Sogyal Rinpoche recommends starting this practice by first doing it for yourself. Before one can have such compassion for others, one has to have compassion for oneself. The first step is to “unseal the spring of loving kindness.” To do that he suggests going back in your mind and recreate, almost visualize, a love that someone gave you that really moved you. My mind wandered through several possibilities both in my adult life and childhood, when suddenly I remembered an instance with my father that was repeated often when I was small … he would come to my bed at night when he would get home and play with my toes.
When I remembered that episode, which had long since been forgotten, I cried because of the love that I was feeling from my father and almost simultaneously a big smile formed on my face. Rinpoche says that, “You will remember then that even though you may not always feel that you have been loved enough, you were loved genuinely once. Knowing that now will make you feel again that you are, as that person made you feel then, worthy of love and really lovable.” And so it did.
Under his further instruction, I let my heart open and the love that flowed from it was extended to my father, to my family and friends, and to all people. I visualized holding my father as he was dying (I was not there in fact) and saying to him, “You can let go now for I know that you love me and I love you … I will be ok.” I was now ready to practice tonglen on myself.
Rinpoche suggests, for the purpose of this exercise, dividing yourself into two aspects … one is the aspect of you that is whole, compassionate, etc., the other is the aspect of you that has been hurt, that feels misunderstood, bitter or angry, “who might have been unjustly treated or abused as a child, or has suffered in relationships or been wronged by society.” As you breathe in, the first aspect opens its heart completely and receives all of the other aspect’s pain and suffering. As you breathe out, the first aspect gives the other aspect all its healing love, warmth, trust, and happiness. In response, the other aspect opens its heart to this love and all pain and suffering melt away in this embrace.
When I first did this practice, it was a real breakthrough for me. (If you want to know more, read my book, The Self in No Self.) As the weeks and months passed, I practiced both the visualization of my father’s love, as well as tonglen on myself, on a regular basis. Each time I did, I felt that smile … the smile of happiness and love … form naturally and for many weeks tears would roll down my cheek. Clearly, this was a very cathartic experience for me.
Once having practiced tonglen on myself, I was ready to practice tonglen on others, whether people I knew who were suffering, or people in general. But here I made one significant departure from what I understood to be normal tonglen practice.
The practice is typically described as taking on the suffering of others. I had read that when tonglen originally became more widely practiced, the monk who spread the practice was very taken with the idea of taking on another’s suffering. He viewed breathing in the suffering as literally making it ones own.
This creates a barrier to the practice for many people. Indeed, I did not feel that I or other unenlightened people had the strength to take on another’s let alone the world’s suffering. And so I altered the normal practice by saying that breathing in, I remove the other’s pain and suffering and release it into the ether, like sucking snake poison out of a snake bite. I do not take it within myself but I suck it out of the other person and release it.
Recently, however, I read that the founder of Shambhala, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, said that taking on suffering does not really mean to burden oneself with the misery of the world, but rather to acknowledge its existence and, as Pema Chodron says, put your energy into removing the suffering from people. So my practice of tonglen is not a departure after all.
Years later, during a meditation, I developed another version of tonglen. In this practice, I reach out my hand as though it were resting on the other’s head, like giving a benediction. Breathing in I breathe the fresh breath of life into the person’s true Buddha nature. Yes, it is already there, but I am giving it life-giving oxygen. Breathing out, I forcefully breath out all the person’s toxins and defilements, obstructions, fears, and insecurity, and any other particular anxieties that the person suffers from, thus freeing the white brilliance of his unborn Buddha mind, his inner strength, and his heart.
This version of tonglen feels more powerful because I am making contact with and feeding the person’s unborn Buddha mind. Then on the out breath, I am expelling all his toxins and defilements. Since our breathing in is a life-giving moment, and breathing out involves the removal of toxins from the body, this version of tonglen also feels more natural than the normal practice, which is reversed.
I continue to practice both versions of tonglen on a regular basis. I of course cannot know what impact it has on the other person or people. But it does provide me with a strong experience of offering joy to another, in a way that I could not do directly. And so it brings me peace. And I have the sense, believing in such paranormal things, that this practice does make a difference.
Interestingly, in doing research for this post, I read that the Dalai Lama has said with regard to tonglen that, “whether this meditation helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective and the benefit is immense.”