The very last thing I want to do when I feel horrific pain is to pull it in for a bear hug. So, when I read about the Buddhist practice of tonglen in Pema Chödrön’s book “When Things Fall Apart”, I was skeptical.
Tonglen is a breathing exercise. It involves breathing in pain and breathing out kindness —but not just your own and not just to yourself. When you breath in, you invite all similar pain felt by everyone in the world to come into your body and dwell there. If you feel the shattering ocean-deep indigo-blue ache of your husband’s betrayal, you breathe in not only your own agony but also the shattering ocean-deep indigo-blue ache of every woman and man everywhere in the world who, at this moment, is also feeling it. Then, you take the balm that you need, the loving-kindness that you need, the warm and soft emotional embrace that you need, and direct it not inward but outward—you breathe it out to all those people everywhere who are suffering as you are suffering.
“We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves,” Pema Chödrön writes. “The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole.”
This was sure to fail, I thought. The whole point of reading Chödrön’s book, the whole point of seeking out exercises like tonglen was that I couldn’t handle my pain. And if I couldn’t handle my own pain, how was I supposed to invite in everyone else’s?
I couldn’t believe it worked. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, drawing in the pain of the world, I suddenly felt a shocking sense of connection. Somewhere out there, another woman was feeling the exact same pain that I was, and with the power of my breath, I could reach out and diminish it. I could draw pain out of her and send the exact comfort I knew she needed because I needed it too.
I had recently re-read Brené Brown’s three components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Is that why tonglen worked, I wondered? By giving me a sense of common humanity, did it increase my compassion for myself?
Just a few weeks ago, after months of this practice, I was explaining tonglen to a friend during the drive to her cottage. The sun had set, and I don’t know if it was the green mountains surrounding us or the dusky sky or all that rich cool air but out of nowhere, a realization hit me like a sonic wave. I had only been seeing one side of things.
I thought tonglen was only happening when I did it: when I drew in other people’s pain and sent them comfort. But this whole time, even before I knew what it was, I have also been on the receiving end of tonglen. This whole time — every single day since D-day — there have been other women out there sending me the exact loving-kindness I needed at the exact moment I needed.
Women like you.
Maybe that’s what made the difference on those days when things were still excruciatingly hard… yet not quite unbearable. Maybe on those days when I somehow found the grace to carry on, the grace came from a woman I will never meet, somewhere in the world, who sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed, heart raw with crimson sharp agony, who made the loving choice to draw out my pain and send me in its place the very thing I didn’t even know I needed.