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Archive for the ‘tonglen’ Category

As I was reading over the Pema Chodron piece on tonglen that I linked to yesterday, this sentence really struck me:

Primarily [tonglen] is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.

I alluded, in yesterday’s post, to my own potential for coldness and for a little bit of cruelty — especially toward those I love the most. So I am thinking more and more (well as of the past few days) that these meditation practices that focus entirely on cultivating compassion — both from myself and others — are where I need to be headed/focused. Because of that, I am considering attending a tonglen retreat with Pema Chodron in June. That idea of overcoming a cold, cruel nature is so appealing to me.

This is not to say that I’m a bad person or that I’m beating myself up over who I am. It is just a straightforward recognition of the things about myself that I need to work on, and this kind of meditation practice provides a very specific and intensive structure with which to do that.

I work in a chemical dependency treatment clinic. I think there is a reason that I ended up at this particular job (there’s a story here of leaving eleven years of teaching college English to become an office manager at this nonprofit clinic), and I think it is very related to my own issues that need care and attention.

I am faced each day with people who are addicts, some of whom are grouchy and mean and selfish — they see themselves as having all of the problems of the world (and many of them do have a great deal of problems to deal with) — and they sometimes take it out on me. I am often stung by the insensitive demands for coffee and the implied or under-the-breath comments that I’m not “at their service.” Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore the majority of our clients; however, in them — both the ones I adore and the ones I don’t — I see so much of myself, and the scary thing is that because we serve only a population of people who are 50 and older, I see myself in a crystal ball. I see who I might be in the future, if I don’t make some of these changes now. And I’m not just referring to the nastiness, the cruelty in a few of these folks, I’m also talking about the anxiety, the fear and panic, the intense worry that fuels their addictions (and vice versa). I get to see all of those parts of myself in these people, and I get to witness their struggle on a daily basis.

This is all to say that a meditation practice, like tonlen (or metta), that is all about connecting with suffering seems a particularly fruitful practice given my workplace (I’m sure many workplaces provide similar ground for growth through this practice). The treatment clinic where I work allows me ample opportunity to connect with my own suffering as well as those around me who suffer a great deal (and a great deal more than I do).

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Pema Chodron describes the practice of tonglen, which is supposed to awaken bodhichitta (the enlightened mind) and “put us in touch with genuine noble heart” (When Things Fall Apart 88). The idea is essentially to breathe in suffering and breathe out happiness and joy, directing it to those who need it with “the wish that everyone could feel joy” (When Things Fall Apart 88). Breathing in fear, pain, suffering is supposed to break down or remove the armor we use to protect ourselves from such feelings.

I hope I’m doing it some kind of justice in describing it here, but the basic idea is to breathe in pain and breathe out relief. This can be on a large scale or small scale. It can be a pain or fear we personally experience or one that we have no direct experience with/in.

I’ve tried this a couple of times during recent meditation. At first I was quite nervous. It seemed a bad idea to breath *in* pain. I had worked with my shiatsu therapist to breathe in love and breathe out fear, so this idea seemed very counterintuitive to me. It also took a great deal of energy and concentration.

The first time I did it was during the California wildfires back in late October when people were living in fear of losing their homes (and some of them did). Fear is something I am quite familiar with, though never have I experienced it on that level. I breathed in the fear and sense of loss associated with the tragedies that strike from natural disasters.

The second time I did it was with a fear that hits a little closer to home and had to do with the fear that can sometimes come simply from being female in this world. Dark streets, unlit parking lots, broken down on the side of the highway alone — sometimes you can feel quite vulnerable (not to say that men don’t experience vulnerability in any of these situations, but it is different for women). I breathed in the fears of those who have been raped or abused in their lives, the worries of single mothers on their own trying to raise children, the vulnerability of those who live and/or work on the streets, and I tried to breathe out relief.

I would definitely want to institute the idea into my life in a regular way, but I will say that I found it very difficult to keep up for the entire time I was sitting (between 20 and 30 minutes). It is very intense, and it kind of freaked me out at times. Still, I suppose this is part of the practice — sitting with the “freaked outness.”

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