Tonglin – The healing of others is the healing of self

Lately I have been focused on the spiritual aspect of my transformation.  Regardless of theistic beliefs it is possible and I believe crucial to our well being that we maintain a sense of spiritual practice.  Some are drawn towards the tenants of a religious faith.  There are others who are drawn to the mystery of the unknown in a reverent way without the use of labels.  I believe at the heart of spirituality is the conscious awareness of connectedness to the universe and its inhabitants.  Being aware of nature and our human connection to each other is where the power of spiritual practice is at its best.

The feeling of disconnectedness happens because we have hardened.  This need to protect ourselves has caused us to shut off from each other.  Fear takes over and we are full of resentment and loneliness when we are hurt by the world or disappointed.  We may feel we are the only one in the world that feels the way we do.  We may feel that the entire world is against us and that nobody could understand how we feel.  We may take it personally that others treat us so badly and it causes us to run.  We isolate to the point we believe we are better off just being on our own island away from pain.  But, when we are honest we know that pain is unavoidable and that life is messy.  The most beautiful relations go bad and people rise and fall and lest we forget rise again.  But, fear causes us to become cynical to protect ourselves.  We may even begin to believe that good is an illusion.  But, that is a game we play to protect ourselves from disappointment for when things fall apart.  This is why so many people are destructive of our own dreams and furthermore relationships that could be a source of good.  It is out of fear that we will be disappointed or hurt.  So we become alone.

Over the years I have been a lay practitioner of Buddhist meditation.  My connection to it has come and gone through stages.  I recognize now that my best years have been when I was connected to it.  This has lead me to get back in touch with it.  I started listening to lectures by Pema Chodron, an ordained nun and author in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, whom I have always highly respected.   I was reminded of a practice called Tonglin that I had first learned about Dharma talks I had attended in Ohio.

Tonglin is the practice of sitting in meditation and breathing in the suffering of others and letting it transform so that we breath out heart felt compassion and healing for the suffering of all beings.  It is a practice that can seem quite contrary to what many believe to be helpful when it is first heard.  Many are so accustomed to running from suffering and trying to distance themselves from all that causes pain that we believe this will only make us worse.  But, look around our world and truly consider if you truly believe that the habitual beliefs that most people have that running and avoidance and isolation will make their life better is actually doing the trick.  My observation is that people who run from suffering are generally the most lonely and suffering people.  The answer I believe is to be the peaceful warrior who confronts the things we fear the most.  When we turn and face the dragon with compassion, the dragon loses it’s bite.   In therapy you learn to face phobias, confront loss or traumatic events.  We do this to stop running from things that have taken power over us because we run.  When we fear the power of loss we become defeated.

But, what’s more is when we take in the suffering of others, it is key that we combine our own suffering.  If you feel anxiety,  feel that anxiety, look at it in the eye and notice it.  breathe that in BUT, Don’t cling, don’t become stuck…let it go and breathe out the hope that all beings (including YOU) will be relieved of the suffering of anxiety, breathe out soft compassion.  What you will notice is that you have taken down the division of self and other.  You will see that you and all other fragile people are in this together, suffering in similar ways with similar reactions.  It will not only dissipate loneliness but you begin to feel loving compassion even for difficult people and also for yourself.  You will be aware of the fragile heart of our human form but know that it is the same heart as the person next to you.  If we all did this there would be so much more understanding, openness and love.  We would not feel alone because we would know that we all experience this and the suffering and joy of our self is ALL people’s suffering and joy.

In the book The Art of Happiness Dr. Howard Cutler recalls asking the Dalai Lama if he ever experienced loneliness.  He was shocked to find the answer was no.  Upon asking the reasons, His Holiness went into talking about the value of compassion.  When you treat compassion as an important virtue that you practice with others you allow yourself to be open.  You feel a kinship and are  in turn are able to receive back.  Loving compassion for others disarms us and makes us more approachable and willing to approach others.  You may not get this back in turn, in fact don’t be surprised in our world full of pain if you try to give compassion to others and they come back with spite or avoidance.  But, the good news is through the practice of Tonglin you have a valuable opportunity to strengthen your compassion for their present suffering.  You understand the causes of suffering and how they are reacting negatively to you as a result of their pain.  This mindfulness of these reactions and your own reactions are a great way of learning the causes of suffering.  Tonglin can help with that.   It also cultivates the true spirit of true benevolence, a giving of loving kindness without expectation of return.  If you give to others with the purpose of return, you miss the point and the real award of the virtue of compassion.  True compassion is when you give it to those who are unable in their state to return it to you.

Contemplating the gifts of Tonglin I have also thought about how this practice is good for developing a sense of non-clinging.  We do not try to build a story that everything will be alright.  We take in what is there, we accept it as it is and we give gentle hope that this suffering will go away for ourselves and others.  But, also in taking in this suffering (something non-desirable) with intention and letting it go, we gain practice in the art of letting go and letting things remain fluid.   After all it’s easier to let something go that is undesired.  However, we must be this way in all things.  We experience the joy of things knowing that all things will die but they are here to be enjoyed fully in the present.  We do not run from the messy reality of change.  In fact we learn to embrace it with compassion and understanding.  We let the good and the bad go just like water cycling through a stream.  Letting things change and transform without fear and without the feeling that we are the only ones who experience the gain and loss.  We are aware of the cycle.  If we let it be so, this can be a great comfort.

My Transformation Challenge

I am revisiting this blog with a more central focus.  It has been largely a random gathering of reviews, occasional creative writing, and retellings of the odd fact that I find interesting.  Lately, I have come into a period of momentum with a series of positive changes in my mindset and lifestyle.  These events are significant as they are coming at the tail of a particularly dark period for me.  My mindset earlier this year was one of confusion, intense anger and depression.  My self-esteem and outlook for my future was at one of the lowest points in my life.

I have had a life time of dealing with crippling depressions, anxiety and other issues that have lead to diagnoses of bipolar disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, to name the most consistent labels put upon my personal challenges.

I have been in therapy for the past year.  I went into this therapy with the intention of discussing issues that within months became clear were actually results of much larger and pervasive issues in my life that have been developing since infancy.  I agreed to a more intense therapy twice a week that has challenged me to honestly get in touch with my emotional core and talk and address these issues.  I have had some serious breakthroughs doing this.  Along the way I’ve fought it intensely.  Sometimes trying to deny the need to deal with these things.  The pain of dealing with it all being something that my instinct is usually to run as far as possible from the problem.

This running is something I came to realize is something we are always doing as humans at expense of our own mental clarity and well being.  We build false ideas and welcome distractions that become hard to unravel once they have been held into a place as a kind of refuge.  Creating projections of guilt onto others for things reflected in our own lives shields us from the helplessness and guilt we feel about our own behaviors.  What has been most interesting to me is the observation that most angry and cynical people also have low self-image.  I have yet to meet a consistently disparaging person that after close observation, behind the facade, actually has a good self-image.  It has made me examine myself when I find myself raging against the world and careful about my association with people who are cynical about the world.

We are mirrors.  We will see the world as we see ourselves.  A good example is how a positive and self-empowered person looks at problems in the world as opposed to a person with a defeated self-image.  A person with a negative self-image is going to see these problems as a reason the world is a terrible place and how society is hopeless.  They will go on and on about how stupid the world is, how their dreams are hopeless and how the Earth and the world around them is going to hell.  Furthermore, they will see every flaw in a person rather than their strengths.  This is because this is what they do to themselves and is also because they hope to find some flaw in the other person that makes them feel less inadequate about the flaw they are obsessing with about themselves.  Inferior people never want to feel the most inferior.

But, look at the person with a truly positive self-image.  They look at problems as challenges, believing in their own possibility to make a change and having the internal energy to put forth the effort.  They will volunteer, they will become leaders, they will inspire and help people reform themselves and their environment in every way.  They will not put their energy in defeatist and negative rants about the world because they do not feel helpless and they look for solutions not reasons for failure.  They will notice the good in things when it is there (and it always is if you look hard enough) and they will inspire others and lift them up because they do not entertain an internal voice making them feel inferior, therefore adversarial to another person.

You will see a heaven or a hell depending on the state of your mind.  Both of them exist simultaneously in all things.  The key is to atune your perception.  This is why I have chosen to reject the labels that have been put upon me.  Where there is a problem I do not look for a condemning diagnosis to fit into.  I am not giving myself a defeating life sentence.  I have seen how in my own life and in the tragic life of close friends this is a disastrous mindset to have.  You can appeal so much to a label that you start trying to identify with it in subconscious ways you aren’t even cognizant.  I watched the rapid decline of a friend after his official diagnosis of bi-polar disorder.  It was not lost on me that after he was diagnosed and came to learn more about the disorder that he actually started to fit more of the behaviors than he had before.  It was like he was a new initiate into a tribe of sufferers who was trying to fit his role.  This lead to his suicide last year.   He used to talk to me about Bipolar knowing I was also diagnosed with this.  Something about it always felt off to be talking about it in such identifying language.  We were no longer discussing our own authentic behaviors or feelings or reactions.  It’s like if I engaged in these conversations, in which I came to avoid, we were appealing to the medical textbooks as to who we were and what was to be expected of our behaviors and thoughts.  We judged ourselves by a clinical checklist.  What is expected of us is that we are helpless without stabilizing medication.  Any other reason for our thoughts is largely second to this one notion in which we are lead to believe we are largely helpless.  I have had psychiatrists skip the psychotherapy entirely over a simple regimen of toxic pills that made me feel alien to my own body.  It was the opposite of the aims of yoga.  I felt my mind, spirit and body were completely out of sync at all times.

Don’t get me wrong here, I acknowledge that there has been a ton of research into this disorder and I do not deny it exists.  But, in saying this it is important to know just how easily the diagnosis for a disease in which there is no physiological test for proving is thrown around.  I am now convinced that a large percentage of people who are diagnosed with biochemical mental disorders do not have them.  There are often existential conflicts and deep psychological reasons for behaviors that mimic bipolar disorder.  In our society of quick fixes and an abandonment of the journeys of personal initiation by trial, contemplation and transformation that requires an often painful reckoning of self, we look for something a pill can be taken for instead of believing in our capacity to complete real internal work.

The sad realization for me is that it feels like the medical community has created a toxic mask with these supposedly healing pills in which we  are treating our recovery from things like physical and sexual abuse, parental neglect, and grief of loss in the same way people use alcohol to deal with these same problems.   When you look at the toxic physical and mental effects and long lasting problems caused by the medicine used to treat these disorders they are truly not any more healthy than drinking your troubles away.  Both of them are intended to create a sense of numbness.  the only difference is one makes you erratic and unable to drive and the other makes you dull and able to be complacent in any type of task – even one that perhaps you have good reason to dislike.  Dislike can be healthy, it can lead you to challenge yourself to pursue your authentic self.  It is the self-defeat that is the problem.  It is the complacency that is the biggest problem.

For months I spent time with my labels.  I was fortunate that the therapist I had believed in different therapeutic models and never used them.  In fact she helped me in ways to question them.  She helped me to question everything.  These questions have been my release from many things that have held me down.   The more I asked questions about things I have become comfortable in assuming about myself and those around me the more I realized I was living an entirely false life that was based on self-destructive ideas about myself.  This idea of my unworthiness to have what others have, this shame that has been instilled in me by not separating from things that happened to me as a child has lead me to continually undervalue myself.  It has lead me to not fully pursue the goals and relationships I deserve.  It has lead me to put terrible labels on myself and inflict pain on myself by not taking care of myself and putting myself in harms way and allowing people to disrespect and abuse me in my adult life.

Months ago I asked in therapy how I can come to love myself.  It became clear this was a real problem.  In her true fashion, my therapist turned the question back onto me knowing that my question would find the answer within.  That night I drifted into a kind of vision of myself as a small child.  I was looking at myself from without.  I was not attached to anything that was causing the child the shame although I knew it was me I was looking at.  I became the parent to myself and gave the nurturing appreciation that I was redeemed and valuable.   Having had a very detached upbringing from parents who for their own personal challenges were unable to nurture me emotionally this was an important healing process.  I suggest this to anyone who has experienced parental abandonment or emotional detachment from a parent.

This was a first step for me.  It lead me to believe I deserved to be better.  Just this step alone has opened an avalanche of changes I am making in my life.  This month has been the beginning of this challenge.  I am step by step working on areas of my life that I want to improve.  I am intent on getting in the physical shape of my life.  I just returned from a rigorous weekend of hiking in the American Southwest, including the Colorado Rockies and the New Mexican desert (places that inspire my spiritually as well as feed my physical fitness goals).  Next year I have a goal of hiking to the top of Mt. Bierstadt (pictured above), a mountain with a summit exceeding 14,000 ft.

I am getting in touch with an authentic spirituality that appeals to my true intuitive beliefs.  I have no use for rigid doctrines or the speculations of fad religions or the dictates of organized religions that have lost touch with the source of their mystery traditions.  I feel blessed that after years of study into the worlds religious ideas, mainstream and obscure, I have stepped beyond the need for identification with a clan of believers and their doctrines.  Some kind of cohesion of experience is happening organically within me in silence and simplicity.  I am finding my own natural ritual among the rivers and caves and the laughter of children and wise eyes of the old.  These kinds of understanding will never fit in a book by the next mystical guru on the bestseller list.  But, I do hope to try to convey some of this and help others find their own unique ways to duplicate the process.

I have goals of changing my career to something that utilizes my creativity and makes me happy to come to my work.  I am going to make my living place a sanctuary no matter where or how humble that place may be.

I have become very focused on diet and eliminating certain things and getting more of others.  I will be talking more about these experiments as I think some of them, especially the massive decrease in whole wheat from my diet, has had dramatic effects on my mind and body.

I am recording this journey for myself and for reflection but I’m hoping that in doing so I can give others who are also coming out of a long dark struggle hope that they to can find their way back to the light and onward to the best life they’ve ever lived.  Perhaps methods will be revealed.  If I can help others then it makes these posts worth the time spent to publish them.