Updated: Apr 25
The following is an excerpt from Tonglen: The Path of Transformation, by Pema Chödrön, Vajradhatu Publications.
The everyday practice is simply to develop a complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions, and to all people, experiencing everything totally without mental reservations and blockages, so that one never withdraws or centralizes onto oneself. — Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
TONGLEN IN DAILY LIFE
All sentient beings without exception have bodhichitta, which is the inherent tenderness of the heart, its natural tendency to love and care for others. But over time, in order to shield ourselves from feeling pain and discomfort, we have erected solid barriers that cover up our tenderness and vulnerability. As a result, we often experience alienation, anger, aggression, and a loss of meaning in our lives--both individually and on a global scale. Somehow, in the pursuit of happiness, we have unwittingly created greater suffering for ourselves.
Tonglen, or the practice of sending and taking, reverses this process of hardening and shutting down by cultivating love and compassion. In tonglen practice, instead of running from pain and discomfort, we acknowledge them and own them fully. Instead of dwelling on our own problems, we put ourselves in other people's shoes and appreciate our shared humanity. Then the barriers start to dissolve, our hearts and minds begin to open.
Before presenting the formal practice of tonglen, I would like to discuss a few ways that you can begin to incorporate the tonglen outlook into your daily life. After all, how you lead your life-- with maitri and compassion for both yourself and others--is really the point. What's more, if you train in the outlook on a daily basis, you will find that the formal practice comes much more naturally.
Trungpa Rinpoche used to tell his students to live their lives as an experiment. In other words, be inquisitive, be open and without expectations, then see what happens and learn from your experience. For this reason, I often suggest that students chose a limited amount of time--say, three months or a year--to work with the tonglen approach, just to see how it affects their lives. But don't think that you will be able to perfect the practice in such a short time. Tonglen is really a practice for the rest of your life.
Practicing sitting meditation, or shamatha-vipashyana, a little bit every day is a good way to start training in the tonglen attitude. It's a way of checking in with your state of mind, like holding up a mirror to yourself. Sitting cultivates both absolute and relative bodhichitta. As an absolute bodhichitta practice, it teaches us not to grasp at thoughts and emotions as solid. As a relative bodhichitta practice, it teaches us maitri and compassion for ourselves.
In general, it's not a good idea to start doing the formal tonglen practice until you have a good grounding in sitting meditation. You especially need to cultivate steadfastness, the courage and patience to sit with whatever arises during meditation. Otherwise, you might be knocked off your cushion by the emotions that tonglen provokes. For that reason, it is always suggested that you begin and end with sitting meditation whenever you do tonglen.
Even if you're not on a cushion or in the meditation hall, you can experiment with the practice of mindfulness and awareness. You can use it as a tool to get in touch with what you are feeling in the present moment. For example, sometimes when I am alone or find myself in a quiet setting--taking a walk in the woods, gazing out my cabin window, or sitting on a bench by the ocean--I let go of my thoughts and try to see what lies underneath them.
Actually, this is the essence of mindfulness practice: always coming back to the immediacy of your present experience and letting go of thoughts and judgements about it. You will probably discover there is something that remains after you drop the thoughts and the story lines. What's left is the immediacy of the sense perceptions--sight, smell, touch, and so on--as well as a feeling or mood.
For example, perhaps the feeling underneath your thoughts is self-hatred. Consequently, when thoughts begin to bubble up, they sound like "bad, bad; good, good; should, shouldn't." When you become aware of such thoughts, you just let them go and come back to the immediacy of your experience. This in itself is the practice of maitri, or making friends with yourself.
I am a big fan of making aspirations. I think they are very helpful on our path, because they help us to stay in touch with our motivation to develop bodhichitta. The lojong slogan, "Two activities: one at the beginning, one at the end," suggests beginning and ending each day by reaffirming your motivation to dissolve barriers, to open your heart, and to reach out to people. When you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, you could make an aspiration. You could use your own words or repeat a traditional aspiration, such as the Four Limitless Ones or the Bodhisattva Vow. (Refer to the "Daily Chants" section on p. 124.)
Sometimes you may feel that the formal practice of tonglen is too much for you. In that case, you could simply make the aspiration: "One day may I be able to open my heart a little more than I can today." With this approach, there is no blame or self-recrimination. There is just a sincere wish to grow.
Equality practice is a way of connecting with others and realizing that you and they are in the same boat. It is a simple human truth that everyone, just like you, wants to be happy and to avoid suffering. Just like you, everyone else wants to have friends, to be accepted and loved, to be respected and valued for their unique qualities, to be healthy and to feel comfortable with themselves. Just like you, no one else wants to be friendless and alone, to be looked down upon by others, to be sick, to feel inadequate and depressed.
The equality practice is simply to remember this fact whenever you meet another person. You think, "Just like me, she wants to be happy; she doesn't want to suffer." You might choose to practice this for a whole day, or maybe for just an hour or fifteen minutes. I really appreciate this practice, because it lifts the barrier of indifference to other people's joy, to their private pain, and to their wonderful uniqueness.
In The Way of the Bodhisattva, the great Indian teacher and poet Shantideva stresses the importance of meditating on the equality of self and others in this way:
Strive at first to meditate Upon the sameness of yourself and others. In joy and sorrow all are equal. Thus be guardian of all, as of yourself.
Jeffrey Hopkins, the Dalai Lama's translator for ten years, tells a story about travelling with him in the West. Wherever he went, His Holiness would repeat in English, "Everyone wants happiness, doesn't want suffering." He would go to an airport or a lecture hall or a news conference and say, "Everyone wants happiness, doesn't want suffering." At first Jeffrey thought, "Why does he keep saying this?" because it seemed so simplistic and ordinary. But after a while the message began to sink in, and he thought, "Yes, I need that!" It is simple, but it is also profoundly true, and it was exactly the kind of teaching he needed to hear.
At first, this practice might seem commonplace or shallow to you. But believe me, it's a real eye-opener. It humbles us, because it shines a spotlight on our habit of thinking that we are the center of the world. When we acknowledge our shared humanity with another person, we connect with them in a surprisingly intimate way. They become like family to us, and this helps dissolve our isolation and aloneness.
Sharing Your Heart
The practice of sharing your heart is twofold: sharing happiness and accepting pain. For the first, when anything is delightful in your life, you wish that other people could share it. For the second, when you feel any sense of suffering, you think that many other people are also suffering and you wish that they could be free from it. This is the very essence of the tonglen outlook: when things are pleasant, think of others; when things are painful, think of others. If this practice is the only thing you remember after reading this book, it will benefit you and everyone you come in contact with.
When you experience any kind of pleasure or well-being in your life--appreciating a bright spring day, a good meal, a cute baby animal, or a nice hot shower--notice it and cherish it. Such simple pleasures can bring us a lot of joy, tenderness, and a sense of relief. We have many of these fleeting golden moments in our life, but we usually speed right past them. So the first part of the practice is just to stop, notice, and fully appreciate them. Next, you make the wish that other people could also enjoy them. As you do this practice more, you will probably find yourself noticing these moments of happiness and contentment more and more.
When you practice giving in this way, you don't bypass your own pleasure or enjoyment. Say you're eating a bowl of delicious strawberries. You don't think, "Oh, I shouldn't really be enjoying these so much. Think of all the other people who don't even have a piece of bread to eat." Instead, you should think, "Wow! This is a fantastic strawberry. I've never tasted anything so delicious." You can enjoy your strawberry thoroughly. But then you think, "I wish everyone could enjoy this, I hope that they will have a chance to enjoy this too."
You could also think of a personal possession that gives you a lot of pleasure, such as your favorite sweater or your favorite tie, then imagine giving it away to people you meet. This practice isn't about actually giving anything away, because you are working at the level of imagination. But it puts you in touch with your habit of grasping, shutting down, and not wanting to share things with others. In the process, you develop confidence in your own inherent richness, that fact that you always have a lot to give others.
Treya Wilbur described this kind of giving practice in the book Grace and Grit, which is about her battle with terminal cancer. She had already been doing tonglen for a long time. One day she lost a gold star necklace that her parents had given her, which was like a good-luck charm because she had worn it through all her most difficult times, chemotherapy and operations. When she couldn't find it anywhere, it seemed like a bad omen and she became depressed. But based on her experience of tonglen, she suddenly got the idea of visualizing millions of these stars and giving them away to benefit everyone she met. During the process of practicing in this way, she became acutely aware of her habitual patterns of desire, attachment, and clinging, and she began to give away anything for which she felt a momentary attachment. This didn't always help her to overcome her clinging, but through this work she developed compassion for everyone else like her who had good intentions but couldn't quite live up to them. Through this practice that she discovered through her own insight, she was able to get over losing the star and, most importantly, learned the joy of dropping attachment and giving to others.
The second part of the practice is somewhat more advanced. So don't try it unless you feel comfortable with the idea. First you notice when you experience something that is uncomfortable, painful, or unpleasant. Then you make the wish that other people could be completely free of it and imagine sending them whatever you think would bring relief.
For example, if you start to feel depressed, you say to yourself, "Since I'm feeling depressed anyway, may I accept it fully so that other people can be free of it." Or, "Since I have a toothache anyway, may I accept it completely so that other people may be free of it." Then send them a sense of relief. Just do it very simply, without worrying too much about the logic. For many people, this kind of exchange will seem like too much, too soon. But I present it anyway, because I have personally found it very empowering. It turns around the revulsion and paranoia that we normally feel about anything unpleasant, the feeling that we are the target, and we use it as fuel for awakening the heart.
"Traffic jam tonglen" is a specific instance of this practice. It's about working with all the uncomfortable feelings that you experience when you are stuck in a traffic jam, or perhaps in a very long line at the market: anger, resentment, restlessness, uptightness, fear of missing an appointment. First you look around and realize that all the other people stuck in the jam are feeling the same way you do. Then you breathe in fully whatever you are feeling and send out a sense of relaxation and relief, both for yourself and all the other people in the traffic jam. You realize that, as human beings, you are all in the same boat. Everyone is putting up barriers and using the discomfort of the traffic jam to feel more and more isolated. So you turn the situation around, and it becomes your link with all the other people stuck in their cars. Suddenly, as you look out the window at them, they all become human beings.
Tonglen On the Spot
This practice is really the essence of the tonglen approach. Because I have found it very helpful for myself, I like to recommend it to all my students. Even if you choose not to do the formal tonglen practice, you can always do this on-the-spot practice. Once you get used to it and practice it regularly, it will make formal tonglen practice more real and meaningful to you.
This is a practice that you can do for a real-life situation you meet in daily life. Whenever you meet a situation that awakens your compassion or that is painful and difficult for you, you can stop for a moment, breathe in any suffering that you see, and breathe out a sense of relief. It is a simple and direct process. Unlike the formal practice, it does not involve any visualizations or steps. It's a simple and natural exchange: you see suffering, you take it in with the inbreath, you send out relief with the outbreath.
For example, you might be in the supermarket and see a mother slapping her little girl. It is painful for you to see, but there is really nothing you can say or do at that moment. Your first reaction might be to turn away out of fear and try to forget it. But in this practice, instead of turning away, you could actually start to do tonglen for the little girl who is crying and also for the angry mother who has reached the end of her rope. You can send out a general sense of relaxation and openness or something specific, like a hug or a kind word, or whatever feels right to you at the moment. It's not all that conceptual; it's almost spontaneous. When you contact a painful situation in this way and stay with it, it can open up your heart and become the source of compassion.
You can do tonglen on the spot when strong emotions come up and you don't know what to do with them. For example, you might be having a painful argument with your spouse or your boss at work. They are yelling at you and you don't know how to react. So you can start to breathe in the painful feelings and send out a sense of spaciousness and relaxation with the outbreath--for yourself, for the person who is yelling at you, and for all the other people who are dealing with a similar difficult situation. Of course, at some point you have to react to the person who is yelling at you but, by introducing some space and warmth into the situation, you will probably deal with it more skillfully.
You can also do this practice when you feel some blockage to opening and developing compassion. For example, you see a homeless person on the street who is asking you for money and seems to be an alcoholic. In spite of your desire to be compassionate, you can't help but turn away and feel disgust or resentment. At that point, you can start doing tonglen for yourself and all the other people who want to be open but are basically shut down. You breathe in the feeling of shut-downness, your own and everybody else's. Then you send out a sense of space or relaxation or letting go. When you feel blocked, that's not an obstacle to tonglen; it's part of the practice. You work with what feels like blockage as the seed of awakening your heart and as connection with other people.
Tonglen On the Street
This practice is to walk down the street, perhaps for just one or two blocks, with the intention of staying as open as possible to whoever you meet. It is a training in being more emotionally honest with yourself and being more emotionally available to others. As you are walking, you could relax your posture and have the feeling that the area of your heart and chest is open. As you pass people, you might even feel a subtle connection between their heart and yours, as if the two of you were linked by an invisible cord. You could think to yourself, "May you be happy," as you pass them. The main point is to feel a sense of interconnectedness with all the people you meet.
If you are feeling somewhat exposed and embarrassed by doing the practice, just acknowledge it and realize that other people are probably feeling the same way. You may notice how people glance briefly at you as they approach--usually at a safe distance, so it isn't obvious--in an automatic gesture of reaching out. Perhaps they are looking for someone who would be friendly to them and say hello, someone they could genuinely connect with. Sound familiar?
As you encounter each person, acknowledge your thoughts and emotional reactions toward them. Notice if you feel a sense of attachment, aversion, or indifference toward the people you pass. But don't add any self-judgement on top of it. You might see someone smiling, which could cheer you up on the spot and make you open further. Or you might see someone looking depressed, which could spark feelings of tenderness and compassion.
Notice when you begin to shut down or open up. But if you do find yourself shutting down, you don't blame yourself. You can simply empathize with all the people who are shutting down in the same way and aspire to be more and more open. Also, if you feel a sense of delight or pleasure on your walk, you could wish to share it with the people you meet.
Stepping Into Others' Shoes
This practice of exchanging yourself with others is presented in Shantideva's The Way of the Bodhisattva. It is more of a contemplation and, unlike tonglen, it isn't synchronized with the in- and outbreath. It can help you open up to, and empathize with, the so-called neutral or indifferent people in your life, as well as those you find really difficult.
First imagine the person you are working with as vividly as possible. Be very inquisitive and spend some time really trying to stand in their shoes and see the world as they do. What do they feel? What do they want? What do they fear? Just taking this much interest in a person can go a long way in developing appreciation and concern for them.
To take it a step further, think that you are them and they are you. You are standing in their shoes and you are now looking at yourself as the other person sees you. How do they see you? As just a neutral person, as a potential friend, as an enemy, as an arrogant person, as a warm person? What would they like for you to give them: a hug, an encouraging word, an open and attentive ear, appreciation for their intelligence and their talents, an apology, forgiveness?
By trading places, you discover that what the other person wants is pretty much the same as what you want. In that way, you are equals. Perhaps you also discover that you have never really seen them or heard them before, that you haven't appreciated them or treated them fairly. Based on this new understanding, you may open to them more the next time you see them.
The above is an excerpt from Tonglen: The Path of Transformation, by Pema Chödrön, Vajradhatu Publications. For further information about Vajradhatu Publications and a catalogue of dharma books, videos, and audio tapes, please visit the website at www.shambhalashop.com
Copyright © 2004 by Pema Chödrön