Monday, 30 May 2011

I Can't Go On, I Will Go On

A reading of "Sailing to Byzantium" by W.B. Yeats.

What is your Byzantium? What is your passion?

Sailing to Byzantium

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Bodil Jonsson on Time

Summary of the book "Ten Thoughts about Time" by the Swedish physicist-turned-philosopher Bodil Jonsson.

"I hope you will find some of what I say of interest to you. For me, writing this has been a sheer pleasure. Sorting out past ideas, finding new ones and rearranging them in different patterns has been as enjoyable as picking a bunch of flowers."

Problem of Time:
conflict of humanity & technology

Four components: 1/ Inner Self, 2/ Friends & Family,
3/ Creative Activities & Things, 4/ Money
We spend too much time on 4/! (necessities & boulders)

Time is your Best Asset

How do you use your time? Time-saving for what end?

Q. Are you using it right? What could you do better?

0th step: Acceptance
1st step: Awareness
2nd step: Methodical System for organising one's time
3rd step: Clarity & Enunciation of ideas
4th step: Evaluation & Discipline


"I like the philosophers' approach to debate. The arguments are taken for walks, as it were, but made to return to certain points from different angles and at different times. This is how one learns, after all. Learning is not about once-and-for-all answers or exact repetition, but finding out about the variations that may or may not lead to the same result. Also, though it is impossible to deal with anyone's relationship with time once and for all, it can be crucial to learn to recognise the symptoms of it foundering. When a time vortex threatens, it's useful to have a trick or two up your sleeve. The best thing is to be able to laugh at yourself. Laughter always helps."

Anxious of time slipping by faster and faster, the feeling of losing one's grip on the flow of events and then finding out from an older friend that the flow only tends to get faster, thus began the author's private project to "stop time" — to stop dashing about like a crazed rat and do nothing for a set period, though not exactly nothing, but to stay at home and not travel or look for other things to do, to do away with "what do I need to do next?" and "what have I forgotten?" and just be… to recover the feeling of time stretching to eternity & "plenty of time". The trick can always be repeated, usually on a smaller scale, and it helps to always know that it can be.

Though one might not always feel like one has plenty of time, one begins by coming to realise and appreciate a greater awareness of time. Then you will change your priorities both with regard to your activities and your time allocations. You have to be selective to do what you really want — prioritise & re-prioritize, and to make sure to leave time free to treat yourself, time and space to think and innovate, and above all to stand up to minor distractions and interruptions that threaten to dominate and direct your life and with the support and understanding of family, friends & those around you to disengage and evade them.

This does not preclude you from juggling many balls at once, but you need not juggle them all simultaneously and you can rather use peaceful moments to catch them one at a time. But how many is too many? As with many things in life, the trick is to look out for warning signs. One such is the lengthening of the interval between thought and action; then cut down and re-focus or you'll be in danger of dropping every last ball. Re-discover your rhythm. Less is sometimes more. But some degree of diversity and interleaving of activities is good. It provides change and stimulation. On the other hand, it might lead to pauses (as you take the time to start up again) and also to the wrong things, the quick easy choices, being given priority. I used to think that as I got older, life would become ever more restricted and uniform like slipping down an ever-narrower funnel, but experience is enriching and the flow is the reverse, to a wider space.


Having exchanged my delusion of always being short of time for one of always having plenty of time, the transformation was a delight — to see time as a huge gold-mine instead of as a dwindling stream. Having persuaded myself, I really did seem to have time to spare. Though still doing far too much, I regained a sense of orderliness, and time stretching to infinity. My first principle was to allow for "set-up time" and protect it from encroachment. My second principle was to become aware of the difference between undivided and sub-divided time and to try to make sure not to sub-divide life into too many little fragments, but to pool the bits together into larger chunks of time. A good example of this is the distinction between train journeys and plane journeys or unplanned holidays and an organised tour.

Suppose I want to talk to somebody. Conversations are best in a relaxed, quiet, uninterrupted setting. To be allowed to focus on talking can be truly inspiring and a source of new knowledge, emotions and impulses. Most people have the capacity to develop and enrich one another. But to act as each other's mental midwives — to help each other develop new thoughts and ideas — can be time-consuming. Interrupted deliveries are often inconclusive. We have the same problem of interruptions with the continuous stream of advertisements & trailers on tv.

However, some degree of division is necessary to provide structure and to aid memory. Memories become meaningful in an ordering of before and after. Seeing yesterday's events and reminding oneself of plans for tomorrow allows the present to flourish. Repetition and routine provide a stable platform on which we may build. But if we want to be truly in control of life, we must be able to make snappy decisions, to interleave activities with barely a pause and to have the freedom of undivided time. Do I seem to contradict myself? The use of time is complex (as opposed to complicated) and like a tapestry (as opposed to a tangled ball of yarn), it cannot be pulled apart to simplify and understand it, but must simply be studied and observed. It takes time to think about time!

Bertrand Russell wrote in his autobiography, "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: Longing for Love, Search for Knowledge & Unbearable Pity for the Suffering of Mankind." I believe you will find yourself more fully present in the here & now, the more fully you manage to share these three passions of Russell's. If they set you goals that prove elusive in reality, then we can use our imagination and enter into an inner space. Being able to withdraw into yourself is a precious gift and a child who has been allowed to dream will later in life find it easier to accomplish these three important tasks of longing for love, looking for knowledge & empathising with the suffering. Dreaming sustains the mind until he or she feels able to begin. There is an interesting parallel with the three essential features of a creative environment as prescribed by the Indonesian Prof. Gede Raka: Friend-friendly, Learning-friendly, and Oriented towards doing good. Perhaps we should not be so surprised by the analogy — being present in space and time provides a framework for personal creativity. This also brings to mind the medieval tenets of a good education: Good Company, Good Discipline & Good Spirit, also the three axes worth keeping in mind when faced with any difficulty: Good Will, Competence & Courage. It's clear that only two of these three is not enough. We must have Heart as well as Mind as well as Spirit; fraternity, egalité et liberté (as the French anthem goes in reverse!). Let us conclude by quoting Kant:

"Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.
Immaturity is inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another.
The immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another."


Stillness and movement enhance different characteristics. Who you are in a big situation or a challenging context might be totally different because a whole new personality comes out and only in the dynamic state can dynamic qualities be observed. While the static qualities of reliability & persistence are valuable, even more so are the dynamic qualities of creativity, sensitivity & initiative.

The present is an important concept. In principle you are free to lay plans to meet almost anyone and do almost anything right now. Now contains the seeds of the future. But contemporaneity also poses moral dilemmas. If a country threatens to reduce its neighbour's water supply, the conflict requires immediate solutions; but when mismanagement by anyone, anywhere, endangers the water supply of future generations, the act has a lack of immediacy that usually means postponing any attack on the source of the trouble. No talks can take place between opposing sides — those who cause the trouble and their victims.

While we may claim to want to live only in the present, it's clear that we cannot. Not only morally, but because without expectations and plans, say for what we are likely to do next month, our grip on the present becomes too weak to the point of paralysis. The same applies to the past and memories. It's curious how we remember little of when things went smoothly and how our strongest memories are of unexpected successes and difficult episodes. What we value is having endured and coped with the difficult and this strengthens our willingness to try new things, including a new relationship with time. Then, now, and later are pivotal concepts to movements within life. And it is often useful to look at time backwards instead of forewords in terms of ends instead of causes.

We return to our premise — "Time is Our Best Asset".

We view this in a spirit of joy as a stimulus for thought and as a challenge.


As well as standard mechanistic "clock-time" which everyone uses, try to become conscious of your internal sense of time or "lived-time" and develop your awareness of it.

Every task has a "set-up time" to prepare or get into the zone for, so space & time need to be set aside to concentrate and get things started, what might be called "without-interruption-study-time" (WIST) or time to go through a warm-up routine. Once things are in the flow, they take on a momentum of their own and with discipline and perseverance we ride the flow to a successful conclusion.

Difficult and important tasks often have longer seemingly unproductive set-up times that need to be set aside and worked through. Sometimes a period of apparent evasion and focusing on smaller easier jobs can mask the actual set-up time of a harder task. But how can you tell that you're not fooling yourself let alone persuade others of it?

The internet has led to significantly shortened set-up times because of the ease & speed with which it allows one to find relevant information, thus allowing one to pursue even more ideas and lines of thought. Revolutions of technology and global challenges in general call for new patterns of thought, which for all of us set in the old ways of thinking can take time to realise and sink in. We can either be parrots and do as everyone else does, or chameleons embracing change to blend in, or we can be hawks, high in the sky, taking in the big picture and leading the way.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Romances of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore

One of the most celebrated poets of 19th century French literature, an inspiration to Baudelaire and the whole symbolist movement in poetry, I would like to share my translations of some of the romantic poetry of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore: actress, poet, writer and great lady of letters, born just before the French Revolution. Only a handful of her poems seem to have been translated and published before in English, and only the first of the following as far as I can tell (see here for a lovely alternative translation, blog and photos of the poet), but that is sure to change in the coming years because the omission is so glaring. Having said that, it is understandable that they haven't been translated: her poems are often songs and indeed many were written set to music, so it isn't easy to capture their spirit and the playful language and rhyming. We can but do our best!

These were all written in the early 1800s. If you click on the titles, they link to the original French. I'd love to hear which ones you like, suggested improvements, corrections etc.

Separated Hearts

Don’t write. I’m sad and pensive, burning up my fire.
Bright summers without you are like a darkened room.
My arms clasped tight again, but not with their desire.
Beating at my heart is like beating at a tomb.
          Do not write!

Don’t write. Let us learn only to die to our flame.
Ask but God… ask but yourself, if I loved you!
Plunged into your absence, to know you feel the same
Is to hear of heaven, yet never climb there too.
          Do not write!

Don’t write. I fear your presence, lest my memory sink
So long she kept your voice, so often she recalls.
Don’t take me to the fountainhead where I can’t drink
The living portrait painted by a lover’s scrawls.
          Do not write!

Don’t write those sweet words which I dare no longer read
I feel your voice smothering them over my heart
And burnished across your smile, engulfing my need.
It seems that every kiss would stamp them on my heart.
          Do not write!

Confession Allowed

Come, my dear Olivier, I have three words to say to you
My mother has allowed it, she said they’d bring you joy.
Well, I dare no longer, but tell me, can you read?
My mother has allowed it, look into my eyes.

Here you see my downcast eyes. God! how I’m confused!
My cheeks have gone red. Can you see, it’s because I’m shy.
My mother has allowed it; you will be excused;
While I’m blushing, put your hand upon my heart.

How your air of worry torments and touches me!
These three words are so delicate! my heart says them so well!
You do not understand? take them then on my mouth;
I’ll close my eyes, take, but don’t talk to me about them.


First Love

Do you remember that young friend
With tender eyes, her expression wise and sweet?
Almost, alas! at the spring of her life,
Her heart feeling that it was made for you.

About to make a confession, about to make an empty promise,
Still so young, one knows them not.
Her soul pure and drunk with passion
Delivering itself without shame or struggle.

She lost her darling idol.
Happiness so sweet lasted but a day!
She is no more at the spring of her life.
She is already in love for the first time.


The Waking    ...a better rhyming translation in my next post!

On this bed of reeds, can I fall asleep again?
I feel the fragrant air surrounding your body.
Your mouth is a flower whose perfume devours:
Come closer, oh my treasure! and burn only me.
          Wake up! Wake yourself up!

But this breath of love, this kiss that I long for
On your lips, I still dare not relish it
With your heart’s consent, my life would double
Your sleep goes on, because of you I’m dying.
          I dare not relish it.

Come under the banana trees, we shall find some shade.
The birds will sing at the sight of our lovers’ play
The sun is jealous, it hides itself behind a cloud
And it is in your eyes only that I seek the day.
          Come set alight my love.

No, no you sleep no more, you share my flame
Your kisses are the honey that produces our blossom
Your heart lets out a sigh; will you come look for my spirit?
Here it is on my mouth; it would dry out your tears.
          Hide me under blossom.


To Poetry

O sweet Poetry!
Covered in flowers and lace
The sad dream
That makes tears run down my face;
My tender soul
Hurts still with its deceit.
I want to wait no more
For my amorous pleasures.

Give to the lines of my lyre
A good-natured colour,
Your grace to my madness,
Your charm to my heartache.
Would that the dark cloud
That cloaks my destiny
Flee like a shadow
At your divine sign.

Be ever attentive
To my mournful songs;
With a fearful modesty
Sheathe my confessions.
Hide that burning Error
That threatens my happiness:
But, O God! how slow she is
To leave my heart.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Love and Death (tribute to Bob Marley)

Love and Death

Though I am young and cannot tell
Either what Death or Love is well,
Yet I have heard they both bear darts,
And both do aim at human hearts;
And then again I have been told
Love wounds with heat as Death with cold;
So that I fear they do but bring
Extremes to touch and mean one thing.
                    by Ben Jonson (1637)

Love would mould the world together,
For its grasp abides forever,
But, alas! Touched not are some hearts
By wily Cupid’s poisoned darts.
Death is the fate of all living things:
Plants, birds, fish and creatures with wings.
I believe it not to be so cold,
But new life: a cure for the old.
                    by okei (1994)

In honour of Bob Marley, who died 30 years ago at the age of only 36... long may he live on!

Fly, darts! As you are darkly set
To hearts that Love and Death beset,
For here is fighting with us one
Whose free songs many a battle won,
Against despair, hatred, the torn world—
He sings till time becomes one word.
Aye, he burns like no mortal flesh
To immortality, one loving flash!
                    by J. (2011)

Monday, 9 May 2011

Journey into the Mind

Journey into the Mind
(Oct. 1995)

My mind is black. Let there be light. It is now whiter than snow, not touched since time began, blazing in the eerie darkness of nothing in particular. But for my mind, time has only just begun. The mind should know when time began because the world is perceived through the mind. The eyes are opened and upon the carpet of blankness is stained a drop of blood, one image. The memory begins to buzz as more dots filter on. It is too bright and the mind is becoming dark and stained. Ideas converge upon the little morsel of tissue, fibres. The eyes close. The buzzing stops. The machinery is at rest. For it is time for lubrication.

Sodium and Phosphorus have now stopped work. The ideas are absorbed, tidied and compressed. The mind works upon existence. And each one blooms into a flowery plant. The black stains transform to colours red, green, blue. The mind is tired of thinking about itself. Thinking about itself is the same as thinking about what one is thinking. The mind becomes confused as an endless sequence of sentences spring to mind. It cannot evade it. It is bound by the strings of memory, and memory reacts, bursts out and splits as if squeezed into two pieces by the metal strings of the cage. In and out. Enlarging. Splitting. The reactions slow down. The surfaces are moulded, remoulded. They are now as smooth as … the mind ponders over this, hesitates. Apples. The thought slows. The memory is bursting, forgets; it splits the golden apples and looks inside.

Remembers! It then remoulds. The substance dries upon the windy airs of warm thoughts. The Mediterranean swings to mind. Then recedes back into the haven where it came. The mind is now swimming in the cool sea shallows. The waters lowers. It lies upon the beach to dry. The roller balls of thought resort to hide themselves upon the two-dimensional sheet of paper. The carpet is rolled out and all is stamped. The flowers blazing wilt, fade and now upon the hazes of far forgotten memories stored, perhaps never to be recovered by the flowing mind as it darts and journeys.

The mind tries to remember. The image is still there. The sides, however, are blurred and their apparition is surrounded by a transparent film, fixed, motionless. Bubbles enter like blind spots in a vision, but in large numbers. They swivel in and out in curves elliptical in shape, yet undefined in space or time. For the mind inhabits yet some other dimension in the realms of fantasy and the universe above is a house with many floors: the one of life, the one of death and then the mind, time and the 23rd dimension. The carpet shifts a millimetre or two to the left or the right. For certainty is not present when the object is not there and certainty is not certain where one is, seeing something which one might be dreaming in a semi-conscious state without the recognition. The eyes now open to see the world around. The head swerves to look out of the open window and the view is what the eyes behold and perception is our opinion of our several six senses and the one we lack is true indubitable knowledge.

I am walking now upon the hills in Spain. A cold breeze blows against my face. I smell the scent of hay for it is almost summer now and flies would swarm if heat persisted longer. I look into the distance and see greenery, yet nothing is green for the grass is yellow with the scorching sun and lack of rain, yet in my mind I know this place as greenery, so I shall call it green, for in the early months of the season Spring, the flowers burst upon the valleys far and stain the world with colour and with light. And like my mind, the summer comes and plants shall shrivel to their death, but in my mind, death is but a passing wave of transition to a further region of my thoughts and less consulted one. For my brain is like a filing cabinet, quicker to flick through, yet inefficient due to memories which drift into the further regions, faded so the eye is blind to what they say or show and microscopes are not permitted for lack of room.

I climb now up a rocky hill and through the tall palm trees and avenues of pines, bent by summer winds from far off lands or seas, and behold before me, I can see a large black rock. I walk now closer and examine. My mind is boiling over with excitement. I look upon the surface. Quartz grains mark it clearly. I look closer now and see that all these markings make the figure ‘S’. I look around. I pinch my arm. I am wide awake and yet has nature played a trick on me or is it some man’s grave or place of refuge? I look around. Upon the ground two yards away a snake lies waiting for its pray. Its jaws are open. It slashes through the grass, razor sharp in speed and movement. Astonished by this brusque attack, I leap upon the rock and down it shudders, slides away. Time passes and I hear a bird begin to sing.

Jumping down, I grab the rock and heave. My mind buzzes wilder as I fail to dislodge this mystery of volcanic rock, for many a mountain lake and valley in this region have I explored and in not one was there a crack in the Earth’s crust. For paradise is unbroken in its beauty. I heave again with force unwarranted and the stone moves off the place below. I stagger and upon my back I fall. The snake comes to my mind. I get up rapidly and look, but no, the birds are singing still their songs of joy. I turn round now and see a large wide gaping hole, a blackness, a painted blackness with images streaked and coloured.
I crawl inside, the rock slides shut, and I am in my mind again, caged up within its thoughts and processes, protected from the world of heaven, but also from the world of hell, sheltered in a cave called Earth on which my mind shall ever dwell.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Leaving

Once upon a time there was a boy whose skin it was said had a greenish hue. His friends used to tease him that he looked like a tree. One day their English teacher announced a story competition. A list of titles was given to choose from. One of the titles was "The Leaving". "You should write about how you turned into a tree!" one of his friend's joked to him. "Hey, cool idea," he replied laughing, "I think I will". And he did! A few days after all the boys had handed in their stories, he saw his English teacher in the school corridor. "I really liked your story," she told him. "Are you joking with me," he replied. "No, seriously," she reassured him, "it was excellent." Usually English homeworks always took him a long time, but he'd written this one really quickly. He was baffled when he later heard he'd won the prize, and also very pleased. They never teased him for looking like a tree after that.

The Leaving
(Feb. 1996)

The curtains billowed in the wind, the curtain rings rubbing against the rails with a discordant screeching sound. I shut the open window. The noise died down to a murmur. The crisp brown leaves rustled along the hard stone cobbles. It was not late, but it was already dark outside. The trees were not yet bare of leaves, their outlines visible against the clear and purple sky overlooking everything. In the daytime, hundreds had picnics under the wonderful display of yellow-brown leaves, short-lived, sparks of brilliance and wonder. Then nothing would be left behind.

The wind grew stronger now, the windows shaking in their wooden panes. I decided to leave the warmth of the house and take a short walk outside wrapped up in my anorak to feel the cool wind upon my face, the sweet night air. I moved almost effortlessly, the wind continually driving me forward on a blanket of air. The few lights that were still on were now disappearing into darkness. Then all the houses were black, bowing down in obedience to the night. The noise of my shoes upon the ground seemed to carry along the whole length of the tree-lined avenue, like a tunnel, the trees bending over my head on either side. The wind echoed and the leaves scraped against the hard surface, making a crunching noise as they were trodden on.

"Time to go back before the wind gets too strong," I thought to myself. I turned my back to come face to face with the merciless force of the rising wind. I put on my hood, but it was little use. I turned round and began to walk backwards. I kept on looking round, but despite this, the slight changes in direction of the wind left me knocking into flower pots, walking into parked cars and on one occasion stumbling on an empty Coke can in someone's front garden.

Suddenly I felt an abrupt pain from the back of my head. I seemed to be encircled, surrounded. I could no longer move, trapped in my position. I tried to free my arms, but all I heard was the crunching of leaves and the noise of the wind, tearing at my face. I was surrounded by leaves. They grew higher and higher. I tried to lift myself out, but to no avail. I did not have my portable telephone so I could not call for help. I was drowning in a flood of leaves. They poured all over me like waves in the sea over a drowning man. I could not swim in leaves and my body was numb from cold. I breathed heavily and after one final attempt managed to climb on to the leaves. I started to crawl over them, a wave of relief now passing over my body. The trees seemed closer to me now, still bending, but this time lower, swaying downwards, staring thoughtlessly, staring mindlessly, as if about to grab me. All I could see in the sky was a mass of black, a thunderstorm of leaves, no longer beautiful, but menacing. They were falling around me, swallowing me up. "Where am I going?" I thought to myself.

Houses trapped me on either side. My only path was forward. Then suddenly the leaves seemed to give way, leaving no escape route. There was a loud crunch as I fell through the leaves and more leaves fell on top. I was buried. I held my breath for what seemed an age, struggling furiously. Suddenly, it was light. I saw myself through the leaves lying still, motionless. The image became smaller and smaller and then completely disappeared into a vivid white.

I had left the Earth far behind and all my neighbours, a sudden departure, a vivid farewell and then there is a blankness in my memory. I was nowhere and yet I remember once drinking from a well. I was in a queue waiting to get my share of water. My two next door neighbours were behind me. They must have died in that same thunderstorm of leaves.

The picture grew larger, I saw a tree and I entered that tree, became innate with it. My arms were turning into branches, my fingers into leaves. I turned my head to see my old neighbours on that same avenue, their actions identical to mine. Then my head sprouted leaves and I became a tree. We were the homes of the new birds and since we died in autumn when the leaves died, we became creators of leaves ourselves and servants of the spring. This was the leaving of my former self and the leaving of my body.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Healing Self and Others with Spacious Mind (Pema Chödrön)

This is a technique in Pema Chödrön's wonderful book "The Places that Scare You", accompanied by Chopin's Nocturne in C minor. 

Can you expand your mind to be wide and open like the sky, and then breathe in something that causes pain, drop its storyline, just witness its energy, learning not to fear it, and in exchange breathe out happiness, relief and healing from suffering for one and all, including yourself? Not for the faint-hearted, this is the essence of the Tibetan bodhicitta practice of Tonglen through which we come face-to-face and work with the nature and reality of suffering and self. Unpeeling the layers of our pain, uncovered at its heart lies Buddha-nature and Buddha-reality, for enfolded in our own ignorance lies wisdom.

In the last post, we discussed loving-kindness and compassion, and their formal practice in seven expanding circles of self, loved ones, friends, others, enemies, all the above, and all sentient beings. A different form of this practice, which exists in Tibetan Buddhism, involves healing by creating an internal spaciousness of mind and through this space exchanging oneself with others. It is known as Tonglen, which literally means "sending and taking". It would be interesting to compare it with the Hawaiian healing practice of Ho'oponopono. The latter is based on the belief that we are all inter-connected, and thus all responsible, so if we look to the place in our hearts that another suffers and say, "I love you, I'm sorry, Please forgive me, Thank you", then through healing this place in our own hearts we can also heal another. Our friend Jon once described this as not taking on another's pain, but as opening a door in one's heart to facilitate another to resolve their pain themselves. How does this compare with Tonglen? Could the two techniques be used together? Is there actually a healing effect? You decide…
Pema Chödrön: The formal practice of Tonglen has four stages. The first stage is a brief moment of openness or stillness, a moment of unconditional bodhicitta. It is difficult to describe, but relates to the Buddhist concept of shunyata or emptiness. Emotionally, it is the infinite feeling of being able to accommodate anything and allowing energy to move through us without blocking or freezing it, relaxing to its dynamic flux and having the confidence and trust not to struggle, interpret or close down on it. Many of us have no idea what this flashing openness is supposed to feel like. My first experience of it was simple and direct. In the hall where I was meditating, a large fan hummed loudly. After a while, I no longer noticed the sound, it was so ongoing. But then the fan abruptly stopped and there was a gap; a wide-open silence. That was my introduction to shunyata! To flash openness, some people visualise a vast ocean or a cloudless sky, any image that conveys unlimited expansiveness. Just listening to the sound of a gong can act as a reminder of open mind. The flash is relatively short. We just touch in briefly and then go on.

In the second stage, we begin to breathe in the qualities of claustrophobia: thick, heavy and hot, however we may visualise it (as coal dust or yellow smog!), and then we breathe out the qualities of spaciousness: fresh, light and cool, perhaps as moonlight, or sun sparkling in the water, or the colours of the rainbow, or whatever seems appropriate. However we visualise these textures, we imagine breathing them in and out through all the pores of our body, not only through our mouth and nose, until we find a rhythm to the practice, giving the in and out-breath equal time.

In stage three, we start doing the exchange for a specific person. We breathe in this person's pain and we send out relief, initially for those who spontaneously spark our compassion. Instead of closing our hearts to their pain, or clinging on to comforting feelings of bravery and openness, instead we open our hearts and share our relief, reversing ancient habits of doing the opposite. This is an especially powerful and empowering practice for those in hospitals recovering from illness, to overcome the shame, fear and isolation of their condition. Aspiring to keep our heart open, we know it won't always be possible, but we trust that if we do Tonglen the best we can, our ability to feel compassion will gradually expand. After a while, it becomes impossible to know if we are practicing for our own benefit or for the benefit of others. These distinctions begin to break down.

When practicing Tonglen for a specific individual, we always include a fourth stage, which is extending the compassion to everyone in the same predicament. We start with something particular and genuine, and then widen the circle as far as we can.

Having familiarised yourself with the process, I recommend using Tonglen as an on-the-spot practice during our daily life. There is nothing theoretical about the subject matter in daily life. When an uncomfortable feeling arises or someone is hurting, we train ourselves in breathing in and dropping the story line. At the same time, we extend our thoughts and concern to all others who feel the same discomfort, breathing in with the wish they be free from it, and breathing out sending whatever kind of relief we think could help.

It is also helpful to notice anything in our daily life that brings us happiness. As soon as we become aware of it, we can think of sharing it with others, further cultivating the Tonglen attitude. Does it help the other side of the world that someone cares? There are no guarantees. Tonglen is not at all metaphysical. It's simple and very human. We can do it and discover for ourselves what happens. 

Video: Chopin's Nocturne in C minor played by Valentina Igoshina.

provencepuss: that is a real challenge...and no, right now I don't think I can but I wish I could

okei: It does seem like quite an advanced practice! The awakening of bodhicitta is not called a warrior path for nothing, but yes, perhaps it's best to start with something easier. Or maybe some might enjoy trying to jump into the deep end? Either way, it must be something we can genuinely get to grips with so we can sense some kind of progress instead of posing an insurmountable challenge. Or maybe the insurmountability is the point? I'm glad though that the techniques of Buddhist traditions are available to a wider audience and not kept secret among elite mystic circles.

Although Pema Chödrön describes this process as not being abstract at all, I wonder if making it abstract to start with would make it easier... for example breathing in the notes of Chopin's very sad nocturne through all the pores of our body, and then breathing out a sense of beauty?

kathycustren: This technique is clearly "mind over matter." We are impressed by how impossible something appears, but when we manage to "do the impossible," it turns out to not be as hard as we think at first. The deep end of the pool, for sure.

I agree with your comment about the techniques being available to a wider audience. This kind of helpful compassion is definitely needed. Thanks so much for sharing it. Namaste ~ Blessings!

okei: Indeed! I hadn't thought of it like that... or even "heart over matter".

On the subject of availability, it occurred to me that perhaps part of the reason is because the original traditions being in such precarious circumstances (Tibet is so remote, few are experts in Pali), hence the real motivation to translate, make more widely available and preserve. Even if few continue to practice the live tradition, the written word that is dead has the potential to be re-awakened and made alive again by others.

aspara121: Beautiful post! Thanks, Okei! :)


kityhawk99: "Emotionally, it is the infinite feeling of being able to accommodate anything and allowing energy to move through us without blocking or freezing it, relaxing to its dynamic flux and having the confidence and trust not to struggle, interpret or close down on it "

Thanks Okie....I really enjoyed this reading accompanied by Chopin's Music.

Be Well !!

lilyrupiana: Thanks for sharing this, Okei!

mysticmaze: Thanks for providing the link, Okei.... enjoyed reading this....

okei: Thanks all for reading. :) I forgot to add the Shantideva quote that introduced this chapter in Chödrön's book:

In joy and sorrow, all are equal,
Thus be guardian of all, as of yourself.

mysticmaze: Beautiful addition.

The blog and comments originally appeared on Buddhist Travelers.