IN THE FIRE of a traumatic or transitional time, it’s natural for unconscious material and hidden emotions to come up. Things we may have numbed against and only felt in a distant way for most of our lives suddenly become vivid. While these periods are unpleasant, they are fantastic for spiritual practice, because it is an opportunity to release buried confusion and deepen compassion. In fact, with the right tools, the more difficult the emotion, the greater the heart opening. How to do this? Rather than push the feeling away or judge yourself for having it, do the opposite: invite it in using Tonglen.
Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that anyone can use to transmute suffering into compassion. While there is a formal practice of Tonglen which is powerful and beautiful, the version that I have used faithfully and discuss here is a simple one inspired by Pema Chodron‘s teachings about “Tonglen on the Spot.” If you’re dealing with difficult emotions, this is extremely powerful medicine. Because it encourages us to do the opposite of what we are accustomed to–inviting in bad feelings instead of trying to get rid of them–it takes a little getting used to, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
Tonglen is easiest to do in four steps:
1. First, touch into the difficult feeling you are having, and contemplate this: Since beginningless time, people have felt this way. Right now, there are people all over the world feeling this way, and in the future, many others will feel it as well. In fact, it is an experience most every human will have at one time or another. Really let this in and join with all those beings who are in the same boat as you.
2. Next, consider how much you would like relief from feeling this way. When you can feel your desire for relief intensely, think: This is how much all of these other beings would like relief from this feeling. Of course, they would want relief just as much as you do.
3. Now use this sense of shared suffering to awaken your courage to invite the feeling in. Contemplate this: How wonderful it would be to relieve myself and everyone else of this feeling. When your desire is strong, set your intention: As long as it is here, I will feel this feeling thoroughly and deeply, so that no one else will have to feel it. I’ll explore it and understand it for all of us. Use this intention to help you let go of resistance to the feeling.
4. You can now get curious about the feeling, getting to know it for the sake of everyone. The better you understand the landscape of this feeling, the more easily you will be able to release it, and the more real empathy you will have for others in the same boat. You will have opened your heart in a place it had been closed before. Already you’ve made a difference: Recent studies show that positive feelings reverberate through our social networks just as well as a flu virus! (Not the same with negative feelings, interestingly. They aren’t as powerful.)
Whenever I do this practice sincerely, it is very helpful and gives immediate relief. Why? First, strong negative feelings tend to make us feel isolated. By remembering that whatever dark feeling we’re having arises in all humans, we break down our isolation. While we’re used to joining with others in happiness, we don’t do it as much when we’re hurting, and it can be a relief to discover that we can join with others in pain as well as in joy. Second, normally we think of negative emotion as pointless suffering. By going into it for the sake of others, the suffering is no longer pointless. Without this experience, you could not know this emotional landscape, and your compassion for this specific experience could not be as deep and visceral. This means that far from being pointless, your suffering is precious fuel to awaken your heart.
If a difficult feeling comes up in a public place where you can’t go deeply into it, you can still get relief by joining with others throughout time who have felt this feeling. It will make the experience less claustrophobic, more spacious. You can then do Tonglen practice right there on the spot for all the beings who have ever felt it or are feeling it right now. Let the compassion ride the breath and ventilate the emotion for you as over and over you breathe the feeling in and breathe out relief. You don’t have to change your breathing pattern, and no one need know that you’re doing it.
When you’re using this practice, it’s helpful to sit quietly and notice how feelings actually arise as sensations in the body—sometimes very strong sensations. If you watch closely, you’ll see that the feeling itself does not create suffering. Rather, it is the thoughts that get attached to it. Feelings attract thoughts—like a magnet. Try separating the feeling from the thoughts, and concentrate on experiencing the feeling by itself as a body sensation. You can’t stop the feeling—it is like the weather and needs to move through. If you don’t block the feeling or fuel it with your thoughts, it can move through unimpeded and often resolves itself rather quickly. The basic idea: Let thoughts go; let feelings be.
Tonglen helps you remember that no emotion is really yours—it is a human emotion, and belongs to all humans. Not my pain, but the pain, just as when it is raining out, it isn’t my rain, but the rain. Feelings are like the weather—they come and go and are just the result of causes and conditions coming together. Long lasting emotional states are best thought of as you would think of a storm that lasts for months—while it’s raining, it feels as though you will never see the sun again, but you will.
The hardest thing about this practice is remembering to do it. If you make a habit of doing Tonglen practice each morning, you will “install” it–and then when a difficult emotion arises, you will immediately think to do Tonglen. In this way, everything you experience–even the deepest sorrow or self-judgment–can become the material for opening your heart and generating greater love and compassion. No experience, however painful or dull, will ever go to waste.
This practice has been the most powerful tool I’ve ever used to open my heart and foster well-being. I use it all the time, and that’s why I decided to share it. If you have any questions about it or need help figuring out how to apply it, please contact me—I’d be happy to clarify. If you try it and it works for you, I’d love it if you’d let me know. And please pass it on to anyone who you think would be game to try it so that we can all become alchemists, using the darkness to make more and more light.
Did this essay make you think? Please share with interested friends.