Tonglen in Tibetan means “sending and receiving.” In this meditation, I’ve learned to pay attention to a problem or pain, a piece of suffering, inhaling it on my breath; and then to focus on its antidote, exhaling that. For me tonglen works in a Neopagan /magickal context, trusting that all energy is neither good or bad, just energy: worked with, it results in effects that can be either beneficial or harmful.
(Intellectually I understand that this use of the concept of “energy” probably has no scientific validity. As Larry Dossey has argued, we need “entirely new modes of images, modes of thought and vocabularies.” But in the meantime, imagery of energy works for me; it enables me to accomplish changes in my mind that result in changes in the world.)
Traditionally tonglen was taught as training in compassion, focusing on the suffering of others. But in paying attention to others’ pain, from empathy I feel it as my own, and in addition, it can bring up other problems of my own. In both cases, the focus then includes all of the above — or whichever presents itself in the moment.
The key is knowing that all of this distress is just baggage; the basic energy can be welcomed, owned, taken into the transforming fire of the heart, and then sent out again for liberation.
So I inhale my headache, focusing on the needle-like stabbing in my left cheek sinus, owning it completely. How I hate it comes to mind: I inhale my hate, the tension in my jaw. My desperation about how often it’s been hitting. My fear. Hello, welcome, fear: I breathe in the tightness in my chest. My worry over how I’m going to get the taxes done in this condition: I breathe in the pull of my frown.
And with each, I breathe out freedom. That’s the universal antidote for me. The result I send out in all my tonglen. Freedom from harm, freedom from pain, freedom from the suffering we attach to pain, freedom from obsession, even from illusion we get ignorantly caught in…. Freedom for everyone with a killer sinus headache, for everyone caught in fear, panic or hate…. Freedom for all beings, from all suffering, because our suffering, inextricably bound together, is all one. I feel my out-breath spreading into free, open space. I send out awareness of the spaciousness which is our essential nature. That reconnection, on each out-breath, relaxes me — and the headache eases.
I do a lot of tonglen that starts with my own suffering. I do it in order to relieve pain. Is this selfish? Am I perverting the practice? What about all the wise ones through the ages who have taught putting others before self?
A paradox: tonglen relieves my headache because I believe it will. I believe it because I believe our suffering is all one. No… that’s not something I believe: it’s something I feel, something I sense deep in my heart. It’s part of the feeling that all beings are so deeply interconnected that essentially we are one. All beings’ suffering is my suffering. As a result when I address my piece of it, I can make myself proxy for everyone. Making myself responsible for all. It’s not that I put others ahead of myself. Rather I know that focusing on what is ultimately beneficial for any one of us, is ultimately beneficial for all.
A few times in my life, I have said or done something that helped another person toward freedom. The warm glow that gave me stays with me. It connects me to all beings. No other pleasure or fun can compare.
Traditionally, one’s purpose in tonglen is to end the suffering of all beings. I’m still aiming for that; it’s just that I’m included.