Friday, March 18, 2011

Breathe In, Breathe Out, Breathe Easy

Whenever a tragedy occurs, like the earthquake, tsunami and impending nuclear meltdown in Japan, there is a collective grief that hangs in the air.   Everyone feels it.

What do we do in the face of such suffering?

We might turn away.  Or obsess over CNN.  Or feel overwhelmed, guilty, helpless, numb.  We may become more self absorbed as a defense to such enormous grief and then think: "How can I be so obsessed with my little life when there's bigger fish to fry in the universal pan?"

In Buddhism, the first Noble Truth that "life is suffering" is not a proclamation that "life sucks".  It's a truth urging us to be more willing to face suffering squarely.  To really look in to its eyes.  When we practice this, we can handle anything that comes our way.

There is a belief – especially in recent years – that we must think only happy thoughts and to avoid, avert and distract ourselves from what is.  We avoid "bad energy" at all costs and after awhile, we're living like ostriches, with our blindfolded head in the pink sand, believing that this will attract shiny happy things in our lives.  This way of living can actually create more fear.  It can make us live smaller.

And facing suffering, understanding suffering, doesn’t mean being glued to the TV watching horribleimage after horrible image for hours on end.  This, actually, can be a hysterical indulgence after a certain point.

So what do you do?

You could donate to The Red Cross, you could call to make sure friends and relatives are safe, you could organize a benefit.  But beyond this, what the hell do you do in order to understand such suffering on a deep level?  I don't know completely.  But I've been doing Tonglen.

Tonglen is a beautiful practice for suffering.  Basically, you breathe in suffering and you breathe out relief.  You actually relate to suffering, rather than turn away.  Rather than worry and obsess.  Rather than wish things were different. 

The Buddhist path is one of fearlessness.  When you truly feel that nothing in life can touch your inner sense of grace, deep peace and happiness, you become braver in life.  You take risks.  You live bigger.  You're happier.

Funny, that.

So.  What to do in the face of such suffering?  When there is seemingly no compassionate action you can take in the moment?  Try Tonglen.

Heart of Bodhicitta:
Get in contact with your open, loving, wise heart.  If you have trouble with this, just think of you at your best.  This heart is from where all your good deeds have ever sprung.  This is a place of spaciousness, wisdom, stillness, clarity, compassion and loving kindness.  A collection of all that is good in you.  Trust me, it’s there.  If you don’t think you have it, borrow someone else’s.  Hell, Angelina Jolie’s will work.  Or Mother Theresa.  Or your great grandma.  But see it as a beautiful orb of light in the center of your chest.  Maybe golden light, or pure white light.  However this resonates with you, get in contact with your heart of bodhicitta, your inherent goodness and compassionate wisdom that is there.  Rest your attention here for a while.  Count to ten breaths.

Breathe In Suffering:
Now see the suffering of another, perhaps a loved one, as a black cloud.  It’s hot and thick.  Breathe this black cloud of suffering in to your spacious, open, loving heart.  Your heart uses it for fuel and…

Breathe Out Relief:
...As you breathe out, exhale relief to those in suffering in the form of this beautiful light from your heart.  Exhale compassion, loving kindness, stillness, expansive clarity and wisdom.  All that is limitless and true in your heart of bodhicitta.  Let these qualities touch and relieve those beings who suffer.

In, suffering, out, relief.  In, blackness, out, light.

We want to not do such a thing, right?  I mean, breathing in suffering?  Are you nuts?  Try it anyway.

Breathe in the suffering of others.  Focus on a single being at first.  Perhaps a woman who has lost her child in the tsunami.  A nuclear plant worker.  A dog who cannot find its master, roaming the devastated shoreline.

Breathe in your own suffering; your own resistance to life, your resistance to your meditation practice, your resistance to washing the dishes after dinner and the fight you always get in to with your loved one about it.

Breathe in the truth of life; that we all have suffering of some kind or another, taking various shapes and forms that are no more and no less suffering.

Breathe out the truth of inherent wisdom, kindness, compassion, spaciousness, stillness, clarity.

Eventually, with this practice, you begin to hold suffering and bodhicitta together, in the palm of the same hand, neither fearing and averting, nor attaching and preferring.  It’s all of it.  Just like life.  

I do Tonglen for myself, for loved ones, for a woman with a suffering face in line at the grocery store.  For my parents, who did the best they could.  For ex boyfriends who didn't do whatever they didn't do.  For those who have caused harm to me.  For those to whom I've caused harm.  For a dear friend who's going through a breakup.  For an entire nation that is ravaged by loss and devastation. 

And I begin to be able to face the un-faceable.  And I begin to know there is something else there alongside all that suffering.

And low and behold I find I can truly handle whatever comes my way more often than not.  This breeds a trust that is always there.  Well, most of the time.   And so I keep practicing.  In and out.   In and out.


  1. It's so easy for me to get swept up by suffering (my own and others), so thanks for this great tool and for the reminder that the all powerful heart is always there along side it all!

  2. How beautifully you teach the Tonglen practice Sarah and what a helpful tool for coping with Japan's catastrophe. It's so simple to do, if only we remember "in and out"... Thank You!

  3. Loved this blog! One of the most insightful thoughts I've come across in recent times...go towards your fear instead of running away from it. And you provide just the right tools for it. Great meditation! Thank you!


  4. I love this Sarah, passed the link to your blog to those of love and practiced Tonglen myself today. It is amazing what changes in us, when we walk through every door that is presented, instead of avoiding it...including suffering...


  5. I just tried this practice (I'm a slow mover sometimes), and I feel a sense of relaxation that I haven't felt in a while. I'm able to forgive myself for the times when I suffer, and see the suffering in other (rather than taking their actions personally). Thank you Chip for explaining this so beautifully and clearly, and for the gift of grace I feel in this moment.