Today is full of sorrow. The largest mass shooting in modern history in our country has just happened and many of us are mourning. 50 LGBTQ people were killed and many more were injured at a night club in Orlando. The victims were predominantly Latinx because the night was Latin-themed. Many people are hurting, angry, and trying to mentally make sense of what has happened.
Not running away from what is difficult inside yourself
The practice of Tonglen, translated as “giving and receiving,” is often called the Compassion Meditation. It is used when difficult events, people, feelings, and situations are present or have emerged unresolved from your past. It is a meditation of not running away from what is difficult but rather transforming it in your heart into something that will lead to your growth. It’s a meditation that helps you to stay present during difficulties when you may be tempted to numb out, avoid the feelings altogether, or even suppress them.
Numbing and heroing in response to pain in our culture are rampant. When you numb pain, you avoid it. You shove it aside or try your hardest to put it out of your mind so that you don’t have to feel or sit with what is difficult. People numb with alcohol, drugs, TV, and mindless internet. Some people throw themselves into work so every last bit of time is occupied and there is no room for reflection.
When you hero pain, you minimize it. You say it could be worse or other people have it harder. You repeat hollow platitudes to yourself and other people. When someone dies and another person says, “All things happen for a reason,” or “They’re in a better place now,” these are both forms of heroing. They discount the current suffering of the person and do nothing to acknowledge the very real hurt that is present. They are phrases that deflect and avoid what is difficult to feel. They are born from discomfort.
“I know you are hurting and I love you,” is often a better choice of words. They acknowledge what is happening without the need to minimize or deflect. They aren’t about making yourself or another person “comfortable.” They are about being present with what is really going on.
Understand that this meditation practice is about being fully present and loving toward yourself or another person while you work through what you need to work through or they work through what they need to work through. This meditation is about remaining fully present and transforming what is difficult to acknowledge or to even feel.
Using this practice
This technique is about breathing in the suffering you see in the world, another, or yourself; purifying it in your heart; and then releasing it back out in the world as love, kindness, and compassion. When you run away from suffering, your heart can shut down, become colder, or become completely desensitized to what is happening inside yourself or to the people around you. The compassion practice allows your heart to stay open when otherwise it may shutdown out of hurt and fear. An open heart allows you to act in the face of difficulty while the shutdown heart leaves you complacent and full of hollow words.
To begin, center yourself using the normal mindfulness meditation techniques. Take a moment to just be present with your breath, see what is happening in your body, identify the emotions you are feeling, and label the thoughts as they arise. Just take a moment to breathe.
When you are ready, let the difficult emotions you are feeling emerge. See them clearly. Identify what you are feeling. Label as many of the emotions as you can.
Acknowledge the suffering you see and visualize it in some way. See the person or people clearly. See the events before you. See the suffering and feel the emotions as they arise.
Then see that suffering transform into black smoke. It’s this smoke that you will transform with the openness, love, compassion, and kindness in your heart. Visualize your heart center, the place you feel compassion from in the center of your chest, as being made of bright, radiating light. Some people use the image of a purifying crystal living there. Whatever visualization that symbolizes a purifying element to you is what to picture there.
When you are ready, breathe in the dark smoke. Breathe it in down into your heart center. See it enter and begin to change as it interacts with the compassion and love in your heart. Watch the smoke become lighter and lighter as it transforms from suffering into openness, love, and compassion.
Breathe the lighter smoke back out into the world. Keep working through the emotions as they arise. Visualize them becoming black smoke, breathe them in, see them transformed, and then breathe them back out as feelings of love and kindness.
Don’t let the difficulties of this world close down your heart
I’ve known many therapists who use this meditation when working with clients. As the client brings up moments of suffering and the counselor is listening, they see that suffering as black smoke, breathe it in, transform it, and breathe out the feelings of compassion. It helps them stay present with some intensely difficult accounts while keeping their heart open so they can genuinely help and show compassion toward the person in front of them.
Remember that this practice is about the ability to stay present and not run away from what is difficult to feel or process. It’s about accepting the reality of what is happening -- or has happened -- and letting it transform who you are and your ability to act in this world. It’s about breathing in the suffering of the world and having it transform you into someone who is more compassionate and caring and is able to be fully present for the people who need you.
Add this practice into your meditation life when difficult things arise.
Learn to stay present with what is difficult inside you.
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