Trouble With Tonglen

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I have been having trouble with Tonglen. It is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine suffering with doing this practice (feeling it or visualizing it) and the same for the joy I am supposed to be giving out. Is there any suggestions you can share that will help with this?

The very basis of Tonglen is the union of conventional and ultimate Bodhicitta. How to do sending and taking? We connect the sending and taking with our breath – First you breathe in, taking in all the unbearable misery of all living beings everywhere. As you inhale, you take in all the suffering bad karma and the root causes of the misery, you thereby relieve all sentient beings of their suffering and the causes of the suffering. You are not the star of the process, you are simply the “best supporting actor”. It is not about you and your feelings regarding this practice. Beings are really the main object of your care and attention, the light is on them. Remember also the view of absolute Bodhicitta: All phenomena are like the dream experience, they have now inherent reality. You are a trickster, using the illusion to relieve beings from their illusion of a pain. Breathing in is your trick to alleviate the illusory suffering that affects people. Breathing out, you give all the wholesome karma, happiness and good circumstances to every sentient beings. Imagine all this good being absorbed by living beings. We visualize the giving and taking in harmony with the rhythm of our own breathing, in and out.

During calm abiding meditation we simply follow the breath, here we add another element which is sending and taking. It is like a calm abiding type of meditation with an extra element: the focus on Bodhicitta.

Once you are in the flow of giving and taking, you do not have to contrive yourself to feel anything special. Simply focus on the altruistic attitude: take all suffering, give all merit, breath gently. Do the giving and taking for as long as you can. It is good to do this training in many short intervals. Practice for little while like this, then stop, take a break and relax for a few moments. You are still sitting, but you take a break, stop thinking about sending and taking, then start again. In this way, you can do many short sessions with breaks in between. You can do many five minutes cycles with one minute break within half an hour or whatever duration you feel comfortable. Do not worry if you find yourself distracted during the actual meditation. Do not worry means, do not scold yourself. The care is gentle. Do not push yourself with a gun in the back. Remain simply aware and patiently bring your focus back on the Bodhicitta attitude, in a very gentle way.
It is important not to think, that there is something physically being exchanged. Remember for that the view of ultimate Bodhicitta. If you don’t stop tripping on how real the things, that you take and give are. If you keep solidifying it in your mind – that may cause some trouble – such as anxiety. It is very important to regard everything as a mirage. The essence of this practice is training our Bodhicitta, yet at the same time our rational mind is being trained to focus. It is a twofer. Your mind will be pacified by the calm abiding aspect of this practice and therefore all disturbances will fall away. Simultaneous with the pacification of you mind, Bodhicitta, the altruistic intention, will arise. That is the tonglen aspect of this practice, which is the very heart of Rinpoche’s book: Path Of Awakening.

Sometimes we may wonder, what about practicing sending and taking for ourselves? There is one slogan in mind training that says: “Begin by yourself, begin by taking care of yourself first.” In order to really do very efficient sending and taking you need some sort of preparation, such as learning to see how everything is like an illusion. This is clarifying your perspective. It is taking care of yourself in a way. Through this awareness you become more gentle with yourself, more respectful. You cannot send love when you do not have it in you.

We all have a different history, there are some people who have a very difficult background. For them it is difficult to relate to love and generosity, because they never experienced it. As they never received it, they have no idea what it is. We have to first build up the connection with loving compassion. Some people have been so badly wounded that they are locked in. They cannot trust and they cannot give love or welcome another person. They have to heal this first. You can use this meditation taking yourself as the object of the compassion. Breathing in, you welcome this person wounded and in pain, which is you. You give this person shelter. Breathing out, you give this person confidence, self-esteem, respect, love so that this person can have an experience of it. Maybe later on, this person will be able to share this, having had this experience. There is a book, inspired by Buddhist teaching, called the The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. It is not mere philosophy, it is a series of practical exercises that you can do. Lots of these exercises are a sort of adaptation of sending and taking.

In a more traditional way, Thich Nhat Hahn also talks about this in The Path Of Emancipation (pp127.128):

Breathing in, I see myself as a five-years-old.

Breathing, out I smile to myself as a five-years-old.

To put it into simple words: Welcome, Thank you.

These are little things, but if, as you wake up in the morning, the first thing you say to yourself is welcome, and as you breathe out thank you, it is a pretty good way to start a day.

Even if nobody else is around to say this to you, at least you will.

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