At some point on the healing journey we start to come out of ourselves and develop greater interest in connecting with the people around us.
Anyone who has gone through a difficult break up knows that you just aren’t ready until you’re ready to get back out there and open your heart again. Tonglen meditation practice is a powerful tool to explore the movement from self compassion to love for others.
Tonglen is one of my favorite practices because it is so helpful for working with people. You can take it wherever you go and apply it to any situation. It’s something “to do” when you just don’t know what else to do. Over time the practice itself becomes a way of living by helping us relax into our shared humanity.
Step 1: Bring to mind whatever helps you genuinely feel connected to love. It can be someone you know and who loves you unconditionally. It can be a pet, a tree, the ocean—whatever gives you that immediate feeling of openness and warmth with no holding back. Bring your attention to your breath and envelop yourself in those loving feelings. It should feel spacious and light, warm and gentle, open and clear.
Connecting with our true nature is the touchstone and first place to start when connecting with others. John Welwood’s Book Perfect Love. Imperfect Relationships is a must-read that helps us understand the difference between spiritual love and human relationships. We began our spiritual journey with a very personal desire to experience something larger than ourselves and find freedom and peace from our personal challenges. In whatever way we learned to connect with that Big Love is something we need to return to again and again while relating with other people. This is how we can stop expecting this unceasing warmth and perfection from our partners.
2) Bringing our attention to the space around us and sensing the energetic quality, we start to breathe in the uncomfortable feelings, the heaviness, the difficult vibes—and breathe out relief, peace, white light, whatever gives us a feeling of expansion and ease. Because we are held in the Big Love, we have space inside to move the energy through our breath.
One of the difficulties that comes up in therapy and spiritual practice is the paradox that we are perfect as we are, yet we still have work to do. We realize that there’s no where to go where human beings are perfect and won’t hurt and disappoint us. The more we try to run away from the pain of the world, the more isolated we become. We accept the fact that when it comes to humanity there is always light and shadow.
Tonglen helps us learn how to relax and work with whatever situation we happen to be in. Rather than thinking, “Get me out of here!” we realize that this moment is the practice and we have the tools to work with it. Gaining confidence in working with our breath is how we learn to move the energy right through us. We don’t need to tell anyone what we’re doing or make it obvious through long eye gazes and deep sighs. It all has to do with what’s going on inside of us.
3) Shift your focus to something personal and immediate. Breathe in whatever situation of suffering is before you, e.g., someone you know has suffered a loss. Breathe in the heaviness of grief and breathe out a sense of lightness, ease, and freedom, whatever you imagine would be helpful and healing. Here you are applying the practice directly to someone in a very personal way by working with the emotional energy through your breath and intention.
Tonglen practice helps us feel like we can bring all of our difficult situations onto the path. Now that we have some tools we can say, “I can handle this.” We discover how the more we create and inhabit the space inside ourselves, the more at home we can feel wherever we go. There is no need to run away or disappear ourselves because we can use the practice step by step.
4) Extend to and include all beings who are feeling this same way.
Anyone recovering from a serious trauma or loss has also endured profound feelings of isolation. There is a sense of alienation in believing that the people around you have no idea what you are going through. For survivors of child abuse, the very people who were supposed to love and protect you were also the one’s hurting you. In my recovery, it was through step four that I began to realize, “I’m not alone.” Not only could I feel connected to other survivors, but I felt that I could also help them in this unspoken way.
Tonglen is a perfect practice. We start by connecting with ultimate love and peace. We then make it personal and real, and get into all the hard places. Finally, we come back again to the Big Love by realizing how we’re all in this together.
Author: Tina Fosella, MFT
Editor: Travis May