This is the tenth of twelve posts in the Exploring Mindfulness blog series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. This post addresses Chapters Fifteen through Seventeen. Participants are encouraged to practice mindfulness meditation daily throughout the twelve weeks, even if for five minutes at a time. (4.5 min read)
In Chapter Sixteen, Pema Chödrön introduces the precept of pasjna, which is “freedom from the actions of making ourselves secure”. Pasjna, it seems to me, is the core of what frees us to practice sending loving-kindness outward. She describes pasjna as the “wisdom that cuts through the suffering that comes from seeking to protect our own territory. By not being compelled to protect our own territory, we have no reason to defend against perceived threats by those who see the world differently than us.
Today’s exercise, below, is meant to guide you through the more formal practice of Tonglen, as described in Chapter Fifteen. To build on the descriptions of tonglen presented last week from chapter Fourteen, we can see tonglen practice as a method of connecting with suffering—the suffering of ourselves and those around us. It can lead to overcoming our fear of suffering, thus expanding our heart when our impulse is to constrict or turn away from others’ suffering.
Pema reassures us that it is okay if we become stuck at any point in the practice. If so, we are to do tonglen for whatever we are feeling at the moment by breathing in our “stuckness” and breathe out what we think we need—such as openness and fluidity. Then we breathe in for everyone who is feeling stuck and send out what we think they need.
Or maybe it is our pain that blocks us from receiving the suffering of others. If you can name the pain, breathe in for those, who feel the same pain. If you can’t name the pain, focus on the emotional and physical sensation. Then breathe in for all those who feel the same sensation.
She encourages us to go against the grain of wanting things to work out and tells us that in Buddhist teaching calls this “dissolving the fixation and clinging to the ego”. This suggests becoming free of making ourselves the reference point—the center of things. If we feel we are the center of things, then our needs, beliefs, and our opinions must be protected or propagated. From this perspective, the needs, beliefs, and opinions of others are less important to us and even seem like they are competing with us. To cease to cling to our ego is to be free of this and of the suffering with which that comes.
Tonglen is especially crucial in the polarized and hyper-partisan times in which we live. However, noble the cause we represent, it does no good to demonize those who see things differently. From a mindfulness standpoint, it is possible to actively engage in a cause you believe without judging others, however counterintuitive. A Christian example of this is the precept, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Tonglen is a practice that prepares us for the challenge of this kind of love.
In Chapter Seventeen, Pema talks about our attachment to our opinions, how we become fixated on them, and how to practice letting them go. She writes,
Opinions are opinions, nothing more or less. We can begin to notice them, and we can begin to label them as opinions, just as we label thoughts as thoughts… To have even a few seconds of doubt about the solidity and absolute truth of our own opinions introduces us to the possibility of egolessness.
Letting go of attachment to our opinions creates spaciousness and clarity—what she calls “intelligence” or “clear seeing”. Intelligence is particularly essential as we take action in the world to make it more kind and loving. So, for example, as I get involved in the racial justice movement, I have opinions about those at fault. If my opinion seems solid and absolute to me, I see those who have different opinions as the enemy. This tempts me to focus on them instead of focusing on the cause. As I become angry, I feel “righteous indignation”. I make them the “other”, and demonize them rather than trying to understand their fears. Therefore, it can be said that we actually construct our enemies through our solid opinions and self-righteousness. When I do this, it does nothing for my cause, and it likely hurts my cause because it fosters the defensiveness of my opponents. This helps to solidify their opinions. In contrast, the clear seeing of intelligence begets authentic speech, and authentic speech begets effective openness and openness welcomes in those who are different than me.
“Tonglen”, Pema tells us, “can extend infinitely”. Most of us begin with a lot of “stuckness”, constriction, and long-standing judgments. As we practice, gradually over time, we may find that our compassion expands—becomes more spacious. We may find that we are more able to be there for others in what used to be intolerable situations. This exercise is an edited version of Pema Chödrön’s instruction at the end of Chapter Fifteen.
Settle yourself in your seated position.
Rest your mind briefly, for a second or two, opening up to basic spaciousness and clarity.
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 out] through all the pores of your body.
Work with a personal situation—any painful situation that’s real to you. Begin by doing tonglen for someone you care about. If you are stuck, you can do the practice for the pain you are feeling and simultaneously for all who feel [stuck].
Now make the taking in and sending out bigger. If you are doing tonglen for someone you love, extend it out to others in the same situation. If you are doing tonglen for someone you see on the street, do it for all the others in the same boat.
If you feel ready, you could do tonglen for those who hurt you or hurt others. Do tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as yourself. Breathe in their pain and send them relief.
Thanks for participating!
ॐ I bow to you,
Next Post: 7/12/20 and will focus on Chapters Eighteen through Twenty.
To find out more about the series or to participate in the discussion, go to Welcome to the Exploring Mindfulness Series.