How to Practice Tonglen
by Paul Garrigan
Why We Practice Tonglen at Hope Rehab
When I tell clients it was the feeling of being uncomfortable in my own skin that drove me towards substance abuse, there are usually plenty of nods of recognition. I struggled to cope with my emotions as a teenager, and it was this that made alcohol and drugs such an attractive proposition to me.
I choose chemical numbness because it took the edge off life. It sometimes felt as if I was wearing Teflon clothing and nothing could hurt me. What I didn’t realise was that there was going to be such a heavy price to pay for this numbness. I started to die inside as I lost the ability to care for anyone or anything – the only thing I cared about back then was my victimhood and fanciful stories.
By the time most of us have reached rehab, we should have gathered plenty of evidence to show that trying to avoid our emotions through chemical numbness is a flawed strategy. It is a case of the cure being worse than the symptoms. The problem is that unless we have a better way of dealing with our emotions, we are always going to find substance abuse an attractive proposition.
Why Compassion is the Answer
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”
It took me many years to figure out that the problem was never really my emotions but the thoughts triggered by these emotions. In particular, it was the simple yet toxic ideas that ‘it shouldn’t be this way’ or ‘I shouldn’t be feeling like this’. What we are feeling is what we are feeling and to think otherwise is the road to madness – it is what it is.
The reason I struggled so hard to be with my feelings was a lack of self-compassion. I am using the word ‘compassion’ here in a precise way to mean ‘a willingness to be with discomfort’. I didn’t want to experience any ‘yucky’ feelings because they triggered patterns of thinking telling me there was something terribly wrong with me.
Self-compassion is the willingness to lean into our feelings rather than trying to avoid them. When we do this, something surprising happens. It turns out that the actual feelings aren’t such a big deal – it is mostly just physical sensation and changes in our energy levels. The thoughts are just a poor attempt to describe what is happening, but when we actually experience the feelings, there is no need for this flawed commentary that is going to be biased due to distortions like self-hatred and self-limiting beliefs.
Most of us will have been in the habit of avoiding our emotions for decades, so it is not going to be possible to change overnight. The good news is compassion is a skill that we can develop, and the most powerful practice I know for doing this is called Tonglen.
“Emotions are, at root, a somatic experience: they arise out of the darkness of the body, they are felt intensely in the body, and they call us—sometimes with great insistence and even grisly intensity—back into the body. To be fully embodied involves an unconditional presence to our emotional life, not separating and not distancing ourselves by retreating into our heads into judgments, recriminations, or self-loathing.” Reginald Ray – Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body
Origins of Tonglen
Tonglen is a type of meditation that has been developed within Tibetan Buddhism. The word ‘tonglen’ can be translated as ‘sending and receiving’, and this is a good description of what it involves.
The usual way we humans approach life is to try to push away any discomfort and grab onto any pleasure we can find. Tonglen trains the mind to do the opposite – we become willing to face pain and we develop the wish that others get to experience our happiness. The amazing thing is this willingness to face discomfort combined with our wish for others to have the good things in life actually leads to profound inner peace.
How to Practice Tonglen
Tonglen is an incredibly powerful practice, and we can only give a very basic introduction to it as part of the Hope Mindfulness Program – it is meant to be something you will continue to explore once you go home. Pema Chodron is the most well-known proponent of this technique at the moment, and you will find plenty of her talks on YouTube. Reginald Ray is the teacher who has most influenced my own approach tonglen.
We do two very basic tonglen-influenced practices at Hope:
• The first technique involves sending and receiving with ourselves as the target. We begin the practice by relaxing the body using the breath. We then trying to imagine a time when we felt unable to face our suffering – this can be something that happened in childhood. We now imagine that this person we used to be is sitting right in front of us. Next, we imagine that as we breathe in, we are taking the suffering of this version of us, and as we breathe out, we are sending out healing comfort.
• The second technique involves sending and receiving with an actual person. We sit facing another person with our eyes closed in a relaxed position. We begin by remember that this person is like us in many ways – e.g. the desire to be happy, the desire to avoid pain, and the desire for another chance in life. As we breathe in, we imagine that we are taking on their pain (along with the ability to handle this pain), and as we breathe out, we send some compassion to them.
Here are some instructions from Pema Chodron on practicing Tonglen: