4 steps that transform your personal suffering into universal compassion

chenrezigIN 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.

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17 comments to 4 steps that transform your personal suffering into universal compassion

  • Laura

    Jane, i am so touched by this… you are speaking directly to my heart of darkness… As you write, I can hear a beloved teacher’s voice speaking. Thank you for sharing.

  • Your heart of darkness is my heart of darkness. I bow to you.

  • Al Jordan

    Beautifully written and eloquent in power and simplicity. You are becoming quite a purveyor of deep wisdom and heart compassion and it’s your open heart and willing spirit that have made it so.

    Face it, feel it, accept it (on behalf of all humans) and then let it go.

    And I bow to you.

  • Thank you, Al, for the encouragement. So glad my enthusiasm for this ancient practice allowed me to convey it in a way that others can use.

  • Judy

    Jane, thanks. This is a beautiful reminder of what’s possible.

  • Laurissa

    Jane, thank you for your explanation of Tonglen meditation. I first discovered it in a book by Pema Chodren. I have struggled with the wording of her suggestion to “breath in the pain, then exhale compassion.” The pain seemed unendurable, and I would abandon the meditation. I have had more success with your wording, to “invite in the feeling” through the inbreath, and then to find relief through sharing compassionately this feeling with all other beings who experience it.
    We need this reminder that we are not truly isolated and alone with our feelings, since we’re all spiritual beings having a human experience.

  • richard

    very well written….nice perspective…

  • Kimberley

    Thanks, Jane. I had an ah ha! moment- my suffering can open my heart and relieve the pain of others. Thank you, thank you, my dearest.

  • I just saw this posted on Facebook by Anna. I love it. Thank you Jane. Been feeling a lot of those struggling moments today and this was good medicine. I hope you and Hunter are well. Would love to see you and meditate together when/if you come through the Bay Area.

  • Tesa

    I have read and loved this little jewel of an article a couple of times before, but Anna’s facebook post today prompted me to revisit it again. I love the conciseness and elegance of your overview. I need to print it and keep it around for those days when the rain is coming down so hard that it’s tempting to start doubting that feeling one’s pain will eventually get us through it! I also really love this idea that our emotions are not ours!

  • Thanks, everyone, for your comments. This practice is such great medicine–I want to shout it from the treetops! I feel such gratitude to the Tibetans who developed, mastered, and shared this — and for all they continue to transmute.

  • Jane– This is beautiful, and arose on the interweb like a wink from the Buddha.

    Another educator and myself are beginning to teach a slightly simplified tonglen practice to sixth graders. We allot about 10-15 minutes for the work in the course of a full day of programming, including a debrief afterward on what arose. Have you worked with this with young people? Any thoughts on doing so?

    With much heart,

  • Wonderful that you are doing tongeln with kids. I have done tonglen-on-the-spot (the version I discuss here) with children, and they seem to catch on easily if you language it simply enough. I like to get specific–asking them about other people they know who may feel as they do. It’s a real empathy builder. I’ve also done it as a group practice with everyone feeling into what it’s like to be left out, for instance, and then seeing that others in the room feel the same, then extending it out from there. We discussed and practiced together, weaving in and out of going inside to feel, and outside to discuss. It’s a great way to introduce the practice and to be sure everyone gets what it’s about before doing it as a silent, guided meditation. Good luck with it! Would love to hear back how it goes.

  • Wow, Jane! What beautiful practice… and so beautifully explained too! Funny, I woke up this morning feeling tremendous anxiety as a result of a situation I am going through right now, and I thought, “Dear God, when will relief finally come?” Minutes later, I was led to your blog post. Love it! Thank you so much. We are One. <3

  • Tonglen is about developing a sense of inter-being and self-forgiveness for feelings of unworthiness, guilt, regret, or inadequacy. I won’t criticize this article or its contents yet wish to emphasize that it is in bringing light to the darkness that we dispel it, ignorance, and unwanted feelings.
    Rising from the subjective personal identity with pain and unwanted feelings into an objective appreciation that impermanence, change, karma, and grace all contribute to achieving freedom from unwanted feelings and thoughts.
    We have to take responsibility for our choices of thoughts, feelings, and actions.
    We can change how we feel, think, act with humility, remorse, contrition, hope, service, and losing ego.
    Unwanted feelings and thoughts are harmful when they become patterns and programs which appear to be permanent and forever ingrained into our consciousness. They don’t have to be. They can be transmuted into light, love, and acts of goodwill for self and others.

  • Yes, I completely agree. So much about bringing light to the dark is about being there and present with it, as it is — the light of deep, open, non-invasiveness and warm holding of my experience, whatever it is, for me has been the most healing “change” I can bring to my thoughts and feelings, because in that atmosphere, they naturally change on their own.

  • […] another with love. You can do this in a talking circle, a writing from the soul circle, or by doing tonglen or body meditation by yourself or in a […]