Tonglen (receiving-giving) or Compassionate Breathing

Tonglen practice is derived from an ancient Tibetan tradition, brought to Tibet by Atiśa in the 10th century, and made clear by Geshe (who used with lepers) in the 12th century. Used much more recently in, for example, hospices - not to cure - but to help heal the spirit - to bring some sense of meaning to pain, to help send out relief to others. It often does not require words, more feelings and images.  It can be a formal practice or an 'on the spot' one - whatever suits. There's a more modern, secular version from van den Brink and Frits Koster (A Practical Guide to Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living p 84 - 85) which they call 'Compassionate Breathing' The practice has value in all traditions, with secular and spiritual application - requiring a willingness to witness and indeed sense our own and others' suffering. Caution: it can seem a 'heavy' practice as it encourages us to be with and breathe in suffering, but if done with an open, allowing mind, letting us gently explore, then it can be a highly relevant practice and a route to compassionate awareness - for self and others.  Go gently.

'For it is in giving that we receive.'    -    St Francis of Assisi

The following introductory guidance to tonglen is taken from Pema Chödrön's 'Good Medicine' (from her Audio Collection). Compassion is about our relationship with pain - our own and others. We use this principle in all loving-kindness (maitre) and compassion practices. It's all about our shared humanity. This is different from pity (condescending) and even from empathy (can overwhelm).

Usually when we feel discomfort we push away. With tonglen meditation we breathe in discomfort with the sense of 'what I am feeling in this moment is felt by millions of others all over the world'. Then we can send out that which is joyful, uplifting, compassionate, spaciousness - relating to ourselves and to everyone else. Our experience is thus a stepping stone to understanding others. It's a relationship of equality. It can be an everyday practice. It can also help us notice how often we shut down. It changes our relationship with pain (usually we push away) and with pleasure (usually we hold on). When we feel such things we can know these are all felt by others. When things hurt (eg, we feel angry) - we can feel/say/know other people feel this. When things are delightful (eg, we feel a cool breeze when we are hot) - we can say 'may other people feel this". So we use our daily (albeit small) personal experience of painful or pleasurable occurrences to practice this form of tonglen. This can help heal and strengthen us.

The essence of tonglen is using 'unwonted' circumstances to help us mentally and spiritually (Enlightenment in Buddhist terms). Rather than magnifying our own 'story lines' we can just be with, using the energy from our emotions to transform and heal. The sense could be: 'Since I am feeling this pain, may I feel and use it to help others'. So we breathe in with an aspiration to use strong emotion to help/heal others. We are acknowledging we are all in same boat.  We breathe out relief to all who are feeling pain.

So Pema Chödrön teaches that when we feel, see or hear pain and suffering close to us, or further afield, we can do tonglen for our own confusion/pain or for others anywhere in the world. It changes our relationship with pain, especially our fear of pain. She teaches us to do tonglen 'on the spot' - just breathing in the sense of pain, the emotional distress , and then breathing out relief, spaciousness, hope.

She warns/advises us not to start using such an 'on the spot' practice with the most disturbing, discomforting emotions, but 'to practice' with some of our smaller emotions or irritations. Even in these life-changing times, there will still be plenty of these..  



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Walking in Difficult Moments

Walking in Difficult Moments

'In 1976, I went to the Gulf of Siam to help the boat people who were adrift at sea. We hired three ships to rescue them and take them to a safe port. Seven hundred people were on our ships adrift at sea when the Singapore authorities ordered me to leave the country and abandon all of them. it was two o'clock in the morning and I had to leave within twenty- four hours.

I knew that if I could not find peace in that difficult moment, I would never find peace. So I practiced walking meditation all night long in my small room. At six o'clock, as the sun rose, a solution came to me! If you panic, you will not know what to do. But practicing breathing, smiling, and walking, a solution may present itself.

Thich Nhat Hanh, 'The Long Road Turns To Joy'

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March 2020 - Insole Court

 We began by standing in the yoga Mountain pose - this standing upright pose helps improve posture, balance as well as bringing calm focus. In her 'Mindfulness - A Practical Guide', Tessa Watt says how this 'grounding' pose (feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, spine tall, crown of head lifted, shoulders relaxed) brings contact with the earth and,

'brings us into the present moment, and brings us down, down, down ... out of the bulb at the top of our necks where many of us think we reside, until we can fully inhabit our bodies from the ground up'. (p.71 - 72).

So the mountain metaphor/image is used in various yoga and meditation practices to encourage us to inhabit our bodies and to bring a sense of solidity, stillness and spaciousness into our being. The mountain meditation is a popular practice - described in e.g., Watt (p 178 - 179), Kabat-Zinn's 'Wherever You Go There You Are" (pp 135 - 140) and Orsillo and Roemer's 'The Mindful Way Through Anxiety' ('pp 220 - 222).

We followed with our main practice - an 'Equanimity meditation' - from van den Brink's and Frits Koster's,   'A Practical Guide to Mindfulness less-based Compassionate Living' (pp 114 -115). This practice starts with a  'Breathing Space' (drawn from Mark Williams et al's MBCT protocol), then into a 'Soothing breathing rhythm' itself derived from Paul Gilbert's 'Compassion Focused Therapy'. The words of the well-known Serenity Prayer (which appears to come from both Christian and Stoic wisdom traditions) can be used  to help bring a senses of equanimity:

'Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.'

A mountain image may again be invoked -  to connect with the quality of equanimity - or possibly a tranquil lake.

Then we brought to mind someone fairly neutral to us whom we have encountered -  for example a shop assistant or a bus conductor - and visualise them in front of us, aware of that person's own vulnerability in the face of ageing, disease, loss or death - like any human being - and sending them a wish of equanimity, using words like, 'May you feel calm and balanced amidst life's ups and downs ... May you live in peace with impermanence and unpredictability'. 

Next send a wish of equanimity towards oneself, with words such as, 'May I feel calm and balanced in the midst of life's turmoil ... May I accept I cannot change the past ... I cannot predict the future ... I can only do what lies within my responsibility'. 

The practice can then be extended to close family and friends. Also, if wished, to difficult persons, maybe with words such as, 'You are responsible for your own decisions ... I cannot make choices for you, but I can wish you discernment and wisdom...'.

Lastly, we can conclude with a universal expression such as, 'May you find calm amidst chaos ... ease amidst uncertainty  ... inner peace amidst uncontrollability and unpredictability ... wisdom in a frantic world.'

Coming back to the breath we then ended the practice.

The practice was followed by inquiry. In our times right now we may well need regular short equanimity practices to help soothe, quieten and bring us back to ourselves so we can act with discernment and wisdom.

Here's a verse drawn from the poem, 'Start Close In' by David Whyte:

'Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way to begin

the conversation.'

Towards the end of our session we moved to neuroscience, to brain plasticity, and some of Rick Hanson's practices (

Though we may well understandably be moving into survival mode, there is still good reason (maybe moreso) to look for those simple good experiences each day (e.g. a stranger smiling at us) and to take a breath, slow down and let the experience sink in viscerally. We also might ask  what might help us grow (even in such difficult times) - this could, for example, be to look for any small occasions to practice equilibrium in the course of the day (see above). We may also wish to add a short gratitude practice at the beginning and/or end of the day  (e.g.,den Brink and Frits Koster, 'A Practical Guide to Mindful-Based Compassionate Living' p. 97) where we can  sit and invite things to come up for which we feel grateful or appreciative - people, animals, nature, memories - and simply hold these in awareness.

We closed with the 'Mind Like The Sky Analogy' glimpse practice from Diana Winston's 'Little Book of Being' (p. 138)`:

'Imagine your mind is like the sky - wide open, spacious, boundless, endless, transparent. Everything that you encounter - thoughts, emotions, sensations, memories, sounds, images - is just like clouds floating by. Stormy clouds, wispy clouds - nothing can disturb the vastness of the sky. Settle back into the sky-like nature of your mind'.






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The Journey

From 'The Journey' by David Whyte:

    Sometimes everything

.        has to be

             inscribed across

                  the heavens


     so you can find

         the one line

             already written

                 inside you.

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February 2020 - Insole Court

We started with a short practice - 'Coming to our senses' (title drawn from Jon Kabat-Zinn's book) - to bring us  into awareness of our physical senses and our sensibilities in this very moment. "What is here right now?" ... breath, body, emotion. thought ... we can hold it all - gently. Then we can form a personal intention - to be here, to be here with kindness, to listen, to notice judgement literally be heartfelt.

Our first longer practice was drawn from Jack Kornfield's 'A Meditation on Stopping the War Within' - from his  'A Path with Heart' (p. 30). After settling with the body we become 'open to whatever (we) experience without fighting (and) 'Let go of the battle'. We then bring attention to the breath. After a while we shift our attention to the heart and mind. And become aware of any feelings we are struggling with - fighting, fear, denying avoiding.. We may name these emotions. Then the instruction is to be interested, kind and to let the heart be soft and open. "Breathe quietly and let it be'. We then bring attention to any battles in our own lives - loneliness, fear, anger, addiction - and sense the struggle within, if possible locate the struggles within the body and also notice any accompanying, arising thoughts that carry these struggles on, being aware of all the inner battles within, and how they are perpetuated. Gently allow any of these experiences to be present, notice with curiosity and kindness. Allow the body, heart and mind to be soft, open without fighting. Let go of the battle. Breathe quietly and be at rest. Recognise the universality of our feelings. If there is any sense of overwhelm from sensing  these emotions, just return to the breath, or the breath within the body. To close, bring awareness back to the breath, allowing a soothing breathing rhythm to stabilise and calm our sensibilities, before finally closing the practice.

We followed the practice with group inquiry. This was felt to be quite a strong practice, but the self-compassion within it tempers this. It could be developed to a recognition/awareness of others' strong feelings - again, accompanied by compassion. The practice has 'real-time' applicability. There was discussion around catching an emotion such as anger as it arises in real life - finding that little gap of non-reactivity where a choice can be made not to react and allow anger to overwhelm. It might be about counting slowly, or leaving the room, or taking a walk - to calm, or self-soothe - or at least not to escalate. This isn't about getting rid of anger, rather seeing and recognising it for what it is - before deciding how to be with it. Never easy - but small shifts in awareness and behaviour change patterns. Other useful 'pause' practices (named by Pema Chodron) could include the 3 (or 2 or 1!) minute breathing space, and the RAIN (Recognise, Allow, Investigate, Nuture) practice (Tara Brach). 

Our second, closing practice, was a 'Heart Awareness' practice taken from Diana Winston's "The Little Book of Being'.  Here is an extract:

'After you are settled, drop your awareness down from your head into your heart area, and first feel what is present in your heart. Then imagine your heart is that which is sensing, seeing. hearing, perceiving and feeling. To help you to do this, you can repeat a few times, "Drop the knowing into my heart." What happens? Try looking through your heart, then hearing, then feeling, then knowing - all through your heart. Can your heart sense both inside of you and outside of you? Notice the emotional tenor to this way of practicing.' (pp 148 - 149).

Diana Winston reminds us how we get so caught up in our stories, dramas, worries - often for days, even weeks and years - making us lose track of ourselves. She offers some reminders to help us shift into natural awareness - we can repeat these slowly. allowing them to sink in:

Your mind is luminous, aware, present, and radiant.

It is vast, open, and spacious.

There is nothing you have to do except shift into this recognition.

Try it now.

Shift. Relax your body. Relax your mind. Just be.

Rest in awareness.





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