One of the sacred practices I explored over the summer was ‘drop the story and feel the feeling.’ The point of it was to stop the never-ending cycle of storytelling about what we’re feeling and simply to experience it as fully as possible. This week’s practice, a modified version of Tonglen practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, takes this process one step further into the sacred by turning those feelings into a ground for building empathy for others.
Tonglen is a meditative practice in which one takes upon oneself the pain and suffering of others in order to increase compassion and relieve their suffering. The name ‘tonglen’ is a compound of the Tibetan words for ‘sending’ and ‘taking’, and that is the basis of the tradition: to take negative experiences upon oneself and send the positive experiences to others. While such motivations and goals are a fundamental part of the Bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism — in which the aim (very roughly speaking) is enlightenment for the sake of the whole world rather than simply for oneself — they are also very much at home within the kenotic spirit of Christianity, in which we are to decrease that others may increase and hold Jesus’ own self-sacrificial death to liberate others as our model for life.
I first came at Tonglen practice “through the back door,” so to speak. It wasn’t first presented to me as a meditative practice in the full sense of the Tonglen tradition, but as a way of consciously dealing with intense emotional experiences. Just as, in meditation, one can intentionally think upon the suffering of others, bring it upon oneself, and offer blessings for them in place of the suffering, so too can one in a moment of intense feeling, truly and honestly feel it (“drop the story and feel the feeling”) and then bring to mind all those in the world who are also feeling it — especially those for whom those feelings are chronic, whether by habit or by circumstance.
As Pema Chödrön teaches:
The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering — ours and that which is all around us — everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming 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.
What is it?
Here are the instructions I first received for this practice. The first two steps are the same as for “Drop the story and feel the feeling”:
- Feel the feeling. Don’t resist it but welcome it.
- Embrace it. Be curious about the feeling instead of becoming overwhelmed by it. Where do you feel it? What are the physical sensations that accompany it?
- Think about all the people in the world who may be experiencing similar feelings. Use this common experience — no matter how tangential — as a source of compassion and empathy for them.
- As you breathe out, send thoughts of support, compassion, and blessing to them and to the whole world.
[While it wasn’t the focus of my practice this week, I feel it’s important to provide instructions for a true Tonglen meditation:
- Begin by slowly breathing in and out to calm yourself.
- Think of a situation in the world needing compassion.
- Then, on the in-breath, breathe in the discomfort or anguish of that situation. Breathe in with the desire to remove that pain.
- Then, on the out-breath, simply relax, sending spaciousness towards people’s hearts and minds that they might be freed from their fear, anger, despair, or pain.]
This was one of those weeks where the practice sort of chose me rather than the other way around. At the start of the week, I was feeling some intense emotions — usual fare for me, such as loneliness and frustration, but with particular intensity — that I wanted to manage in a positive way. And so, it seemed a good time to exercise and think through this practice. Quite simply, as usual, the practice worked. It didn’t necessarily make the feelings go away, but it resituated them in the broader context of the world. Later in the week, I was in a situation where I felt like I couldn’t win, where I felt the way the problem had been defined didn’t allow me any authentic way out. In that moment, this practice turned my mind to all those in the world for whom the rules were written to keep from winning — whether because of race or gender or economic background. As a middle class white man, this is a particularly important kind of compassion and empathy for me to cultivate; those feelings of helplessness against a structure I didn’t help to build are for some people a simple fact of everyday life. It’s a horrifying thought, and an important one for me to understand as I approach politics and society.
Because they are so intimate to us and our experience of the world, I think our emotions and feelings can tend to isolate us from others and cause a kind of spiritual myopia where we can’t see past our immediate circumstances. But, our emotions are actually one of things that we most have in common with one another. Far from isolating us from others, they really unite us. Early in the week, when I was feeling lonely and frustrated in my loneliness, this practice reminded me that there is a “loneliness epidemic” in our society and that, therefore, many of the people I was passing on the street on my walk to work were likely feeling exactly the same thing I was. Moreover, it brought to mind all those — especially the shut in or aged — who, unlike me, are legitimately alone in the world, and how horrible and dehumanizing this must be for them. None of this was new information, but the modified Tonglen practice enabled me to break through my own myopic emotional state to access this knowledge and expand my understanding and empathy.
What I like about how this particular practice works is that it doesn’t in any way diminish or discount what we’re feeling, but rather makes use of it. It’s not about rationalizing our feelings away or shaming ourselves for feeling something when others might be feeling it ‘more’ or more systemically than we do. It’s about using what we’re feeling — ‘legitimately’ or not, it’s irrelevant (and how on earth would we discern what a ‘legitimate’ feeling is or isn’t anyway) — as a ground of understanding what others may be feeling.
I think this is an important practice for our world today. It’s cliché at this point to point out the increased social and political polarization that has swept the Western world. So much of it is based on ‘othering’, on marking out another group as so different from us that we don’t need to consider them or their experiences as important. But what if we take our own fear, our own anxieties for the future and the changes we see in the world and use them as a ground of compassion for the fear and anxieties of others — especially those ‘others’ we’d most like to write off? It seems to me that would be nothing short of revolutionary, to use our emotions and concerns as a way of finding common ground with people instead of cutting us off from them.
And so, I love this practice. I think it’s beautiful, I think it’s important, and I think it works.
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