PemaChodron

When many people are first introduced to tonglen, a Tibetan Buddhist practice for generating compassion, they find the technique—to breathe in pain and breathe out relief—to be counterintuitive. In this interview, Pema Chödrön explains.

Pema Chödrön: Each of us has a “soft spot”: the place in our experience where we feel vulnerable and tender. This soft spot is inherent in appreciation and love, and it is equally inherent in pain.

Often when we feel that soft spot, it’s quickly followed by a feeling of fear, and an involuntary, habitual tendency to close down. This is the tendency of all living things: to avoid pain and to cling to pleasure. In practice, however, covering up the soft spot means shutting down against our life experience. Then we tend to narrow down into a solid feeling of self against other.

One very powerful and effective way to work with this tendency to push away pain and hold on to pleasure is the practice of tonglen.  In tonglen practice, when we see or feel suffering, we  breathe in with the notion of completely feeling it, accepting it, and owning it.

Then we breathe out, radiating compassion, lovingkindness, freshness—anything that encourages relaxation and openness.  So you’re training in softening, rather than tightening, your heart.

In this practice, it’s not uncommon to find yourself blocked, because you come face to face with your own fear, resistance, or whatever your personal “stuckness” happens to be at that moment. At that point, you can change  the focus and  do tonglen for yourself and for millions of others  just like you who, at that very moment, are feeling exactly the same misery.

I particularly like to encourage tonglen “on the spot.” For example, you’re walking down the street and you see the pain of another human being. On-the-spot tonglen means that you don’t just rush by—you actually breathe in with the wish that this person could be free of suffering, and send them some kind of good heart or well-being. If seeing that other person’s pain brings up your fear or anger or confusion (which often happens), just start doing tonglen for yourself and all the other people who are stuck in the very same way.

You see, there really is no separation between you and everyone else. Tonglen practice begins to dissolve the illusion that each of us is alone with this personal suffering that no one else can understand.

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Ani Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in New York City in 1936. She is one of the first American women to be ordained as a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Pema is author of How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind (Sounds True, May 2013).

Website: pemachodronfoundation.org

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