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.

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