Searching For The Key To Unlock My Pain

I was able to spend some time this week learning about the greatest modern day promoter of Tonglen Meditation outside the Dalai Lama. Her name is Pema Chodron. There are quite a few videos available (including a visit on Oprah) where you can listen to her speak on many of the thought processes invoked through Tonglen practice, but I wanted to share an excerpt from her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times because it gets into the meat of how Tonglen can be used at any moment of the day. It also expresses the four stages of Tonglen, which guided me in my practice this week.


Each of us has a "soft spot": the place in our experience where we feel vulnerable and tender. This soft spot is inherent in appreciation and love, and it is equally inherent in pain.

Often, when we feel that soft spot, it's quickly followed by a feeling of fear and an involuntary, habitual tendency to close down. This is the tendency of all living things: to avoid pain and cling to pleasure. In practice, however, covering up the soft spot means shutting down against our life experience. Then we tend to narrow down into a solid feeling of self against other.

One very powerful and effective way to work with tendency to push away pain and hold onto pleasure is the practice of Tonglen. In Tonglen practice, when we see or feel suffering, we breathe in with the notion of completely feeling it, accepting it, and owning it. Then we breathe out, radiating compassion, lovingkindness, freshness; anything that encourages relaxation and openness.

In this practice, it's not uncommon to find yourself blocked, because you come face to face with your own fear, resistance, or whatever your personal "stuckness" happens to be at that moment. At that point, you can change the focus and do Tonglen for yourself, and for millions of others just like you who are feeling exactly the same misery.

I particularly like to encourage Tonglen, on the spot.  For example, you're walking down the street and you see the pain of another human being. On-the-spot Tonglen means that you just don't rush by; you actually breathe in with the wish that this person can be free of suffering, and send them out some kind of good heart or well-being. If seeing that other person's pain brings up fear or anger or confusion, which often happens, just start doing Tonglen for yourself and all the other people who are stuck in the very same way.

When you do Tonglen on the spot, you simply breathe in and breathe out, taking in pain and sending out spaciousness and relief. When you Tonglen as a formal practice, it has four stages:

1) First, rest your mind briefly in a state of openness or stillness.

2) Second, work with texture. Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark, and heavy, and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright, and light. Breathe in and radiate completely, through all the pores of your body, until it feels synchronized with your in-and out-breathe.

3) Third, work with any painful personal situation that is real to you. Traditionally, you begin by doing Tonglen for someone you care about. However, if your stuck, do the practice for your pain and simultaneously for all those just like you who feel that kind of suffering.

4) Finally, make the taking in and the sending out larger. Whether your doing Tonglen for someone you love or for someone you see on television, do it for all the others in the same boat. You could even do Tonglen for people you consider your enemies--those who have hurt you or others. Do Tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and "stuckness" as your find or yourself.

This is to say that Tonglen can extend indefinitely. As you do the practice, gradually, over time, your compassion naturally expands-- and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought. As you do this practice, at your own pace, you'll be surprised to find yourself more and more able to be there for others, even in what seemed like impossible situations.

Exploring Stage One and Two

The first three days this week were spent on the first two stages of Tonglen. I kept a general focus on my breath and got a feel for how easily my mind can run off into an irrelevant thought. As you can see below, I consistently stayed focused for about seven to eight minutes. With a goal of 15 minutes by the end of the week, I just barely missed the mark (by 15 seconds), but I am excited about the progress I am making. I feel confident I will continue to increase my time in the coming days.

I saw great improvement in my ability to focus after the third day this week.

One thing I felt necessary to include in my practice this week was a timer. This was more to get a feel for how long five or ten minutes felt in a meditative state than anything else. I also wanted to go into the practice slowly. I didn’t want to finish a session claiming I stayed focused for 30 minutes when all I really did was allow my mind to wander aimlessly without me noticing. Setting a restriction on my time convinced me to stay focused because I only had so much time to practice.

The rest of the month, I’ll be ditching the timer and the thought “I will only meditate for x minutes.” I will keep track of my time, but the clock will count up instead of down. I will allow my mind and body to call the shots as to when I need to stop or keep going.

I expect to see more variability throughout the week depending on the stress of the day. The long term goal will be to subconsciously determine how long I can allot to my meditation, set my figurative timer, and practice without this secondary thought lurking in my mind. I can only imagine how freeing this will feel to be able to control my mind at will and determine when it can and cannot be silent.

The Roadblock Found at Stage Three

By day four of this week, I started to venture into stage three of Tonglen and the experience is a bit difficult to describe. With the goal of welcoming my own pain and suffering into my being, I first needed to identify it. I came to find this practice of identification to be rather difficult. As many of my closest friends could tell you, I tend to bottle up my emotions (positive and negative) and reserve them for some future time (I have no idea what that future time is).

Sure, I have random moments of anger or jubilation, but most of the time, I fail to express either extreme of the emotional spectrum. It seems this lack of expression has translated into an inability to identify what moments have actually given me pain. This isn't to say I am immune to it, it simply means I have put a lock on this door of unpleasantness, and I must unlock it if I am to live out my whole self.

This coming week will be a great opportunity for me to find the hidden key and explore these pain points. I will have to delay my plan to explore the suffering of my fiancée because I have yet to deal with my own. This is yet another great example of how I can do all the planning in the world, but unless I take action, I will never experience the process in its raw form.

Overall, I am really enjoying this month's challenge so far and I hope the information you have read up to this point is encouraging you to dabble in some meditation yourself. Don't forget, there are so many variations and philosophies of meditation out there that there is bound to be one that fits your core values and current life goals. If you have any questions or comments about my experience or meditation in general, share your message below!

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