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Image of a fire burning over logs to help visualize during Tonglen Practice.

How to do Tonglen practice

By Compassion, Spirituality

Tonglen is an incredibly powerful Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice that increases our capacity to stay resourceful when confronted with the negativity or suffering of others.

Here’s how to do it:

Find a quiet place to sit and notice your breathing for a while with your eyes closed. Next, imagine someone you care about who is suffering. (Maybe you think of a friend who is grieving a loss or a colleague who is sick. Don’t worry about picking the ‘right’ person. You’ll benefit from the practice regardless of who you visualize.)

As you picture this person in front of you, imagine their suffering surrounds them like a cloud of smoke or a thick smog.

Then breathe in the smoke, allow it to enter your heart, imagining your heart as a bright light that purifies and transforms the suffering into ease, peace, relief and comfort. Breathe in the suffering, breathe out relief, light and peace.

Breathe in and breathe out, allowing the visualization to match your breath. Breathe in the person’s pain, allowing it to be transformed, breathe out compassion and ease. Practice for a few minutes with three targets – a loved one, a stranger and a person who is difficult for you.

And a few more tips

Tonglen is like a furnace, not a water water filter. It’s about transforming suffering, not collecting it. So when you breathe in the smog or smoke, it doesn’t stay with you. 

Letting go of outcome is essential. This practice is not about trying to get the person you’re visualizing to change or be different. Notice if you’re more interested in outcome than the moment. Bring enjoyment to the practice itself, for its own sake. 

Tonglen activates our spiritual nature as compassionate beings. It has been described to me as an ‘ego-reducing medicine,’ because it diminishes the narrow focus on self.

Rather than adding to the negativity on the planet, scattering it around like litter, with Tonglen we’re picking it up and transforming it into blessing and ease.

Tonglen can build courage, strength, and resilience. The way an athlete visualizes their race before running it, in Tonglen we’re rehearsing our readiness to help others when confronted with suffering. 

Enjoy!

Layer cake of gratitude, rainbow flavors of cake on a blue cake pedestal

A layer cake of gratitude

By Gratitude

I’m a huge fan of Barre3. It’s a fantastic workout. Several Fridays ago, an awesome person at the Bend studio purchased gift cards to the coffee shop next door for everyone who showed up to class that day.

That’s six classes worth of gift cards!

It was a kind, anonymous act of generosity, and celebration of community. I was extra happy I got myself to class that day! (Why does gifted coffee taste better??)

So, fast forward to last week and I was in class again, doing some ridiculously difficult move at the bar. I started thinking about the anonymous gifter and how cool it was of them to do what they did.

I felt a rush of gratitude and inspiration. I started plotting out fun ways I could do something to follow in their footsteps and pay it forward. Then I heard the teacher call my name. Lo and behold, I had been randomly selected from the class list and she was crossing the room to hand me another gift certificate to a lovely local boutique!

This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to me. It got my attention. To be given another gift in the very moment when I was thinking grateful thoughts about the first gift was pretty amazing. It was like a gift-gratitude-gift layer cake!

Class continued. After class, I did pay it forward, (in a small way). And that felt just as sweet as receiving.

Lately I’ve been appreciating the power of pausing to notice and celebrate when things click, when I benefit from the unearned kindness of a stranger, or when moments of synchronicity happen. Do you have a fun story like this to share or something to celebrate? I’d love to hear from you!

Or, maybe gratitude feels out of reach right now. I’ve heard from several people recently who are facing extremely difficult life situations. If that’s you too, it would be an honor to support you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Common humanity is a recognition that we share a desire for peace, represented by a calm river

All that we share

By Compassion, Lifelong learning

 

Common humanity is a powerful element of compassion that involves recognizing the fundamental desire to be free of suffering that all humans share. One of the great things about working with a bunch of compassion educators is getting to check out and share inspiring resources for our Compassion Cultivation Training classes. One of my mentor/colleagues shared this video from TV2 Denmark with her class today as a way to depict common humanity. A few seconds into watching, the tears started.
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It’s amazing how a short little video can deliver such a huge compassion boost! ⠀⠀
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And experiencing compassion can be simple like that…⠀⠀
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What happens when we take a second to really look at the other humans around us – in the store, in a yoga class – with kind curiosity? What’s under the surface?⠀⠀
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We share so much.⠀

 

Forest trees to symbolize the journey toward compassion

An alternative to breathing out the bad stuff

By Compassion, Spirituality

Tonglen is one of my favorite compassion practices. I started practicing it in 2005 and have been teaching it as part of CCT since 2013. 

Tonglen is quite radical and counterintuitive at the beginning, and it feels amazing! Here’s an example of what I mean when I say it’s counterintuitive: I love attending group fitness classes, specifically Barre3, yoga, and CrossFit. At the end of many Barre3 and yoga classes, the teacher will suggest everyone ‘breathe out stress’ or ‘breathe out something you don’t want.’ 

Have you experienced this? While the motivation behind it is understandable, I often imagine everyone is breathing a cloud of smog into the room. It’s like being asked to litter sludge into the space around us. Where does it go? Who has to deal with it now that I’ve breathed out my stress and the things I don’t want?

In Tonglen, we learn to breathe in negativity, stress and pain and transform them into compassion and strength that we send out to others. It sounds dangerous, but with good instruction and training it’s incredibly powerful.

Tonglen is an ancient practice for reducing the tendency to self protect, scramble after comforting experiences and avoid negativity. It reinforces the desire to be a force for good in the world and boosts our courage, power, resilience and resourcefulness.

The two wheels on the compassion bicycle

By Compassion

When I ventured into academic study of compassion (after practicing compassion meditation for several years), I was confused and frankly disturbed by the term ‘self-compassion.’ 

Practicing compassion for others felt really good to me. It shifted focus away from me and my problems. It clicked things into perspective and helped me tap into deeper meaning. It was energizing and inspiring. I was feeling the benefits and that was plenty; I didn’t see the need to add in a ‘self’ component.

At the time conversations with my partner James were incredibly clarifying. Those early conversations continue to inform how I experience and describe compassion practice. His take on the self component of compassion is key:

From the perspective of consciousness (or awareness), the self – the collection of thoughts, memories and ideas about who ‘I’ am – is the primary other. 

With this in mind, consider the definition of compassion — compassion is an awareness of others’ suffering coupled with a willingness to help ease their suffering. Compassion is sometimes offered to the primary other, sometimes to other others. 

Compassion is a bike with two wheels

Here’s another way to think about it. Compassion is like a bike with two wheels – self and other. You need both the self wheel and the other wheel to be well functioning, filled up with air and in alignment in order to move down the road. It’s best not to separate them. 

Over-emphasizing the self component of compassion invites the potential for narcissistic self-focus. Over-emphasizing compassion for others invites the potential for co-dependent other-focus and ‘helpism.’ Usually we’re out of balance in focus on self or focus on others. This can definitely be rebalanced with practice.

For whom suffering arises (self or other) is not really that important. What’s important is the willingness to help ease it. 

The two wheels of the bike can also be imagined as giving and receiving. Eventually — just as the distinction between ‘my’ suffering and ‘your’ suffering becomes less relevant — the distinction between giving and receiving also becomes less relevant.

Compassion encourages us to ‘give the gift of receiving’ and ‘receive the gift of giving.’

Enjoy the ride! 

Image of a stream to show the flow of compassion

The role of the teacher in compassion training

By Compassion, Lifelong learning

One of the responses to the last blog post was from a dear fellow compassion teacher. She asked what I think about the role of the teacher, if compassion can’t be taught. It’s such a great question!

Here’s an analogy:

We can’t teach water how to flow, but we can create a pathway, a channel for it to flow.

Compassion is like water: It flows naturally when unobstructed. 

A good teacher can point out what gets in the way of the current of compassion, revealing her own experience of resistance, barriers and objections. That’s what I aim to do. I introduce a perspective, tools, exercises and practices. I share my experience of creating the conditions for compassion to flow, and what I’ve noticed as a result. 

In compassion education we gather to explore this phenomena called compassion. The role of the compassion teacher is a role I play for discrete periods of time. In the role, I facilitate a conversation where compassion can reveal itself through stories and examples. I remind us of what we already know, what we want to live. At other times, you may remind me.  

The real learning in compassion education is in noticing (without judgement) what gets in the way (negativity, judgement, self centeredness), and training the mind and heart to open pathways for compassion to be more and more our default, go-to response.

When we strip away our stress, busy-ness, self doubt and distraction, compassion is there. When we commit time to really listening to another, or reflecting on what life might be like for them, compassion is there.

We invite compassion in and then we notice what happens when it takes its natural course.

Do you feel less isolated when you’re struggling? Do situations that used to bother you bother you less?

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