Everyone has heard, at some point in their lives, the advice that they should ‘think of someone worse off than themselves’. It’s not always welcome, and it’s not always that easy to do. Our own pain, whether physical or emotional, can be so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine anything worse. Unintentionally, we are frequently rendered more selfish, more self-absorbed, by our own suffering.
But if we can, for one moment, put that pain aside, we will be able to see that, yes, indeed, there are many others who are in worse pain, who are suffering more than we are. So we have a choice. We can allow our own suffering to shut us off from others, or we can use it to connect more deeply with the trials of those around us. To acknowledge our common humanity. To realise that even those who we feel ‘have it all’, will be struggling with their own private demons.
And so the first step is to not run away from our pain, but to look straight at it. To really see it for what it is. To truly feel our emotions and to stay with them. If we are sad, to really be sad, not to shut it away and numb ourselves with something else. If we are angry, to experience how that anger makes us feel, without acting it out – yes, it’s hard!
And then we can start to think of others who are feeling the same thing – in their own way, and their own circumstances, yes, but just to acknowledge that there are others who we know, as well as millions who we don’t know, who are suffering the same despair, fear, anger – whatever it is. Millions of people experiencing their own pain.
And this is not just a logical, mental acknowledgement, it is an emotional process. We feel our own pain, and we feel that of everyone else. And, ironically, this can help to strengthen us in our own time of need. We are not alone in our suffering any longer. We no longer feel so helpless. We are more able to extend ourselves to help others.
Because strength isn’t all about solidity, it’s about softness. In Dru yoga, we soften the joints, even in ‘strong’ postures, so that we don’t block energy from flowing freely around the body. Whilst we move from a strong core, we maintain a fluidity of movement through the body, learning where to soften and let go. True strength comes from flowing through our lives with courage and determination, not from standing still and building up the walls between ourselves and those around us. Knowing when to accept help from others, and when to offer it. It can be wonderful to feel the effects of a beautiful yoga posture or sequence – but even more wonderful to send those benefits to someone who is in need of them – whether or not they are capable of accessing them for themselves. When I teach Energy Block Release 3 in my class, a profound heart-opening sequence, we always pause at the end, hands in Namaste, to experience the peace generated by the movements, and each of us is then able to ‘send out’ that peace to anyone who comes to mind in that moment.
The Buddhist practice of tonglen is the exchange of ourselves for another. It reverses our natural tendency to run away from what we perceive as bad (suffering) and instead encourages us to embrace it. It turns our natural tendency to shield ourselves from hurt on its head. It gives us courage and strength, by allowing us to truly experience our weakness. As Pema Chodron writes,
‘It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts’
~ Pema Chodron,’When Things Fall Apart’
We start by identifying our pain, and we breathe it in. On our outbreath, we breathe out softness, relief, and send it out. This is a very powerful practice – instead of saying ‘no’ to what we see as ‘bad’, we say ‘yes, OK, this is how things are’. We are accepting what is. Then we can think of someone else who is in similar pain – physical or emotional – and we breathe in their pain, too. We allow all this pain to open us, to free us, and we breathe out, softening and sending out this softness to them as well. We can then move on to everyone who is sad, angry, has a headache – whatever it may be – and on our outbreath, send out that relief to them all.
When we have had a disagreement with someone, instead of isolating ourselves and allowing ourselves to make ourselves right and them wrong, we can instead try to breathe in their anger, opening ourselves to their viewpoint, and breathe out the softness, the spaciousness that we find. When we are anxious and troubled about someone, we identify with their pain, making it bigger than our own feelings about them. We breathe in their pain and send out relief on our outbreath. There really are no limitations to this practise. Whenever we feel good, we send it out. Whenever we feel bad, we breathe it in. We can use it in formal meditation practice, or on the spot, whenever we remember.
If you have experience of working with tonglen, I’d love to hear about it. If you haven’t and decide to give it a try, let me know how you get on.