels ‘safe’, heard and understood, she may begin to see things differently. There are processes such as Byron Katie’s ‘The Work’ that are amazing in bringing about a change in perspective. You could suggest that she look it up.

      But before giving her any advise, please do read my previous post – ‘Silence Speaks‘.

      And yes – do wish her well, through prayer, visualizations or blessings. They do work!

      love and light,

      Sangeeta

  3. When you are in Oneness field, you share everything….happiness, sorrow, suffering etc…whether you like it or not and if you are sensitive… you will see somebody’s joy or sorrow is coming your way or your joy/sorrow going out to make others feel it….so in a sense.. we are transforming each other.. that’s the reality !

  4. Incredible! I had learnt this way back but didn’t know it is called Tonglen or that it is a Buddhist practice. It has been a moving experience every time I have done it and thanks to this post I feel like reviving the practice. Vice versa it has been also that after a meditation, or whenever I feel this sense of oneness with everything, I have started saying inwardly what Nithya Shanti says – “May all beings share in my joy. May all beings share in my peace”. It grounds the practice somehow. Thank you! Love and light

    1. Most welcome Deepti. I recommend Pema Chodron’s book, ‘Comfortable with Uncertainty’ and her other writings to deepen the understanding and practice of Tonglen. She writes most beautifully.

      love and light

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