This morning in a rich and grace-filled conversation, I was reminded of a Buddhist spiritual practice that I’d learned about years ago, but have long since left behind. It is known as Tonglen, sometimes referred to as “taking and sending” or “bad in, good out”, and it is as simple as it sounds. For example, I might practice Tonglen for someone I know who is in pain or suffering a great loss, by bringing them to mind and taking in their pain and suffering with my in-breath, and with them still in mind, sending them relief when breathing out.
While simple it may be, it is anything but easy, as it means a willingness to take on the burdens of others by taking them into our very being, and as Pema Chodren explains in the link above, encountering the pain and suffering of others brings us face-to-face with our own. And who wants that, I ask you? But here’s the thing, in practicing it for others we can practice it for ourselves, as we inhale our own pain, and exhale relief back to our own hearts. With time, Tonglen helps us to connect our own pain with that of others, and to see that we are all in this rich and painful thing called life together. None are exempt, and as we sit in that connection we develop more capacity to extend compassion, love, and empathy, not only to others, but to ourselves.
In this same conversation I was also reminded that there are times when Tonglen will just be too much for us. Times when taking on any more is simply more than we can bear, and in those moments all we can do is simply breathe.