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Exercise 67: Tonglen for Times of Division and Strife

Background:  Sometimes I hover on the edge of paralysis; I am nearly overwhelmed.  Even while I hold these experiences I know that even this sensation is a symptom of my privilege.  I am a white person living in America during a time of racist police brutality, protests, and looting.  I have the luxury and means of working from home during a time of worldwide pandemic and mass unemployment.

There are players and perspectives in these events I easily emphasize with.  There are others are do not.   This morning, I had a very powerful experience of the Buddhist practice known as Tonglen.  I incorporated a few elements of metta, or loving-kindness meditation.  I have tried to reproduce this morning’s practice here.

Traditionally, Tonglen asks the practitioner to breathe in the suffering of a chosen person or group, and then to widen this circle of compassion.  I love tonglen for the ways it empowers me.  To recognize that my body can withstand and transform suffering is a wonderful thing.  Before starting this version there are a few things to think about.

It is likely going to be easy to find the group or person whose suffering you’d like to begin with.  I find it more difficult to find who I can widen that circle to.  Their is spriritual growth in rising to the challenge here or stretching the compassion muscles to someone who it is not easy and natural to feel compassion for.  However, we are limited and growing human beings.  If I am too ambitious about who I wish to widen my compassion to I come grinding to a hault.

Lots of powerful words have been written about the tension between action and contemplation.  My sense is that the goal here is to move us out of paralysis.  We can hold our compassion while moving forward in a certain direction which may not instantly and obviously be a win-win.  The goal here is not to come to terms with the idea that everyone is a little bit right.  Rather, the goal here is to hold the suffering of increasingly wide groups of people and move forward into the world decisively after having done so.

The Practice.

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.  Find your breath,.
  2.  Inhale deeply.
  3. Exhale deeply.
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 at least two more times.
  5. With the next inhale, breathe in heat, claustrophia, and suffering.
  6. With the next exhale, breathe out spaciousness, c6 atoolness, and joy.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 at least two more times.
  8. With the next inhale, breathe in through your pores as well as your mouth or nose.  See, in your minds eye, the whole of your body taking in heat/claustrophobia/suffering.
  9. With the next exhale, breathe out through your pores as well as your mouth or nose.
  10. Repeat steps 8 and 9 at least two more times.
  11. Now, as you continue this pattern, let this suffering be specifically for you that you inhale.  Let it be your claustrophobia, heat, suffering.
  12. As you exhale, let it to be joy and spaciousness for you.
  13. Continue this for as long as feels productive.
  14. There is a group or person close to your heart.  As you continue this deep breathing, this breathing through the whole of the body, bring them to mind fully.   Picture what they might be wearing, how they might stand, what they would wearing.  Is their a distinctive sound of their voice?  A smell which might be associated with them?  “See” them with all your senses.
  15. Inhale their suffering.
  16. Exhale them peace.
  17. Can you go deeper into their experiences: the suffering of their life, or even across the generations?  
  18. Continue with this for as long as feels productive.
  19. Bring to mind a wider group.  Perhaps one that is challenging to feel for.  Picture them with all the living specificity you brought to mind earlier, when it was easier.  Exhale your judgements as you seek to make them clear in your mind.
  20. Inhale their suffering, closeness, heat with your whole body.
  21. Exhale them peace, openess, coolness with your whole body.
  22. Continue for as long as feels productive.
  23. Now, in your mind, bring the suffering together of both people/groups.  Inhale the suffering of both groups.
  24. Exhale peace to both.
  25. Continue.  When you are ready, progress to the next step.
  26. Can you widen your compassion further?  If so, take in the suffering of more people with your inhalations.  Exhale peace to this widened circle.
  27. Release this practice.  Sit wordlessly for a while.
  28. Now, sit with the tension between contemplation and action.  Explore in your mind which steps you are ready to take to physically change the world.