Tonglen Meditation

Changing pain into compassion.

 

Excerpted from the tape, "Good Medicine," and used with permission of Sounds True. (

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During this session I'm going to teach tonglen practice. First, I'd like to talk about the different styles of tonglen. The very simplest style, which I think would be helpful for every single one of us--and something well worth cultivating in one's life--is taking a tonglen attitude towards pleasure and pain--whenever it arises in your life.



I've gotten into the habit of doing this meditation, although I don't always remember to do it. But more and more, it's becoming spontaneous and natural. When things are painful, when things are difficult, usually that in and of itself will remind me to do tonglen meditation. The quality of difficulty, struggle, pain, dissatisfaction, or unpleasantness will remind me to have the simple thought: "Other people feel this."



Now that may sound simplistic--maybe not all that important. But, believe me, it makes a big difference because the isolation, personal burden, loneliness, and desperation of pain gets very strong. And you think you're the only one. I've had people actually say to me, "I think no one else in the world feels this kind of pain." And then I can say to them with tremendous confidence: "You're wrong."



But what is not wrong is that we do have that feeling often, that I am the only one that has this particular pain. So maybe it will be a challenge to you to say this, and it might not feel genuine. But even the effort to say this begins to shake up your complacency about pain being just your burden. It shakes it up to contemplate the fact that other people feel this pain too.



So this is a basic tonglen logic: When you feel the discomfort, have the thought: "Other people feel this." And then if you want to take it a rather dramatic step further, you can say, "May we all be free of this." But it's enough just to acknowledge that other people feel this pain. And the most dramatic and probably most difficult step is to say: "Since I'm feeling this anyway, may I be feeling it so all others could be free of it."



So tonglen meditation has three levels of courage. The first is to say, "Other people feel this." And that is enough. But if, in that particular moment of time, it feels genuine to say, "May this become a path for awakening the hearts of all of us," do so. And the one that takes you to the deepest level of courage is: "Since I'm feeling this anyway, may I feel it so that others could be free of it."



This is the tonglen attitude towards pain. It doesn't involve focusing on breathing in and breathing out; it's the spirit of tonglen.



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