The noble heart of compassion is the wish to alleviate suffering for ourselves and for others. Loving kindness and compassion are distinguished from one another in the Buddhist tradition in this way: loving kindness is the wish for ourselves and others to be happy, and compassion is the wish for ourselves and others to be free of suffering.
In our effort to awaken compassion in ourselves, our ability to feel is essential. Our emotions are not an obstacle to love and compassion — they are the gateway to awakening more love and compassion for ourselves and for the world. Sometimes emotions come in gentle waves and sometimes they come in powerful waves that take you down and tumble you to the ground. Have you ever played on the shore of the ocean and experienced how sometimes the waves come just lapping up at your toes and other times they just pummel you? Emotions can be just like that.
Our first task as meditation practitioners attempting to live with open hearts and to generate love and compassion is to allow ourselves to feel how we feel. All of the ways that we disconnect ourselves from feeling are all the ways that we disconnect from ourselves and from each other. But we need support in doing that — in feeling– because it’s hard. Sometimes it feels overwhelming or even terrifying to open fully to our emotional landscape. Allowing ourselves to feel and meeting our inner world with compassion is the antidote to feeling overwhelmed.
It’s helpful to have a community of practitioners where you can engage practices to help you open your heart. Community can also help you find a feeling of hopefulness in the face of the world’s suffering, which can feel overwhelming at times. As we open fully to our experience and relate to it with care rather than resistance, we awaken the noble heart of compassion. Just as with loving kindness, acceptance is an essential first step in the practice of compassion
Compassion practice also brings a feeling resourcefulness. It reminds us that there is something we can do to attend to our own hearts, to offer kindness and compassion to ourselves, to hold our own feelings with equanimity and kindness and care. When you become aware of the suffering of others, compassion practice offers a way to open your heart and offer care. To be met with somebody else’s caring, even if all they do is say, “I’m sorry that you’re hurting,” can help alleviate the suffering. Think about it: when you are suffering and you know that people care about you, even if they can’t take the pain away, it can be a huge relief.
A few years ago, after one of the bombings in Paris, a news story featured a young French boy and his father who were standing at one of the sites that had been attacked. They were being interviewed by the television reporter and the little boy was being asked about his experience. He was talking about how there are bad people who have done bad things and because of this they had to leave their home to go to someplace safe. The little boy was crying and clearly terrified. Then they looked over and noticed that there were flowers and candles. The little boy looked at them and asked, “Those flowers are here to protect us?” and his dad said, “Yes, they’re here to protect us.” And you could see the little boy visibly soften into some sense of safety that there were these things here to give him hope, to remind him that people care, to show them that they’re not alone.
Sometimes when we’re suffering or we are with someone who is suffering, the suffering can feel like it eclipses everything else. Compassion practice can remind us that that’s not all that’s happening right now. Even in the midst of pain there is the possibility of joy. Even in the midst of sadness there is the possibility of happiness. When we feel like suffering is the only thing that exists, we have “dukha samadhi”, which is single-pointed focus on suffering. That’s all we can see. Compassion practice gives us a little bit of perspective and lets us see that while there is suffering here there are also lots of other things.
As we feel suffering and relate to it with care rather than resistance, we awaken the noble heart of compassion.
Tonglen Meditation: The Practice of Compassion
Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice that awakens compassion. Tonglen is a Tibetan word – tong means to take, len means to give, so it is often called the practice of giving and taking (or sending and taking). In Buddhism, we talk about Samsara, which is the cycle of pain and suffering that we are all caught in. This cycle is perpetuated by a misunderstanding. That misunderstanding is thinking that to be happy we must reject what is painful and seek what is pleasurable. On the Buddhist path, we are invited to step out of the cycle of suffering by confronting the misunderstanding the fuels it. Tonglen is one practice that helps us do that. We are invited to invite in what is painful and to offer out what is pleasurable. This can be a very challenging thing to do and it takes courage to open our hearts in this way.
Pema Chödrön is an inspirational teacher for this practice. Her book: Tonglen, the Path of Transformation, is an incredible resource. She writes:
“All sentient beings without exception have bodhichitta, which is the inherent tenderness of the heart, its natural tendency to love and care of others. But over time, in order to shield ourselves from feeling pain and discomfort, we have erected solid barriers that cover up our tenderness and vulnerability. As a result, we often experience alienation, anger, aggression, and a loss of meaning in our lives – both individually and on a global scale. Somehow, in the pursuit of happiness, we have unwittingly created greater suffering in our lives. Tonglen, or the practice of sending and taking, reverses this process of hardening and shutting down by cultivating love and compassion. In Tonglen practice, instead of running away from pain and discomfort, we acknowledge them and own them fully. Instead of dwelling on our own problems, we put ourselves in other people’s shoes and appreciate our shared humanity. Then the barriers start to dissolve, our hearts and minds begin to open.”
We all have exquisite vulnerability and tenderness. This practice reveals that. We spend a lot of time covering that up and so this practice takes courage. While doing this practice, it is common to find that it is very challenging to do, and it brings us into immediate contact with all the ways that we usually turn away from or close ourselves off from feeling pain or discomfort (our own or another’s). Seeing this, we have an opportunity to begin to open. This is an extraordinary gift.
Tonglen is a practice that opens you up to see and connect with the pain in the world around you. It can feel overwhelming at first, but then it becomes an incredible resource. Seeing the suffering of the world, we can begin to turn towards it, instead of away from it, and feel compassion for our shared human experience. And we can awaken the wish for everyone, including ourselves, to be happy and free from pain. Noticing a moment of suffering in another being, you can pause, open your heart, breathe it in, and breathe out anything that you imagine might offer comfort.
Formal Tonglen practice has four parts:
1. Open your heart. Flash on a sense of openness, inside you and all around you. Recognize that this space is always available to you, and you can come back at anytime and reconnect with it.
2. Work with the textures of suffering and it’s absence and begin to synchronize these with the breath. Breathing in, open to the qualities of suffering – dark, heavy, hot, uncomfortable, agitated (whatever they might be for you). Breathing in, extend outward the qualities of freedom – light, fluid, cool, relief, sweetness.
3. Consider a specific life experience of pain and open to it completely. Breathing in, be completely willing to acknowledge the pain of it and to feel it. Breathing out, offer whatever you might imagine the antidote to be. Spend enough time considering the circumstances so that you evoke genuine feeling, but don’t get lost in the details of the story. Begin to let go of the specifics and let the qualitative experience ride the breath in and out. Continually moving with the breath, and still aware of the sense of openness, so that you are like an open window.
4. Expand the practice out to include as many beings as you can imagine. Opening to the pain of the world as you breathe in, sending out love, light, healing, joy, peace….whatever it feels to you that the world needs at that moment.
Always begin and end your Tonglen practice with at least a few minutes of Shamatha meditation, simply being with your breath. And at the end of your practice, offer a dedication of merit, offering your efforts with the wish that all beings everywhere (including yourself) find happiness and freedom.