Less Suffering, 

More Happiness. 

One Breath at a Time

PC- 2 - Tonglen: Using our own suffering to reach out and help others who are suffering as well

25 Aug 2014 2:40 PM | Anonymous

We continue our series of talks based on the book by Pema Chodron, Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 teachings on Fearlessness and Compassion. Today, I’d like to talk about the Buddhist catchphrase of“letting go.” I’m sure many of you have heard in Buddhism as well as other spiritual practices many times: We just need to let go of whatever our story is, thoughts or emotions or situations we are struggling with. Just let go and be at peace. Ahhhhh, that it was that easy. For me, when someone knows I’m upset and tells me to just “let it go”, another thought and emotion arises within meundefinedone that includes screaming back at them how they don’t understand what I’m going through undefinedand at times, I've redirected my struggle and anger to them. And yet in those exact moments of the most intense desire to continue reacting in our habitual ways, those moments are the BEST moments to practice being present, even when we feel the most stuck undefined not to let go, but, to be aware of being stuck. Then, as my Buddhist teacher often says, we can learn to practice letting come and go. We are like spiritual warriors who practice being in the moment with whatever arises, and it may often feel like a battle to stay present when those intense emotions come up. It is those moments when the greatest transformation can occur.

How can we learn to handle those moments when the old habits grab us by the throat and won’t let go?

Thankfully, Buddhist teachers before us have come up with some helpful tools for exactly that situation. One particular practice that comes in handy is called Tonglen in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Tonglen means giving and receiving in Tibetan. Pema Chodron describes Tonglen in this way:

The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering undefinedours and that which is all around us undefined everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming the fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it 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.

In one of the simplest forms of Tonglen (there are more advanced version as well), we can use our difficult emotions and situations to reach out to others who have experienced the same thing. The practice has three-four steps: First, in the absolute sense, we can imagine expanding out to embrace all the love and compassion in the entire universe. Just rest for a moment in this powerful ability we all have: to go beyond our small mind and rest in the absolute love and compassion in its entirety.

The second step is to get more specific about what you’re experiencing: pain, depression, loneliness. Or perhaps you are caring for someone who is suffering in some way. Whatever the emotion, we can remind ourselves, that somebody else has felt this same feeling, other people have had these same thoughts, these same struggles. Whatever the emotion, you can take a moment to silently say “And others have suffered or are suffering in this same way.” . Sometimes, when we are having the worst fear, our mind tell us that nobody has EVER had such a problem as this one. It may seem like the worst struggle anyone has ever had. The power of our imagination sometimes works against usundefinednot only are we fearful, but we’re fearful and completely isolated from all other beings. In that moment, we can remind ourselves that no matter how alone we feel, it’s not true. There are others who are sharing or who have shared this pain and struggle. There are others that can relate and support us in this struggle. Just rest in that truth. You are not alone, even in the darkest of emotions. Others have felt it as well.

The third step is an opportunity to actually help others. If we are all interconnected, then the work we do to transform our own fears and angers and suffering, thereby can help others with their fears and angers and suffering. The third step is to breathe in, reminding yourself that others are suffering in the same way, and breathing out together we can find peace. Breathing in the truth of suffering, and breathing out the truth of relief from suffering through connection and compassion. Sometimes, it may at first seem scary to bring in the suffering of the others when we are in so much pain. It might seem as “that’s too much! I’ve got enough to deal with myself!” And just breathe into knowing that others have experienced that fear and frustration as well. Whatever we are experiencing, we are not alone. Others have or are or will experience that suffering as well. And by waking up to that simple truth, we can start to feel inklings of compassion rise within us. Tonglen is a practice to rediscover the compassion that is there within each of us. Compassion is there, waiting to be tapped into, even if it feels lost or covered up or even non-existentundefinedit’s still there. In my life, I’ve come to realize that all those times that I screwed up or felt at my worst, those times now seem to now be the ones that prepared me best to have compassion for others, and most importantly for myself. I can help others by recognizing my own struggles and staying connected to all others who have struggles as well. Through our struggles and suffering, we can connect to ourselves and all others in a deep profound way.

As Pema Chodron described, the practice of Tonglen enables us to connect with the deep compassion that has always been and will always be within us. We just have to breathe into the fear and suffering. We can transform the pain into peace.

“Letting go” begins by first “letting come”, by acknowledging what’s really going on with us. Letting go starts by making friends with whatever scary emotion or feeling we’re having, making friends with whatever situation that we’re in, and remembering that others have felt it as well. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about not letting go of our anger or fear, not pushing it away, but using it to transform that feeling into something useful, helpful. We can use whatever is happening or has happened in our lives as a tool for transformation.

Ram Dass is an incredible American spiritual teacher who had a terrible stroke several years ago. His whole life had been based on his intellect and ability to convey complex ideas. When he had the stroke, that which was most precious to him was taken away. Instead of shying away from the reality, he embraced it as a new vehicle for enlightenment. Christopher Reeve discovered the same power when he lost his ability to be Super Man. Each of other have faced or will face this kind of suffering. And each of us can transform whatever happens into great compassion and love for ourselves and others. And the practice of Tonglen can help.

Sometimes a fourth step is added: to then radiate compassion to all beings, for all suffering, for that being is.
“On the spot you can do tonglen for all the people who are just like you, for everyone who wishes to be compassionate but instead is afraid, for everyone who wishes to be brave but instead is a coward. Rather than beating yourself up, use your own stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world. Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.”

-Pema Chodron, “Tonglen”


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We are located at 707 West 47th Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64112, within the Unity Temple on the Plaza building, corner of 47th and Jefferson.
You can reach us at 816-561-4466 X108 or email Nima at nima@templebuddhistcenter.org

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