In this solo episode of A Show of Hearts, host Rosemary Pritzker dives into the subject of compassion: how to cultivate it for ourselves and others and what compassion and having an open heart means in today’s world. She shares her interpretations of the Buddhist concept of the Four Immeasurables: Lovingkindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity. Rosemary shares her own stories and recounts stories about compassion passed down from her teacher (a Tibetan Buddhist Lama). Then she leads listeners through a 15-minute heart-opening meditation for cultivating compassion, called Tonglen. Rosemary shares the personal story of how a childhood trip to Nepal and Bhutan opened her heart and helped her deal with childhood bullying by using Tonglen and learning to have compassion for both herself and the pain of those who hurt her. You’ll come away from the episode with tools for how to build your own meditation practice so that you can feel the benefits of implementing them into your day-to-day life.
Resources mentioned in the episode:
The Compassion Book by Pema Chödron
When Things Fall Apartby Pema Chödron
Why is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling? By Lama Tsomo
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You’re listening to A Show of Hearts. The podcast about finding the courage to live a deep and magical life. I’m your host life coach, Rosemary Pritzker.
Today’s episode is about compassion. We’ll talk about what it is, how to cultivate it, and why. A Show of Hearts is focused on why it’s essential to follow our hearts in life and the fact that it takes courage, bravery, and guts to do it. It’s not just rainbows and butterflies all the time. It can be really painful or scary to face ourselves and overcome our fears. So it’s important to me that this show include ideas and instructions on how to do all the things required in order to truly follow one’s heart. From time to time you’ll hear me share some of the tools and practices that have helped me the most. I’ve been a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism for most of my life. And two things that have helped me the most with the long list of things that I’ve faced is training my mind through meditation and learning to better understand compassion. So that’s what I’ll be sharing with you today.
But before we jump in I want to share the review of the month. This month’s review is from Keely Carney who wrote “I love this podcast. It makes me feel like I’m getting to know some of the most interesting people on the planet in a really in depth way. Always excited for new episodes and invariably end up inspired after listening.” If you want to be featured as the next review of the month, head over to iTunes and write a five star review. This helps make sure more people will find this show so they can be inspired to follow their hearts too.
Albert Einstein said “A human being is a part of the whole called by us, universe. A part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separated from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
There’s a set of concepts called The Four Immeasurables that exist throughout not just Tibetan Buddhism, but all forms of Buddhism. They’re also sometimes called The Four Boundless Qualities, and they are loving kindness or metta, compassion, sympathetic joy or mudita, and equanimity. So when we talk about The Four Immeasurables what we’re talking is these inherent qualities that we all have. That there are certain practices and concepts around cultivating these four. And in Buddhism there’s this thing called Buddha nature that we talk about. Unlike original sin, Buddha nature is basically saying that we all have the inherent qualities or key ingredients necessary for reaching enlightenment. We all have those qualities within us, they just need to be nurtured. And the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to reach enlightenment, but this whole enlightenment thing, it’s not just having no thoughts and being blissed out all the time. Although that’s kind of part it. But there’s also this sense of no longer avoiding our experiences and no longer feeling the separation of self and other. Being able to feel how connected everything is.
So today were going to talk about compassion, which is a really good tool for not turning away from our experiences, for looking right at them. And we’re going to specifically work with a Tibetan practice called Tonglen, which means sending and receiving as a tool for looking at those experiences. Specifically experiences of suffering. Looking at them directly and working to transmute them. And I originally learned this practice when I was 15 in Asia in 1997. My mom took me out of high school for a month to take me to Nepal and Bhutan, which was an amazing experience and I learned so much about Buddhism and the various cultures in that region. It was kind of a pilgrimage and it really affected me. So I started doing this practice and it really helped me at the time to deal with some experiences I was having at the time, which I’ll get into more later.
So I wanted to take a step back and talk a little bit about a couple of concepts in Buddhism that you may have heard of. One is samsara and the other is karma. Samsara is the cycle of existence basically. It’s all these different realms sort of existing on top of each other. The human realm, the animal realm, there’s God realms, there’s hell realms, there’s the insect realm, all kinds of things that we can see and also cannot see. And within that is what the Tibetans refer to as precious human birth. Which the way they look at it is you can be born anywhere in that cycle of existence but the one place you can be born that actually allows you to train your mind and work to free yourself from that samsara cycle of existence is human birth. You have the right mental faculties, the ability to read and understand teachings and all this stuff. So that leaves you poised to not only find the right guidance, but to actually be able to use it to reach enlightenment. And what keeps us stuck in samsara is karma. And the nature of samsara is basically suffering, is what they talk about in Buddhism. As long as you’re in samsara you’re going to be experiencing suffering. You may be happy for a while but there eventually will be more suffering because you’re still in samsara.
This does not mean Buddhism is the path of suffering. Most of the practices in Buddhism can help you achieve more and more peace and joy and can really help you overcome a lot of pain. Nobody’s going to be completely blissed out all of the time. So then there’s karma which a lot of people have probably heard of. That you do various actions and have various thoughts that give you negative karma, positive karma, and those stay with you throughout all of your lifetimes. And so something that’s happening to you now is a result of something else that you did. Could be last week, could be several million years ago and it’s just carried through to this lifetime. So the karma that follows us keeps us stuck in this vicious cycle in samsara. And I say vicious cycle because, you may have heard the phrase hurt people hurt people. So if you’re hurting you might be more inclined to want to do actions that might hurt someone or that are just negative in some way and then that give you more negative karma and then you’re stuck in samsara for longer. And so a really good antidote to all of that is compassion.
So the suffering that we experience in samsara is the best motivation for trying to seek liberation. So why would we want to try and reach enlightenment and get out of samsara? Well it’s because otherwise we will be suffering. So Tonglen, the Tibetan practice is about alleviating that suffering for all beings. That’s the motivation for doing Tonglen.
So the Buddha was born … Actually he was a prince named Siddhartha. And when he was born his father got all of these predictions from holy men basically saying that his son was either going to be a great king or he was going to be a religious figure who was not going to want anything to do with the throne, if I remember correctly. And the kind was really worried about this and so he worked really hard to shield Siddhartha from experiencing or witnessing any form of pain, or suffering, or hardship of any kind. And then when Siddhartha was a young man he wanted to experience what real life was all about, more so than what he was seeing in the castle where everything was just perfect and wonderful all of the time. And so he got his driver to sneak him out of the castle grounds and he started seeing things like sickness, and old age, and all these things he’d never seen. And because he’d never seen them before it was more shocking and therefore made him so much more heartbroken for these people and wanted to help so deeply that that’s what ended up thrusting him in the direction of leaving the castle and going to work really hard to try and train his mind, and help others, and eventually reach enlightenment. It was the witnessing of the suffering that brought all of that about.
I wanted to take a minute to distinguish between empathy, sympathy, and compassion. So a woman named Sara Schairer writes on chopra.com about how empathy … The way she describes it is empathy is basically putting yourself in someone else’s shoes so that you can basically feel what they feel. And she describes sympathy as the ability to intellectually understand why they would be suffering with whatever it is that they’re … You know, feeling pain from whatever they’re suffering with. But then compassion is the combination of the two. Being able to feel what they feel. Intellectually understand what it is that they are going though and why they feel the way they feel. And on top of it wanting to alleviate that suffering. So compassion’s basically those three combined. But this whole compassion thing, it doesn’t just apply to others. It’s also important for us to have compassion for ourselves.
So there was this Tibetan Lama named Mingur Rinpoche who when he first came to the US started hearing from his students about this whole concept of self loathing, self criticism, the inner critic, and he’d never even heard of this before because they just kind of don’t really have that. And he didn’t really understand. He was like “Why would people talk so negatively to themselves? Why would they say such hateful and hurtful things to themselves and be critical all the time of themselves?” And so he wanted to understand better and didn’t know any other way than to try and experience it himself. And so he for 30 days straight sat and meditated on saying really horrible awful things to himself and it worked. By the end of the 30 days he felt like crap. He was totally depressed. It was like “Ah man, I really understand what these people are talking about now. This is awful.” And so then he had to go back to his trusted practices that he had used all his life in the Tibetan tradition to turn that back around, which he did pretty quickly because that was more what his mind had been used to. But what an act of compassion that was, that he was willing to do that to make himself feel so terrible just so that he could understand his students better.
So this whole thing of like guilt and I’m bad and all of that is … Pema Chodron describes it as this useless western hook. And she suggests that instead we say more compassionate things to ourselves. Like oh you can do it sweetheart, that kind of thing. I like to think about it as like talking to ourselves the way our ideal parent would talk to us, or the way we would talk to our own child if we were the parent we wish we were. And so while it is useless to talk to ourselves in hurtful ways, it’s also important for us to know our worst, to look at our shadows, but with an open heart. That’s the difference. And to look not only at our shadows but to look at what scares us instead of running away.
For example, Trungpa Rinpoche who is fairly well known, he’s the teacher of Pema Chodron. Was the teacher of Pema Chodron. Pema Chodron likes to tell this story about Trungpa Rinpoche where he was at some monastery and there was this vicious dog who was really aggressive and was foaming at the mouth, and chomping at the bit, and just barking and barking really aggressively. It was tied up, I guess it was on a chain. And they were walking at the monastery and the dog got loose and started charging towards them. And everyone that Rinpoche was with started running away in fear, and he just instinctively started running towards the dog, waving his arms and growling at the dog. And the dug tucked its tail between its legs and ran away. It was scared. So I feel like that’s a really good example of one way that we can handle even things like just anxiety. I have had my own experiences with working with anxiety like that, where instead of trying to push the bad feeling that is anxiety away … There’ve been a few time where I’ve been able to really deeply sit with it and welcome it, and like basically say bring it on and let it just flood me. And there have been times where when I do that everything calms down. Because our feelings want to be felt and they’re going to keep pounding on the door until we open the door.
I just want to explain first the setup of how to do Tonglen before we dive in. So like I said Tonglen means sending and receiving. And what we’re going to be doing with this practice is we’re going to pick a specific topic to focus on. So pick something that is a form of suffering that is really affecting you in your life right now. It could be physical pain, loneliness, there’s so many things to choose from. Let’s use loneliness as an example. So you’re going to start on yourself because of what I was saying earlier about we westerners tend to be really hard on ourselves. So having compassion for ourselves first is kind of like putting that oxygen mask on on the airplane before trying to help anyone else. So what you’re going to do is … In this case I would suggest imagining yourself in front of you like you’re watching a TV screen or a movie screen. See yourself there and start to really see and feel and understand that form of suffering that you’ve picked. In my example I’m going to use loneliness. And really feel it. Like fully bring on that feeling.
And what you’re going to do is imagine that that feeling of suffering forms this dark smokey cloud. And you’re going to breathe in that dark smokey cloud. It’s going to come into your heart. Don’t do this right now, I’m just describing how to do it at the moment. But breathe the dark smokey cloud into your heart and then use that feeling of really wanting to alleviate the suffering. Really bring that feeling on of true compassion, really wanting to take away the suffering and replace it with whatever the antidote is, happiness, joy, love, health. So it’s that feeling of compassion coming from your good heart that sort of alchemizes and transforms the dark smokey suffering cloud and turns it into this beautiful white sparkly cloud full of love, joy, peace, wellbeing, all of that stuff.
And then you’re going to breathe that white sparkly beautiful cloud out and back into the version of you that you’re looking at. And it’s going to surround that version of you and soak into that you and into every single cell. And we’re going to do that a number of times, first on you. Then after we’ve done that for a while on ourselves, then we’ll step it out and do it for another person who is someone for whom it’s really easy for us to feel a sense of compassion. So it’s not an ex-boyfriend that we still resent. It’s not a crazy mother-in-law, it’s not that person that accidentally tripped us on the street. It’s our best friend, our mother, whoever it is that most easily brings on that sense of compassion, of wanting to alleviate their suffering. And then we’ll step it out a few more times from there, but we’ll get into that when we’re actually doing it. So just to recap, you’re breathing in the dark smokey cloud of the suffering into your heart and then consciously bringing on that strong feeling of compassion of wanting to alleviate the suffering. Using that to transform the dark smokey cloud into the white sparkly cloud and breathe that out and back into you, the person you’re breathing for, whoever.
And you know a lot of times when people are first doing this a lot of people end up wondering, well if I’m breathing in that dark smokey cloud, is that okay? Is that safe? Is that going to get stuck in there? Is it going to harm me? First of all you’d have to be a really highly accomplished practitioner to say take on someone’s cancer just by breathing it in. Some really accomplished healers and practitioners of various kinds can take someone’s cancer away. But we’re not maybe quite at the level. So first of all there’s that, and then second of all there is the focusing on that strong sense of compassion coming from your good heart is the antidote to that suffering, and that’s what protects you form the suffering getting stuck in there.
So, with that let’s dive into some practice. And we’re going to start by just quieting our minds for a little bit before we dive into the Tonglen. The practice we’re going to do today called Tonglen can be maybe a bit too intense if you’re already in really acute emotional pain. So if you just lost a loved one, or are thinking about hurting yourself or anything else critical like that, I would suggest you first go and get whatever form of professional help you need first before you attempt this practice.
So to start our practice get into a comfortable position, take a breath and let it go. So in Tibetan Buddhism we like to start basically all practices by taking just a moment to give rise to what’s called bodhicitta, which is basically that fervent wish to alleviate the suffering of all beings. So just take a moment now to find that feeling within you, that strong wish for all beings to be free of suffering.
And now we’re going to transition to just quieting our minds. So just start to let your body relax. We’re really good at being tense and stressed in this culture, so it’s good to take a moment to consciously tell our bodies, okay you can relax now. So just let every muscle … Almost like as if it’s melting. Notice where you might be tensing up and see if you can tell that part of you to gently let go and relax.
And start to focus your attention on the sensations in your body. You know when people start off meditating for the first time they often think that they’re supposed to make their minds go blank, but minds really like to have something to focus on. So in this case we’re working with the sensations in our body to sort of land us in the present moment. So just keep focusing on the body. And while you’re doing this you’re breathing gently in and out, and letting the breath just be natural. Not forcing it.
If any thoughts arise or you start to get distracted, just let it go like a passing cloud. And if it’s useful you can label it thinking. And then just return to the sensations in the body and the gentle breath.
Try not to get too caught up in, oh my God and I doing it right? And I focusing on my body enough? Am I having too many thoughts? There was an old apache medicine named grandfather Stalking Wolf who said “Trying creates impossibilities, letting go brings that which is desired.” If you try too hard to not think, or just try to hard in general, you end up kind of chasing your tail. So just gently breathe, let go, and do your best.
Continue to focus on how it feels in the present moment in your body. Gently bringing your mind back to the present moment through sensation.
One of my favorite dharma teachers Vinny Ferraro likes to say right now it’s like this. Right now it’s like this. Right now it’s like this.
Okay so now take a nice big breath and let it go. Now we’re going to transition into Tonglen. So first imagine that there’s this beam of white light coming from above you from way, way, way up. And it’s this pure, pure white light coming down through your head, filling your entire body. This white light soaks into every cell in your body. Your whole body’s beaming. Now see in front of you that version of you that’s on the TV screen. And see that form of suffering that you picked. Start to let that feeling really come up. It may be be something you’ve been avoiding because it’s just too painful. Slowly start to let it come up.
Then once it gets really strong see it start to form that dark smokey cloud. Now start to breathe in that smokey cloud through the mouth into your heart. Feel that strong sense of wanting to alleviate the suffering. It turns into the white sparkly cloud. Then you breathe that back out and you see it soak into the you in front of you. And you see a slight smile starting to form and a slight glow. Now once again bring up that strong feeling of that suffering. Breathe in the dark smokey cloud into your heart. Transform it with your compassion, and breathe the white sparkly cloud out, and see it soak in, the smile getting wider.
And each time you do this the smile gets wider, the glow gets stronger, that version of you gets happier and happier. So just continue to do that on your own for a little bit. Breathing in the suffering, feeling that strong sense of compassion, and breathing out the white sparkly antidote.
Feel that sense of passionately not wanting yourself to suffer anymore. Sending out that wish for comfort, happiness, joy, or whatever the antidote is, love. And again, don’t try too hard with the breathing. Let it flow gently and naturally.
What we’re going for here is complete happiness always. Not just happier, but complete and total happiness. And if it helps, you can add these phrases as you do it. On the in breath you can say, may I be free from suffering. And on the out breath, may I experience happiness. May I be free from suffering. May I experience happiness. And try and make sure that the in and out breaths are roughly the same length so you’re not holding that suffering in.
You’re alchemizing the suffering with your good heart, your good intention, and your compassion. Really anchor into that truth. Anchor into the belief that your compassionate intention is transforming the suffering. Okay so take one more breath, breathing in the suffering and out the joy, love, et cetera. And at this point the you that you’re watching is beaming, fully and completely happy, glowing. And now just take a breath and let it go. And we’re going to transition to doing this for someone else.
So once again you’re going to pick someone who you easily feel a sense of compassion for. In my case I’m going to pick a friend who doesn’t have much of a sense of family. Most of her family is gone and the really only one that remains is not an easy relationship. So I’m going to imagine her in front of me and I’m going to allow myself to see and feel the immense suffering and pain that she must have. The loneliness involved in not having any real family. And I’m going to see that turning into the dark smokey cloud. I’m going to breathe it into my heart. Feel that immense passionate wish to take her suffering. I care about her so much that I just want to take her suffering. And that transforms the dark smokey cloud into pure white sparkly love and I breathe that love out. And I see it surround her and soak into her so that she’s bathed in love, she’s steeped in love. Then I start to see that smile form and the glow. And just do that a number of times with whatever form of suffering on the person that you’ve chosen. Breathing in the dark smokey cloud, feeling that immense desire to alleviate their suffering and that wish to give them that sense of love, peace, joy, by breathing the white cloud back into them.
And just keep doing that for a few minutes. Really stay engaged in and focused on the intention of wanting to relieve their suffering and replace it with happiness, health. And remember if the mind wanders, bring it back to the sensations in your body and the breathing. Breathing in the smokey cloud, breathing out the white sparkly cloud. And now we’re going to take one more breath for this person. Breathing in their suffering, feeling that desire for them to be happy, breathing out the white sparkly cloud. Seeing them soaking in it. A big grin on their face. Beaming. And now take a breath in and let it go. And now pick someone that you either barely know or don’t know at all, but have kind of a neutral feeling about. So maybe the cashier at the grocery store or someone you walked by on the street yesterday. And imagine them in front of you and imagine that if they’re not experiencing that form of suffering now, they have or will at some point in their life. Because the human experience is the human experience and we all go through the full range of emotions and forms of suffering at some point.
So imagine them in front of you. Imagine them experiencing a similar form of suffering. Breathe in the dark smokey cloud. Feel that wish for them to be happy. Breathe out the white cloud. And see them getting happier and happier with each breath.
Okay so one more breath for this person. Inhale and exhale. Seeing them fully and completely happy. Now imagine everyone on your street. Imagine them in front of you. See and feel them experiencing a similar form of suffering. Breathe it in. Breathe out the white. See each of them smiling more and more with each breath. Now continue to anchor into the belief that your compassionate intention is transforming the suffering.
Okay now one last breath to make them really, really happy. In and out. See that big grin on their faces. And now imagine everyone in your town or city breathing in that form of suffering. Breathing out the joy, love, et cetera. Over and over until they’re fully happy.
And one more breath. In and out. See your entire town or city beaming with happiness and love and light.
And now imagine everyone in America or whatever country you’re in. Breathe in that form of suffering, transform it with your compassion, and breathe out the white happiness. See it soak into everyone. And do this again and again until they’re all happy.
Notice how it feels in your body as you see everyone getting happier and happier.
Okay so one more breath for everyone in the country. In, feel that compassion. Breathe out the white happiness. See it soak into everyone. Everyone is beaming with so much happiness, love, light, peace, gratitude, health, safety. Now just take a breath, let it go. And when you’re ready you can open your eyes.
So eventually as you continue to do this practice, after you’ve done it for a while and feel really comfortable with it, then you can start to step it out further and eventually do it for all mankind, all beings on the planet, including animals, insects, and ultimately all beings in existence. Not even just on this planet but everywhere. In all the realms, the whole universe, and once you feel like you’re getting kind of good at this, you can play around with doing if for people that you don’t have the easiest time feeling compassion for. So maybe someone who’s giving you a hard time in your life or a politician that you cannot stand, who you think is ruining the world. But give yourself some time to get there. For now just continue to do it for the people for whom it’s easy to do it for.
I just wanted to share a story from my teacher, my lama Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, who is from Tibet. And he was in prison for almost 10 years during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. And he was thrown in prison because he was a religious figure. He made it to prison when he was 14 years old. And they threw all of the so called worst offenders together, which meant all of the religious people were together, which meant that he actually got a really good spiritual education while he was doing hard labor and being worked like an ox, and being forced to eat pork, which was against their religion and all kinds of other things. And when he first got there he had so much anger, and resentment, and maybe even hatred burning within him towards the Chinese for what they were doing to him and his people. And he now says that that was actually the worst part of being in prison, was that feeling. And anger, hatred doesn’t feel good. And he could see that feeling of anger and hatred on the faces of the Chinese people too. They weren’t enjoying themselves.
So after he’d been in there for a while his teacher, who was in prison with him, asked him “Are you feeling anger and hatred towards the Chinese?” “Yes, I am.” “And when you’re out working, doing the hard labor that they were having everyone do, are you doing it kind of half assed and when they’re not looking are you just kind of banging to make a noise but not really doing anything?” And he’s like “Yes.” So he explained to Rinpoche that you should actually have compassion for the Chinese people because they are working up some really negative karma for themselves right now and when it comes time for that to be paid off it’s going to be pretty awful for them. And you right now are burning off a lot of really negative karma so see this as an opportunity and do the work the best that you can so that you can really burn off that karma and not have to deal with it again later.
And that combined with the various meditation practices that his teacher taught him allowed him to really turn around how he saw the experience, until he felt better and better and better and eventually found himself feeling kind of content and looking at his surroundings thinking oh, it’s kind of like monastery with really bad food. So I share that as an example of how we can use compassion to shift our experience. I know this is something that helped me when I came back from that trip to Asia having learned about Tonglen and karma and all these other concepts. I had been really badly bullied for, at that point, eight years and when I came back I was able to not internalize so much of the way that they were treating me and instead see that they were actually hurting and giving themselves bad karma at the same time. And that really helped me. And it wasn’t an act of like oh, I have compassion for them, which means that now I’m going to let them walk all over me and not stand up for myself. No. That is idiot compassion.
In Tibetan Buddhism we talk about the importance of wisdom and compassion coming together. That you need both because wisdom without compassion can lead to things like the atom bomb. Whereas compassion without wisdom can turn into compassion that’s just kind of weak or ineffective.
A common question when people are doing Tonglen for the first time is do people actually benefit from you doing Tonglen on them? First of all just know that you benefit from doing it on yourself, on them, on the world. And if it’s benefiting you then that ripples out because we affect everyone around us. If you start to feel more compassion towards yourself and others, that helps more than just you because you’re going to be treating people differently. Helping helps. Helping yourself helps helping others.
So one last thing I want to talk about is the near enemy and far enemy of compassion. The far enemy is more obviously because it’s basically the opposite of compassion, which is cruelty. So bullying, genocide, et cetera. These things are definitely the opposite of compassion. But the near enemy of compassion is a little bit trickier. The near enemy is pity. And the difference between compassion and pity is with pity there’s this almost kind of looking down on. Like oh, you poor thing. And what comes to mind for me is when somebody’s having a hard time and somebody else is interacting with them and seeing and hearing about the hard time this person is having but it makes them feel uncomfortable so they’re like oh, there, there, you’re going to be fine and tries to just make it better or sweep it under the rug rather than just being present and supportive. I, a couple of weeks ago, was having a moment where I was really upset and emotional about something and I was on the phone with a friend of mine. And rather than just being like oh, I’m sure it’s going to be fine, she was like “Wow, I really hear that you’re in pain.” And she just was reflecting back to me what my experience was.
And I stopped and was like “Thank you for not just trying to make it better because when people do that it feels like it’s negating my feelings instead of letting me feel what I feel.” Common questions, one is okay, what if I pick a particular form of suffering to work on and I start to work on it and then at some point something else comes up? I was teaching this recently and a guy started out working on stress and what eventually started to come up was anger. Like a lot of it. So there are a couple options.
First of all you could look at that thing that’s coming up, in this case anger, and kind of peel the onion a little bit and start to explore what am I angry about? What’s the source of the anger? Is my stress level making me angry? Is the source of the stress, like my boss or whoever, making me angry? So you can explore that. Or since you have sat down to do this practice you could make a mental note to deal with that later. Not stuff the emotion, but just I’m going to deal with this but not right now because right now I’m doing this practice. And instead go back to focusing on the form of suffering that you chose and working with that for now. But do make sure that you go back later because we don’t want to stuff our emotions because that does make us sick and repressed and all kinds of other things.
Another common thing is okay, well if I start to do Tonglen on someone who I think it’s going to be easy to do it on and it ends up being harder than I expected … Like it’s hard for me to even find the desire to breathe the white cloud back into them or whatever it is. I would say maybe wait on doing that person. If that comes up, make another mental note. Like oh, okay this is not a person for me to do this on now because I’m still new at this practice. I’m going to wait until I’ve done this for a while and then get back to that and you can also make an appointment with yourself for later to, if you want to, in another time and place or once you finish doing Tonglen, whenever, really sit with and explore why was it difficult for me to do that for that person when I thought it would be easy? What’s underneath that? You can just actually sit and be present with whatever arises when you think about that person, what might be causing that. Or you can journal about it.
As far as how often to practice, I do it as needed. Currently this is not a practice that I do every day but there have been times in my life where I did do it every day. When I first learned it I did it every day for a long time. You know how sometimes it can be hard to get yourself to actually take the time to sit down and meditate? Well it’s been those times in my life where I’m in the most pain that that is a non-issue. Where I just find myself feeling naturally drawn to sit still and go inside because I need to in order to alleviate the suffering. That’s when I’ve done the most Tonglen practice. If you’re really having a hard time, Tonglen can help a lot. Also when you learn any new meditation practice, if you find one that really lands for you, it’s good to take the time to really practice it ongoingly for a while so you start to feel the benefits that it has to offer. If you’re always jumping from one practice to another or constantly trying new things, your mind is going to kind of be scattered. So yeah, it’s good to anchor into one practice and get those neural pathway grooves nice and entrenched. And then it gets easier and becomes more and more helpful as you continue to do it.
As you’re learning and starting to practice Tonglen, as you’re starting to step it out and go beyond the people for whom it’s really easy for you to experience compassion and want to alleviate their suffering, et cetera, if you’re finding it hard as you step it out to your neighborhood or whatever it is, if you’re finding it hard to breathe out the white cloud or to really feel that strong sense of compassion, maybe just take it a step back and wait for that and just practice the parts that feel easy for now. And just do that for as long as it takes. I have had sessions where I’ll just sit and practice Tonglen on myself over and over and over and over because I may really need it at that time. Or I’ll step it out to other people but really just inner circle people that I feel really close to. And that’s as far as I get that session because I just really am feeling so much for those people at that point. Again, as you’re starting out just do your best to keep it as simple and easy as you can.
Another question that comes up sometimes is what benefits do you get from doing this ongoingly? I would say it’s a mix of yes, we’re really focused on cultivating compassion but at the same time it’s also training our minds. So I feel much calmer after practicing this. And usually much happier. So while I’m cultivating this wish for alleviating other people’s suffering and for them to be happy, I end up becoming happier. If I’m having a hard time, if I’m feeling lonely, if I’m feeling down for some reason, I might sit and do Tonglen for other people and that helps me. Because again, helping helps.
If you’re someone who sometimes experiences anxiety it can be really hard to sit and be still and do any form of visualization or meditation practice when you’re feeling really anxious. And that’s something I’ve struggled with a lot. I mean there are tips and tricks and things but ultimately you kind of got to sit through a little bit of it in the beginning and then it starts to alleviate. I’ll do more episodes about these things. Like I’ll do a whole episode about working with anxiety and another episode about depression, et cetera. And the thing is part of why we often feel anxious is because there’s some feeling we’re trying not to feel or there’s something that we’re afraid of. So stopping and feeling or facing what we’re afraid of at first might feel kind of shitty. But then once we sit with it long enough it starts to actually alleviate the anxiety because we’re actually facing it. Like I was talking about earlier of Trungpa Rinpoche running towards the dog or me mentally, emotionally, et cetera running towards my anxiety and fear.
Often when I sit with my anxiety and let it kind of flood me on purpose, I’m often surprised at what comes up. I might think if I do that right now a bunch of anger’s going to come up and I don’t really want to deal with it. But then I sit and I let it come on and all of a sudden I burst into tears because actually it’s grief or sadness or whatever. So you never can fully anticipate what it’s going to be until you actually sit down and sit with it.
One last thought I’d like to leave you with is as you go about your life can you stop and ask yourself how can I have compassion for myself right now? Especially in difficult moments or if you’re being hard on yourself. Let this be your kind of second nature go to question. How can I have more compassion for myself right now?
If you’d like to learn more about how to cultivate compassion or how to train your mind through meditation I’ve shared some resources in the show notes. The first two are books by Pema Chodron. One on compassion, the other, which is my favorite of hers, is called When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice For Difficult Times. I’ve turned to that book for guidance and solace in many challenging times. Pema talks about compassion a lot so if you read or listen to almost anything by her you’ll hear more about it. I recommend all of her works for learning how to transform the mind and how to improve your life.
Another link you’ll find in the show notes is to my mom’s book called Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling? A Westerner’s Introduction and Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Practice in which she teaches Tonglen and shares her story, more about our lama’s story, and other useful information on beginning a meditation practice. The final resource I’ve shared is The Compassion Institute, founded by the Dalai Lama’s personal translator, Thupten Jinpa, and others at Stanford University. They have educational resources including a compassion cultivation training.
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