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.


Imagine This Person


Imagine this person that you love so much that you would come to their defense with arms flying if someone came to intentionally harm them.

If someone belittled them or caused them any emotional harm you would go on and on about how good you thought this person was.

You would jump in front of a truck to save this person because they mean so much to you.

Imagine there is a person in whom you have seen all their weaknesses since they were a small child, all of the times when they were unaware of what they were doing to make others angry:  the times they broke things; the times they stole from the cookie jar; the times they broke your heart with hurtful words.  You smile and laugh at their silly acts like a mother who knows that the child may be devious and mean but inside is a beautiful soul who wants to do what is right.  You look at their eyes and can’t find it in you to be angry when they pour koolaid on your new rug or say you are mean because you don’t buy them a new toy.

You were there when they tried awkwardly to show their love not knowing exactly how and sometimes scared of rejection and withdrawing.  You knew it was pure all along.  You have had conversations with them throughout the night and had the most intimate late night talks.  You’ve shared triumph and regret under the moonlight.

You watch as they show fear and so retreat from others when they feel a lack of love and personal resource.  You see their fear of loss and how they become selfish and scared of the world and sometimes show their worst sides in defense when they need to be open.  But you know this is not them, this is their fear.  You forgive them for this and see the person full of love inside who you know will return.

You see them when they smoke, drink too much,  overeat, starve themselves,  give themselves to hurtful people who don’t respect them and stand over bridges to jump and all you can do is cry and want to hold them and tell them they can do better.

Imagine that you love this person so much that you would never wish to see anyone including themselves do anything harmful to themselves.  You want to enjoy what light they have even when they can’t see the light themselves.

You are sad when they feel the need to do things that hurt themselves and when they hurt others.  You see it only hurting themselves and driving a wedge between them and their fellow humans.  You know they do not wish to harm anyone and you want them to know that they don’t have to live in fear and anger and bitterness that causes them to react from this pain.

This person sometimes doesn’t have any idea what they mean to you and sometimes feels the world would be better off without them around but you know that theirs is a life that would be forever and heart crushingly missed if it were extinguished.  Imagine how much you would miss them.

Imagine the joy on this person’s face when they express their own joys and passions and the dreams they’ve held since a child.  Imagine all the imaginative and creative things this person does that make you feel alive and inspired and like there is magic on this planet.

Imagine that even on their worst day and no matter how old, fat and gray they become that they will be so beautiful because of the light of everything in them that comes forth and the warmth they bring to your soul with their attempts at kindness and sharing.  Imagine the beauty in their eyes as their fire glows from inside.

NOW imagine this person is YOU