May 30, 2014

Tonglen: 4 Steps to Finding Compassion for Strangers. ~ Krista Lester


Have you ever thought the world is out to get you?

Have you ever found yourself surrounded by people who seem grossly inconsiderate?

Have you ever wondered why you’re so nice when everyone else is so mean?

A few years ago, I would have answered a resounding yes to each of these questions. As a city-dweller, I was surrounded by people all the time—and most of the time, I was angry with them.

Part of my anger stemmed from a chronic condition that makes it both difficult and painful for me to stand for any length of time.

Fortunately, it is a hidden condition. Unfortunately, this means no one knows how important a seat on the bus or train can be to me.

For years, I rode buses and subways, quietly seething as people pushed me aside to take the last remaining seat at rush hour. I would stand there glaring at them during the entire ride, clenching my fists and marveling at their inherent “meanness.”

Then I discovered tonglen, a meditation practice of sending and receiving compassion.

When I first tried tonglen, I began from a place of anger and self-pity.

I had to practice at home for some time before I could take it into the world. Although tonglen is traditionally a sitting meditation, I created a modified practice for use while riding the subway.

If public transportation triggers some of your worst tendencies, perhaps you will find these four steps as helpful as I did.

1. Notice your breathing.

Allow each breath to enter and exit your lungs without any effort. Focusing on the breath allows us to find own space, even in the middle of a crowd.

2. Notice what you are feeling.

Are you tense? Irate about the guy who shoved you as you stepped on the train? Annoyed by the noisy teenagers or the lady shouting into her cell phone? Acknowledge these feelings and try not to blame yourself for having them. Let go of them as you exhale.

3. Look around and remind yourself that everyone you see has the same right to happiness that you do.

On your next inhalation, imagine you are breathing in whatever anger or frustration you feel towards those around you. On the exhalation, silently offer whatever happiness and compassion you can muster to these same people. Repeat, even if you don’t sincerely feel it right away.

4. Check back in with what you are feeling.

Are you still tense or angry? Did you experience any changes in your body or your attitude? Whatever your experience is, try to have compassion for yourself.

After just a few days of trying these steps, I found some incredible benefits. When I focused on my breathing, my muscles relaxed. As my muscles relaxed, my pain level decreased and I could stand for longer periods of time.

By offering compassion to my fellow passengers, I realized my anger was misdirected.

I understood they were not trying to ruin my day. They had no way of knowing I was in so much pain. True, I could have asked for a seat at any time but I never did because I was too proud.

If you don’t ride subways, perhaps your chance to practice might be in a crowded elevator, a busy sidewalk or a noisy coffee shop.

We can continue to learn and grow by taking cues from the practice and applying them in our everyday lives. Wherever there are people, there is an opportunity to find compassion for strangers.

For me, subway tonglen was a life-changing experience. What will your experience be?


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Apprentice Editor: Carrie Marzo/Editor: Travis May

Photo: Va Sfak / Pixoto


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Krista Lester