Many of you will have heard of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, which has been popularised in the west by Buddhist writers such as Sogyal Rinpoche (author of ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’) and Pema Chödrön. It was also mentioned in the recent book on chronic illness ’How To Be Sick’ by Toni Bernhard.
So, what is tonglen? Well, the purpose of Buddhist practice is to open to life and is based on the notion that suffering is caused by clinging to pleasant experience and pushing away uncomfortable sensations. I imagine that most people reading this are pretty familiar with some of the less joyful aspects of life but have you ever found that by relaxing into unpleasant sensations, even pain, some of the suffering is removed? This is the approach adopted in mindfulness meditation and tonglen is another technique which works in a similar way, by softening the heart to tough experience and allowing us to open to whatever is present in our life right now, at this very moment.
The basis of tonglen practice is simple. When you notice suffering in the world, whether it is your own or others‘, you imagine taking it into yourself and then sending out love, kindness and healing to the person, people or animal who is experience pain. The pain or suffering can be visualised as dark smoke coming into your heart, and the energy of loving kindness as white light. This is not so important, though, as focussing on the suffering and loving kindness in turn. Usually, tonglen is done in combination with the breathing in that suffering is taken in on the in breath and loving kindness is sent out on the out breath.
You may well be thinking at this point why would I wish to take in more suffering when I have quite enough of my own just now! This is completely understandable. The point of tonglen, however, is not to take in more suffering, but to open your heart to painful experience. You will not actually get the illness or pain of another person, but by opening to it, your heart will soften and your body may well relax. I am sure we have all been in a situation in which we hear something terrible happen on the news and feel powerless to do anything. Tonglen is an excellent practice to do at such times. Sogyal Rinpoche also found that dying patients found that tonglen gave meaning to their pain as they could use it to connect with other people suffering in the same way. Similarly, if you have a chronic illness, you can imagine all the other people who have the same condition and breathe in their pain and suffering. You may find this to be a very connecting experience which cuts through isolation.
My own Buddhist teacher experienced a great deal of physical while he was engaged in the tradition three year retreat of Tibetan Buddhism and found that tonglen was the main way he could cope with this. When we are experiencing a lot of our own pain, it can be difficult to open to the pain of others, but instruction in tonglen tells us to start with ourself before attempting to do this in any case. In the lojong (mind training) text ’Training The Mind In Seven Points’ we are explicity told “Begin the sequence of taking with yourself”.
So, how does tonglen work when you are dealing with your own pain? The answer to this is in exactly the same way as it does with the suffering of others. When we are in pain, often we separate off that part of ourself and try to push it away. By breathing in your own pain (and this can be either physical or emotional pain) and sending loving kindness to that part of you, your heart opens to the pain and it is included in your experience instead of shut off. I personally find this to be a very healing experience. Although the nature of the pain may not change, the mere act of softening and opening can make it a lot easy to be with it. Hardening to pain rarely reduces it whereas softening and relaxing with it puts the body into a healing state rather than feeling the stress of suffering. This is not something you only need to do once, though, and repeated practice of tonglen tends to work well when you are experiencing ongoing pain. Hopefully, though, as you get used to being with your own bodily sensations and emotional turmoil, it becomes easier to open to this in the future.
Once you are in a state in which you are comfortable with your own experience of suffering, you might wish to go on and do tonglen for the suffering of others. Illness can, understandably, often lead to quite a focus on the self, and, by opening our view to the suffering of others, tonglen can work to shift our view to a more outward looking one. This can place our own struggles in perspective and remind us we are not the only person in the world who is going through a hard time, which it can often feel like! Given that personal and global pain is pretty much a given in life, having such a simple and heartfelt practice to work with it feels, to me, like a wonderful gift. You don’t need to be a Buddhist monk or nun to do tonglen and you can do it anywhere. Be a bodhisattva in your own bed!