Tonglen, still and yet

Dear President Trump,

Lent ended months ago and I realized I’ve yet to circle back to let you know how my daily tonglen practice went those 40 days. Well, mostly it was hard. As I worked at breathing in whatever negativity I was perceiving, I struggled with both the emotional heaviness of the effort and the realization that I often couldn’t tell what the negative emotions were. At first this “not knowing for sure” felt like a stumbling block. Once I realized, though, that precision was less important than intent, it got a lot easier and I gave myself permission to just get as close as I could.

I also found that breathing out positive emotions to “send” to whomever was experiencing the negative ones often felt like whatever I might send would probably feel pretty invalidating if they knew. For example, if I perceived that someone was feeling sad, on the face of it, the logical thing was to send them happiness, but that didn’t feel right since it’s too much of a leap to go straight from sadness to happiness. Instead I settled on sending a sense of comfort. The same sort of thing happened when I encountered someone’s fear; it didn’t feel right to breathe fearlessness their way but it did feel ok to breathe out a sense of resolve. I often found that what felt right to send out was less of a feeling per se, and more of an attitude or encouragement to hang in.

Because I’m pretty visual, I imagined what tonglen, as I understand it, might look like and in doing so realized that sending out comfort or resolve wouldn’t erase the pain the person was experiencing, but rather would add other, more positive, elements, maybe easing their suffering. This reminded me that pain and suffering aren’t the same, that we can experience pain without being weighted down with baggage that turns it into suffering (e.g., with thoughts like “why me” “I can’t handle this” “nothing ever goes my way” etc.).

I’ve kept up the practice most days since Lent ended, but not with as much focus or devotion. There’s no end of suffering to try to temper so I’m going to recommit to the practice for a month at a time. I was able to do 40 days for Lent so taking it in month-long chunks seems reasonable.

May we be safe to breathe in and to breathe out.
May we be happy to be curious about our own and others’ suffering.
May we find healthy ways to cope with suffering that make space for it and for it to change.
May we be peace-makers who meet each other with respect and compassion.

Tracy Simpson

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