In the mornings now, after meditation, I am reading a chapter – just one – of Pema Chodron’s Welcoming the Unwelcome. Usually, I plow through books, inhaling them in one gulp and exhaling them at the end with a sigh of regret that they lasted so little time. Allowing myself to read one chapter a day gives this book a little time to resonate, stretches it longer. I’m not necessarily consciously reflecting later about what I have read each day but rather letting it resonate within me like the reverberations of a great bell.
This morning’s chapter was on Tonglen, the practice of taking in and giving out. Taking in the bad emotions that people are feeling and giving out good feelings. The practice seems simple: put yourself in a relaxed, meditative state, let yourself feel an emotion that you usually avoid and – just when you would usually dodge to the side – breathe in, letting it enter you with the breath. As you breathe out, exhale a positive emotion. In other books, I have read that you can picture the in-breath as grey, heavy, and the out-breath as sunset pink, if that helps you picture it.
Like I said, simple. So simple that I wonder if I am even doing it “right.”
You can start with your own emotions or you can start with others. Yesterday, I started with the memory of a kitten I had seen on YouTube (yes, I know, sucked into Japanese videos of kittens again, too lazy to get up and go to bed): tiny, too tiny to be away from it’s mother, set on the ground of the driveway, too tiny to be outside, needing comfort and warmth and food, crying for a mother who wasn’t ever coming. Do you feel that? Breathe it in, breathe deeply – I picture myself breathing all that panic and sense of abandonment and vulnerability out of this kitten – and then breathe out: breathe out love and comfort and warmth and calm.
Now think of someone else that needs your help: a mother who feels desperate because her job has put her on furlough – or disappeared completely – who has waited in vain for a check that never came and waits now in a bread line that may not have anything for her when she reaches the front. Breathe deep the fear and despair. Now breathe out calm to her, calm and the confidence to keep trying one more day.
But you don’t only need to picture the vulnerable. I often practice Tonglen when thinking of people I don’t like, that I don’t agree with. The people who have so much fear and hate in their hearts that they feel they have to break down others to feel big themselves. That much fear and hate, I breathe in, and then fill the space I’ve created within them with love and wisdom. This sounds trite, I know, but I think of a true story I read somewhere about a Jewish couple who had moved to a small town in the Midwest where they seemed welcome until they started receiving hateful phone calls. They traced the phone calls back to an old, wheelchair bound man, isolated and alone. Their new friends told them, just ignore him, he’s bitter and his family has left him, all he has left is his role as Grand Dragon of the KKK. But the vicious phone calls kept coming; so the couple engaged. They brought him food. They talked to him as a person, they listened to him as a person. And eventually he changed. The change was so great and so unbelievable that you can only call it a miracle, one of those things that can’t possibly be true, but is.
I find Tonglen helpful outside of meditation, too. When my husband becomes crabby about something, I used to try to cheer him up, to talk him through it, which only made him more crabby, especially if the something he was crabby about was something I had said or done. Now, when I remember, I use Tonglen instead. Deep inhale, breathing in his anger and defensiveness, deep exhale, breathing out calm and peace. Does he change before my eyes, no. But practicing Tonglen keeps me from interfering in his emotion with words and, sometimes, just holding the space for him to be angry is enough and he calms down on his own.
I don’t purport to be an expert at meditation. Goodness knows, my own practice is inconsistent – missing days at a time – and this morning, my mind kept diverting to thoughts about the hypocrisy of people who purport to vote on the basis of saving lives for a man whose self-absorbed denial has resulted in so many deaths. And, when I reminded myself that this kind of thinking is unhelpful and I should be extending my compassion to people who feel so confused, an old Eartha Kitt song started running through my head instead. So clearly I am still a beginner at meditation.
But I do like doing what I think of as Tonglen.