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Tonglen is a core practice of Tibetan Buddhism that involves the meditative transformation of destructive mental and emotional energies into healing energies.
In its simplest form, one “breathes in” suffering, or a specific destructive energy like fear or anger, and “breathes out” an appropriate healing response, such as calm or compassion. In doing so, one remembers that both negative and positive energies are experienced by everyone, and that the first step in converting one energetic state to another is consciously making a choice for the benefit of all.
There are many styles and approaches to tonglen. From a psychological perspective, it can be seen simply as sound cognitive therapy. Because emotions like fear, anger, and hatred are seldom consciously chosen—instead arising as knee-jerk reactions to undesired events and circumstances—the cognitive therapy of tonglen reminds us that we can consciously choose more productive states of mind.
My own spiritual discipline, A Course in Miracles, often teaches the fundamental principle of tonglen, particularly in such workbook meditations as “I could see peace instead of this” and “Let miracles replace all grievances.” The fact that the course generally requires a lifetime commitment to understand and practice—as does any serious meditative discipline—is an indication that the practice of tonglen is not just a momentary exercise in sentimentality or wishful thinking. It is literally a training in turning the mind toward compassion on a consistent basis.
In the current political atmosphere, tonglen can serve as a powerful, do-it-yourself inoculation against the viral spread of self-loathing and projected hatred.
In that sense, the hugely unfortunate election of Donald Trump presents an opportunity for maximizing the growth of compassion within ourselves, and then sharing its effects for everyone’s benefit.
While we might understandably find ourselves breathing in dread right now, we can still choose to breathe out hope.
When we witness the projection of anyone’s self-hatred, we can take it in and release it as a tender compassion.
When we hear attempts to spread and intensify blame, we can witness this destructive energy and inwardly shift it to a celebration of shared responsibility for the well-being of all.
The extension of inner work.
A common failing of superficial spirituality is a disengagement from certain social processes that are commonly called “political”—from voting to supporting candidates to taking an interest in governmental or legislative activities. But if one says, “I’m spiritual, so I don’t do politics,” consistency would demand saying: “I’m spiritual, so I don’t make food choices in the grocery store, and I don’t select my friends based on personal preferences, and I don’t look for good schools for my children.”
In fact, every act that involves relating to others to any degree is political. What we tend to section off mentally as “political” is, put simply, the relationships of groups to groups, and we are all part of many groups whether we like it or not.
The “breathing out” stage of tonglen is inherently political, as it always includes manifesting some form of healing energy for the good of all—a universal group.
However, no inner practice should be regarded as a substitute for effective political action. Instead, it is the first step in wisely choosing which activities we want to be involved in, and which activist groups we may choose to represent our own best (and shared) interests. These choices may well shift over time, and our political choices may sometimes end in disappointment or disillusionment. But so do some of our strictly personal choices.
Whenever we are focused on “winning” or “losing” in the personal or political realm, we make the mistake of the painfully self-absorbed. That is, we see life as an ongoing battle to preserve the lonely, isolated self against an unending array of hostile forces.
What the times call for now is a dedication to altruism and heroism, two forms of transcending the isolated self in service to the common good.
Fundamentals of selflessness.
In her book What Makes a Hero: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, science writer Elizabeth Svoboda surveys the recent research on altruism and heroism, and echoes the importance of both group identifications and a meditative discipline in developing these advanced capacities:
“Another way to encourage your altruistic and heroic impulses is to change the way you think about yourself in relation to the rest of the world. According to the UCLA School of Medicine psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, coauthor of The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, developing your altruistic capabilities may have a lot to do with how good you are at taking a third-person perspective on your own life. Think about something bad that happened to you recently: maybe your car was stolen, someone close to you died, or your professional reputation took a hit. Now think about a similar bad thing happening to someone else. The more closely your response in the second situation matches your response in the first, the more of a third-person perspective you’re able to attain… That means you might make a more effective altruist or hero, because you’ll view others’ needs the same way you view your own.
“One way to attain such a third-person perspective, Schwartz believes, is to start a regimen of mindfulness meditation… As a result of meditation, he says, ‘you get moral courage. You’re just so grounded in your inner awareness and convictions. You’re not going to be swayed from doing the right thing.'”
A new age of protest and resistance.
It’s entirely right and necessary that the incoming Trump administration and Republican majorities in Congress be greeted with an historic wave of thoughtful protest and peaceful resistance. And that resistance should build until a more heroic and altruistic mindset is instilled in America’s leadership by the example of its most caring groups of people.
At the present moment, it may seem impossible to reverse the racing viral infection of self-loathing and projected hatred that Trump represents. But such pessimism is itself a symptom of misery that should be left to the ownership of the self-hating. We can and must transform this negative energy into a positive, constructive force of altruistic optimism that goes beyond merely a “good feeling” into becoming a new blueprint for politics itself.
There are hopeful signs in that regard, such as the founding of the DreamCorps “LoveArmy,” spearheaded by CNN commentator and former Obama policy advisor Van Jones, focusing on the improvement of communications between politically disparate groups nationwide. The “Indivisible Guide” initiative focuses on Congressional activism at the local level. And there is growing evidence of a staunch, broad-based resistance to the projection of hatred onto immigrants, women, gays, and minorities. We can all participate in that resistance, as much by looking out for each other as by working through conventional political channels to resist policies that enforce or encourage persecution or discrimination.
Anticipating his own death in 1953, the famed founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, Paramahansa Yogananda, advised his followers to “be outwardly grave and inwardly cheerful.” There could be no better guidance for the attitude that will be required in the troubling times that America now faces. We will feel grave because we recognize that something has gone terribly wrong with the still-young democratic experiment that is the United States, and it will take dedicated attention and resolve to set it right again.
But we can also be cheerful because we know that the key to lasting and positive change is within each of us.
That key is the capacity to recognize and transform destructive energies within our own minds, not just for our own benefit but for the good of all humankind. We are not fighting an enemy named Donald Trump, who sees enemies everywhere he looks. Instead, we are working to heal the sickness of self-loathing that has deeply infected him, and that he spreads unthinkingly in a desperate, misdirected attempt to find solace and communion. We can show him and his followers a much better way.
Like Trump, we all face a multitude of daily challenges that may cause us to breathe in fear, sometimes before we know what’s happening. But each of us has the opportunity to breathe out love, and through practice, to spread its healing effects with increasing power.
Author: D. Patrick Miller
Editor: Emily Bartran