In meditation, picture someone you know and love who is going through much suffering – an illness, a loss, depression, pain, anxiety, fear. As you breathe in, imagine all of that person’s suffering – in the form of dark, black, smokelike, tarlike, thick and heavy clouds – entering your nostrils and travelling down into your heart. Hold that suffering in your heart. Then, on the outbreath, take all of your peace, freedom, health, goodness and virtue, and send it out to the person in the form of healing, liberating light. Imagine they take it all in, and feel completely free, released and happy. Do that for several breaths. Then imagine the town that person is in, and on the inbreath take in all of the suffering of that town, and send back all of your health and happiness to everyone in it. Then do that for the entire country, the entire planet, the universe. You are taking in all the suffering of beings everywhere and sending them back health and happiness and virtue.
It sounds so masochistic, doesn’t it? This practice of tonglen. Drawing in smoke and tar through the nostrils and sucking it into your heart? Who would ever do such a thing? Is it a form of insanity, an expression of a consciousness that is “less than” what our society says is normal? Or could it possibly reflect someone who has largely let go of “I, me and mine”, someone who has come to define themselves in a broader way, to love more expansively? I think the latter.
I’ve had my glimpses of tonglen when faced with the suffering of a person, a group, or the world. I’ve let it emerge, be a part of me, but then it goes away so quickly. What then do I do? Let the word disappear from my vocabulary, or start again, breathing in people’s pain in this moment, and the next, … ? I think the latter.
It feels like the process of letting go of thoughts when I’m meditating. First they come rapid-fire, then later a little less frequently. But they always return. More and more, I look at a thought’s arrival, smile, say hello, and begin again.
So I choose to embark on another experiment. I will “be with” the newspaper headlines, such as the ebola crisis in Africa, and I will breathe in the agony of thousands, perhaps millions as it unfolds. Then I will send them love. Same for Jody. Same for the folks I encounter on the streets of London. Same for me. Perhaps my heart is big enough to hold it all.