Initially I found the Tibetan practice of Tonglen absolutely confusing. The idea of drawing pain, discomfort, fear etc. into my heart felt threatening and nonsensical. So, I adapted the formal practice to where I was in my own practice. What I love about insight meditation is that the practices are flexible and meant to serve you. Therefore, you can always tweak and adapt the practices in ways that work for you. Meditation is experiential and experimental. I'll first describe the traditional Tonglen practice, then how I adapted it and lastly a meditative experience that occurred while visiting Pema Chodron's Gampo Abby in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
In the formal Tonglen practice, you are encouraged to think of your heart center as this place of pure, loving light. I've also heard some teachers suggest you can think of this space as a jewel radiating endless compassion. Spend several minutes embodying and envisioning this warm, loving, compassionate and welcoming space. On the inhale, begin to draw the sensation of pain (stress, discomfort etc.) into your heart center as if you were guiding a lost friend back to his/ her home. Allow the loving light to transmute your pain with effortless ease so that when you exhale you are able to release it into the vast universe. The practice is powered by intention, not force. Sometimes, when breathing in the pain I will label it, "Pain, pain, pain..." and then, on the exhale, I will say something like, "May I live with ease." You then continue to repeat the practice until you feel a settling or a shift in your experience.
In my very first experience with Tonglen, I was given the classical instruction to breathe in pain as if it was black smoke and then on the exhale release it like white light or white smoke. The idea of breathing in black smoke caused me to think about pollution, and I bristled at the idea of breathing that into my body. So, here's an example of how I tweaked the practice to serve me. I simply imagined a calming color, and I would breathe that calming color into my heart. I would sometimes imagine that calm color bathing a body ache in the back or an emotional ache in the chest. Then, on the exhale I would just imagine my breath releasing what my body no longer needed to hang onto. My second and fourth grade students loved the practice of breathing in calming colors. I even paired this meditation with a watercolor activity where they painted one of their favorite calming colors. I then tacked their calming color paintings up in the classroom with the hopes that it would be of service to my students when they felt stressed.
Lastly, this past summer, my husband and I visited Pema Chodron's retreat center, Gampo Abbey. We were sitting on a wooden bench looking out into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. A number of fisherman had dropped their gear and little buoys studded this expansive scene. I then had the idea of labeling each buoy with a particular frustration, doubt, fear, item on the to-do list etc. My body responded to this impromptu meditation exercise by exhaling quite audibly, which is a sign that nervous system is recalibrating. Initially, these thoughts were so loud and crammed into my head, but when I imagined them resting afloat in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence I felt less claustrophobic. They had their space, which gave me space.
As of now, I have no set plan for the theme of next week's posts so it will be a bit of a surprise for the both of us. I will also post "With Outstretched Arms" later on today. Have a wonderful weekend!
Photos below are of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Gampo Abbey.