We cannot have compassion for others until we have compassion for ourselves. This is often the step that's missed by those who say "I don't have time for myself. I am always giving to everyone else." To be with the suffering of others (grief, loss, fear, pain, etc) we must first be able to be with and stay with these feelings in ourselves. If we are helping others in their suffering without first being able to sit with and lean into our own suffering, can that be called authentic and wholehearted giving? Perhaps the other person does benefit from our gift of support, but if we skip this step of doing our own inner-work with suffering, we are missing a HUGE opportunity: to go deeper, to heal ourselves and others, to truly touch someone's heart with our own openheartedness, to share in our humanness and vulnerability. In the words of George Eliot, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”
Tonglen is a Tibetan word meaning "giving and taking." It is a way to connect with suffering -- that of others and our own. Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, says, "This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness." Yep, you can extend compassion to others or yourself in the time it takes to TAKE ONE BREATH.
Pema goes on to say, "However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment." So, that is when we take another breath for ourselves. Or if you know you are suffering, start with yourself.
Breathing in: acknowledge and touch that part within yourself that is experiencing suffering (pain, anger, hurt, jealousy, sadness, grief, despair, fear, etc.)
Breathing out: send that part of you a gift with your breath. I like to envision it as an internal kiss. Or a simple phrase like, "I see you." or "I love you." When I'm feeling more playful, I often imagine self-care types of gifts I could give to this suffering part of myself, like a bubble bath or dark chocolate.
With tonglen, your experience of your own suffering is a path to developing compassion for everyone.
Pema goes into more detail in the links below. I encourage taking a moment to read her very accessible and practical way of explaining this practice:
- What is tonglen
- Instructions for the practice of tonglen
- Three stages of tonglen
- Tonglen "on the spot" (in the moment)
- 4 minute video of Pema explaining the practice of Tonglen.
You can also learn more about Tonglen in Pema Chödrön book on the subject. Click here to find it on amazon.com.
Now give it a try on your very next breath: Inhale and touch that part of you that feels ___ in this moment. Exhale a gift to yourself.