Lately, I have had the good fortune of attending some cd lectures with Shambhala Fraser Valley, a Tibetan Buddhist group. One in particular that caught my attention and bears direct relevance to my own life was a lecture on Awakening Compassion by the remarkable Pema Chodron. She is not only a wise woman and esteemed teacher, but also has a good heart and speaks in a candid, light-hearted manner.
What I noticed initially was how down to earth she was in the recording called “Good Medicine” by Sounds True. In my experience, I often felt fear in response to strong emotions, and have struggled with being present with my feelings when they arise and are out of control. Pema Chodron introduced the idea of Tonglen, a practice of breathing in and out (giving and taking/sending and receiving) a wish for kindness to be present in one’s life and that of others. Tonglen, this genuine space of opening up to what is occurring, and not fighting against what is….frankly, it was a little bit of an epiphany for me.
How many times have I blamed, bad mouthed, outlawed, or scorned myself, as my inner critic rose up and scorched a path of reproach across my character, making me wrong or defective for simply being me? What a lesson – to be taught to go into the pain, to lean into it, instead of running from it? What would happen if I just sat through the wanting and needing for coffee or a cigarette? Would I disappear? Explode? Implode? What would become of me?
I decided to try to put this lesson on Tonglen into practice myself, so I could experience first hand whatever outcome was to transpire. I would conduct it like an experiment and just be open to the outcome, instead of attached to.
I did not have to wait long for an opportunity to practice. While walking in the calm of the woods one day, I ended up in a heated discussion with my partner, who, in anger, shirked my affections and my attempt to patch up the argument. Immediately I felt anger, shame, embarrassment and the mind went crazy with rantings and ravings, all within a matter of seconds. Briefly, I remembered Pema Chodron’s talk on “maithri” or unconditional friendship with oneself, and choose the argument as an opportunity to see what would happen if I could put into practice Tonglen. I focussed on my breathing and on sending out compassion for myself and for all others in the world experiencing challenges in love. Within minutes, my huge wave of anger and deep emotions cleared, swept away by an ocean of tenderness and delight. I felt at peace with my situation, and clear of any need to further disrupt the relationship with any more pain and smart commentary. By breathing in the emotional pain, and breathing out compassion, I found myself walking right out of an overwhelming situation, positioned to heal wounds instead of incurring them. This open-hearted exercise taught me to accept the emotions instead of fighting with them, to walk through them to the other side. But I think what made the difference was the hope that others would not suffer, that others might benefit from my experience. It connected me to a peaceful and loving part of myself that was the calm in the storm, and for that I’m grateful to know that this practice can indeed work, even in simple situations. My hope is that I’m ready to move onto bigger triggers, and have the courage to try Tonglen with taxing emotions that are more challenging. I personally feel that this practice has the potential to change the way I interact with myself (and my hyper-critical nature). These lessons come at a time when I am trying to learn to be kinder to myself and more compassionate with where I am today.