Connecting to the Heart of Compassion with Pema Chodron's Tonglen Practice

Pema Chodron fans may be familiar with a practice she encourages called “tonglen.”  Tonglen practice is a wonderful way to work with difficult emotions and, as Pema Chodron says, to connect with suffering.  And it’s simple.  One sits quietly and breathes in the pain or difficult feelings of a situation, and breathes out relief.  In with pain and difficulty, out with relief, spaciousness, good wishes, compassion.

Opening Your Heart, Expanding Your Vision

But, why in the heck would we really want to do this?  Connecting with suffering and breathing in pain doesn’t really sound so great.  Especially since we’re normally taught to push painful feelings and negative thoughts away.

We do it because it can open up our hearts.  To take Pema’s direct words, “Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others and also we begin to take care of ourselves and others. It awakens our compassion and it also introduces us to a far larger view of reality.”

For Difficulty, Large or Small, You Can Touch Compassion Anytime

Tonglen can be done any time, and especially in moments when something is affecting you particularly deeply.  Maybe you just heard another story about the wilderness being razed for oil/minerals/timber/etc., or your best friend just lost his or her job, or you’re stuck in a huge traffic jam, or you see a story about human rights abuse on the television, or you just think about the precious Earth and how you fear she’s hurting.  Or maybe you, yourself, have just been having a rough day (yes, you can do this for yourself, too.)

Try it and see how you feel.  It’s okay if it doesn’t feel quite right in the beginning.  It’s there for anytime it seems right.

Here is a lovely poem that seems to speak well to tonglen practice, by Judith Hill.

Wage Peace

Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings
and flocks of redwing blackbirds.

Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children
and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen
and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.

Wage peace with your listening:
hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools:
flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.

Make soup.
Play music, learn the word for thank you in three languages.
Learn to knit and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief as the outbreath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Wage peace.

Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Celebrate today.

(I would like to add that one could also practice tonglen for those we label terrorists.)