Breathing in the Hard Stuff

As we explore deepening in our understanding of contemplative practices, we turn to the East to see what we might learn from tonglen meditation (and particularly from Pema Chodron’s, Start Where You Are). While it has some similarities to the “welcoming prayer” that we have given a fair amount of attention to, this practice has some unique emphases that seem important.

Nearly everyone who has dabbled in contemplation has at some point practiced a breathing exercise in which you “breathe in peace (or love or stillness)” and “breathe out anxiety (or whatever might have been troubling one).” This seems natural and intuitive.

Tonglen invites us to a more counter-intuitive practice in which “the poison is the medicine,” where the “logic of ego” is reversed. In this practice one intentionally “breathes in” that which is painful in the midst of one’s experience. (Of course, it does not masochistically seek for pain to breathe in, but invites attention to present suffering.) One breathes this in knowing that it will be received with gentleness and self-compassion.

This transformation of how the pain is received by one’s soft heart allows one to breathe out peace and gentleness to others. So one breathes in pain and breathes out peace. But the key is that the pain is not absorbed like a sponge but transformed into peace and gentleness.

By facing and accepting the pain in this way, we are softened and connected to the pain of others. For me this is the genius of tonglen meditation: our becoming gently present to our own pain prepares us to be more empathically available to the pain of others. Here are the four steps recommended by Pema Chodron (but mostly in my own words):

  1. “Flashing Spaciousness” (Connecting with self-compassion, awakened heart, tenderness, softness)
  2. Work with texture – as you breathe in, feel the metaphors of your own pain – do you feel it as darkness, heaviness, roughness, heat? The opposite is how it is received internally by your awakened, spacious heart (light, cool). Develop a rhythm in which you feel the heavy and dark as you breathe in; the light and cool as you breathe out (or your own metaphors).
  3. Breathe in the pain of another person, another specific “heartfelt” situation, feel it compassionately, empathically and breathe that compassion out “to the other.”
  4. Breathe in awareness of the many who feel a similar pain (to your own or the specific person in #3) and extend the wish of loving kindness/compassion to all. (It’s not an empty and shallow exercise, because it comes out of your felt pain and softness.)


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