breathe in the suffering of others…

Day 18 of the Health Activist Writer’s Challenge sent me to a random page in How to be Sick by Toni Bernhard.  The passage I chose is on tonglen practice (p. 97)

“We breathe in the suffering of the world and breathe out whatever kindness, serenity, and compassion we have to give. It’s a counter-intuitive practice, which is why the Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron says that tonglen reverses ego’s logic.”

lotus flower rises from the muck


I first learned of tonglen practice from my meditation teacher.  I have participated in a formal meditation group that has met twice a month for over five years. At first, it was really difficult to wrap my mind around it. It is not an easy concept to embrace in a society that teaches us to “let things go.” Now it has become my “go-to” practice, especially when self-pity comes knocking.

Here is a recent example of how this works for me.

It was one of those dark, gloomy days with storm clouds hovering. My body ached, as it often does, when the weather changes abruptly. Nothing seemed to be going right. My house was a mess and I didn’t have the energy to pick it up. I was feeling alone and sorry for myself, longing for the time when I was working. My inner dialogue was filled with regret and self-blame… and the shoulds. I should be doing more for myself. I should feel better.  I am worthless. I don’t blame my friends for not coming around… etc.

During these times, tonglen is helpful to turn things around.  Instead of feeling sorry for my self, I acknowledge and connect my pain to the pain of others.  I breathe in the pain of others who are feeling alone and in a similar situation and I send love and compassion. My heart softens and I am able to offer the same compassion for others to myself.  Bernhard calls this the two-for-one compassion practice since we benefit as much as the other.  All beings benefit, indeed.


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