tonglen

Opening Our Hearts

By Joan Halifax The breath practice of Giving and Receiving develops our compassion and our ability to be present for our own suffering and the suffering of others. It is a practice of lovingkindness that opens up our whole being to the overwhelming presence of suffering and to our strength and willingness to transform suffering into peace and well-being. It is one of the richest and bravest practices we can do with people who are dying.

We begin the practice with a heart committed to helping others, to being with suffering and dying. When we look deeply, we see that to help others, we must relate with kindness toward our own suffering. To deny our suffering is to close off our hearts to what we and others experience. If we touch our suffering with awareness and love, Giving and Receiving becomes a practice of transformation. To see the possibility that we and others can be free from suffering is to see our own vast, good, and tender heart.

When I sit with a dying person, I must see beyond individual suffering. I must look from a place in myself that includes suffering but is bigger than suffering. I must look from a heart so big it holds everything. Can I see her suffering and her great heart as well? Can I see his true nature, who he really is, deeper than the story?

The practice of Giving and Receiving asks us to invite in all of our suffering and the suffering of others, and let them break open our untrusting and protected heart. When my heart breaks open by being deeply touched by suffering, its tender spaciousness becomes the ground for the awakening of selfless mercy. With an open heart, we cannot help but send all of our love and kindness to one who is suffering.

To begin the practice, you want to feel relaxed and open. You can sit in meditation posture, relax in a chair, or lie down. Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. You want your mind to be clear, calm, and spacious. If you feel agitated, angry, or afraid, breathe in whatever you are feeling, accepting it. On your exhalation, breathe out peacefulness and well-being. Clear your mind by bringing your awareness to what is agitating you and accepting it with kindness. Do this breath practice until you are calm and alert.

When you are calm and clear, you can begin the second stage of the practice. For some people who have never done this before, it will seem counter-intuitive, because it involves working with the breath in an unusual way.

You begin by breathing in hot, dark, heavy, polluted smoke-suffering. On your exhalation, you breathe out a breath that is light, cool, and fresh. Breathe not only through your nose, but through your whole body. On your in-breath, dark smoke enters every pore of your body. On your outbreath, coolness flows from every pore of your body. Stay in this rhythmic pattern of inhaling dark smoke and exhaling cool, light breath.

Next, visualize a metal sheath around your heart. This sheath is your self-importance, your selfishness, your self-cherishing, your self-pity, all the fearful contradictions that are difficult for you to accept. It is the fear that hardens to protect your heart. The practice invites you to break apart the metal sheath around your heart, to open your heart to its natural nonjudgmental state of warmth, kindness, and spaciousness. Visualize the metal sheath breaking apart when the in-breath of suffering touches it. When the heart opens, the smoke dissolves immediately, vanishing into the great spaciousness of your true and vast heart, and natural mercy arises. The quality of mercy in your vast heart allows you to be with suffering and at the same time, to see beneath the suffering. This is your awakened heart.

You have now touched the initial elements of the practice: calming and opening the mind, accomplishing the rhythm and texture of the breath practice, visualizing the metal sheath around your heart and the sheath breaking open, the spontaneous appearance of the vast heart of mercy, the disappearance of the smoke into space, and the out-breath of healing. Remember that you are doing this practice because you and others are suffering, and you wish with all your heart that all beings may be free from suffering.

You want to care, genuinely care. This wish cannot be general; it needs to be very specific, personal, and authentic. When the Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche practiced Giving and Receiving, he remembered a puppy he had seen when he was eight years old. The puppy was being stoned to death, and the people killing it were laughing. He would have done anything to relieve the dog of its suffering. Whenever he thought of the puppy, his heart broke open. The memory of this helpless little creature was a key that helped him practice with commitment, resolve, and love.

Bring to mind someone to whom you feel a deep connection, whether this being is dead or alive, someone who is suffering, not a being whose life is all grace, but someone who really has suffered and whom you wish to help be free from suffering. Let your whole being tum toward this one's suffering and wish that he or she may be healed. If this is difficult for you, tum toward your own situation. You are also suffering.

I ask you to breathe through your whole body your own suffering, your own alienation, or the suffering of your beloved as heavy, polluted, hot smoke. The instant that the in-breath of suffering touches the metal sheath of selfcenteredness around your heart, the sheath breaks apart and your heart opens to the suffering. The hot smoke of suffering instantly vanishes into the great space of your heart, and from this space arises an out-breath of mercy and healing. Send a deep, cool, healing breath to this other being or to yourself. Let the out-breath flow through every pore in your body. From the vastness of your open heart, breathe out mercy and love.

If you feel resistant, call yourself back to the practice. Remember that this practice can be done on every breath you take, every breath you give. Cultivate the details, the craft of this practice.

After you have practiced Giving and Receiving with yourself or one you love, let go of the image of that person. As you do, keep breathing in the dark smoke of universal suffering and breathing out healing. Then, let the visualization become particular again. Take your attention to the parent with whom you had the most difficulty-whether dead or alive, foster parent, or whoever raised you with whom you had the greatest difficulty. See them sitting before you.

Maintaining the rhythm of the hot, smoky in-breath and cool, light out-breath, consider how this one and you have suffered. For a minute, internally raise your eyes to this one and look at him or her. Let yourself slowly and mindfully examine the face and hair. Then, very simply gaze internally into the eyes of this parent with whom you have a problem. If this is difficult it may help to look at a mental photograph. See the wear on his face. See how her life has been full of disappointment and frustration. Maybe she was afraid. Maybe he was numb. See if you can allow yourself to be in touch with the difficulties of this parent. Perhaps you experience anger, disappointment, or heartbreak while looking at this parent. Let yourself feel whatever comes up. Imagine your parent as a five-year-old child. See his or her face fresh and open, full of anticipation. If it is difficult for you to see your parent this way, please notice the resistance that may be there. Resistance is all right. Breathe in the resistance, breathe out acceptance, spaciousness, warmth, and relief. If your parent is still alive, remember that he or she will die one day.

Remember your sincere wish at the beginning of this practice that the friend on whom you focused would be free of suffering. Breathe in blanleless suffering as dark smoke. Remember your parent as you last saw him or her. Let the dark smoke of suffering break open the sheath of hardness around your heart. On your out-breath, send all of your strength, understanding, caring, and love to your parent. Give it away with an open heart so that this one may be healed, so that suffering will be transformed.

This practice can also be applied to your own life. Turn your heart and mind toward your own situation. Breathe in your suffering and let it break open the sheath around your heart. Let your own vast heart open to who you really are. Breathing out, send clarity and space to your whole being. Heal yourself. You have the power in you to come home to the vast and true nature of who you really are. If you are a Christian or Jew, you might say, "I want to come home to God." What separates you from God is the hardness around your heart, the fear in your heart. Breathe in the hot smoke of suffering from separation from God. Let it dissolve the hardness around your heart and disappear. What is left is love. All suffering disappears into the vastness. Breathing out, send a cool breath of radiant healing to yourself and come home to God. In your exhalation is the breath of spirit, the goodness of God bringing you home.

The practice of Giving and Receiving helps us get in touch with the obstacles that prevent us from understanding and caring. Through our own experience with suffering and the development of an atmosphere of openness toward it, we can begin to accept and be with the suffering of others in a more open, kind, and understanding way. Our difficult personal experiences are the bridge that leads us to compassion. We do not reject difficulties. Rather, we meet them exactly where they are. We cannot prevent suffering or death. We simply try to meet it, accept it, and find mercy in it.

mb23-Opening

Dharma teacher Joan Halifax, True Continuation, leads the Sangha at Upaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is an anthropologist, leads retreats on death and dying and other issues, and has written a number of books. This article is excerpted from herforthcoming book, Being with Dying, to be published by Shambhala Publications in late 1999.

PDF of this article

Breathe!

by Sister Annabel Laity Before I came to Plum Village I had been practicing in India with the Tibetans, a meditation called tonglen. In this practice, when you breathe in, you take all the suffering of the world on yourself and when you breathe out, you breathe out all your joy for the sake of the world. I was ill while I was in India. When I first became sick, my teachers told me that it would be very good to meditate in order to breathe in all the suffering and breathe out all my joy. In fact, I did not have any joy to breathe out. However deeply I looked, I could not find it. Although this meditation helped me concentrate on my breathing and grow accustomed to bringing my mind back to my breath, the part about suffering and joy was not very useful. When I was well again, I met another teacher and explained my difficulty. He said, "Why do you bother to distinguish between suffering and joy? The two are the same." That put me in a little more difficult place, because I did not really understand what this meant.

When I came to Plum Village, Thay asked me, "What have you been practicing?" I said, "I've been trying to practice to see that suffering and joy are the same thing." Thay looked at me with compassion and said, "I think that you need to come back to yourself and nourish the joy in yourself. I do not think you have enough happiness to do that kind of meditation." Then every day, Thay would ask me, "Are you happy?" And I had to look deeply to see whether I was happy. I saw that if I can't say "yes," then I am not a very happy person. Although the seeds of happiness were in my consciousness, they had not been watered for a long time and therefore were not manifesting. Thay said, "Please do the kind of meditation that nourishes you, and when you are properly nourished with joy and happiness, you will be able to breathe out your joy and help other people." I had to do that kind of meditation for three or four years. I concentrated on nourishing the seeds of joy and happiness in myself. In my sitting and walking meditation, I could not breathe in all the suffering anymore, but I could breathe in the compassion of my teacher and myself for my own suffering. When I felt nourished by my teacher's compassion and my compassion for myself, I could breathe out joy.

I practiced mouth yoga diligently. Mouth yoga is the practice of the half smile. I made myself smile every half hour, whether there was anything to smile about or not. It was a revelation to me. Everything I thought was so important no longer seemed important at all. I lived in the practice center, and every day the practice center penetrated me imperceptibly, just as when you walk in the mist and imperceptibly your clothes become wet. Our habit energies of sadness and despair are strong and they do not vanish overnight. They gradually cease to manifest with so much strength, and they give more space to the seeds of joy.

One morning I sat on my bed to drink a cup of hot water. That is sitting meditation, because while you are sitting, you are mindful and concentrated. Outside you could still see the stars, but it was beginning to grow light. Unintentionally I began to experience my ignorance. I felt as if I were walking through veils of mist. As I passed through one veil, I encountered another. However I knew that the sun was there too, although I could not see it. Wisdom and ignorance were present together. I knew that awakening can happen at any moment, in any place. You only have to practice and awakening is there. Habit energies can be overcome now by the practice of being truly there in the present moment. At that moment I was awakened about my ignorance. I knew and felt my ignorance and wrong perceptions deeply. So awakening was not the absence of ignorance, but awareness of the nature of ignorance.


 

 

The sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness includes some exercises on mindfulness of the body. One exercise that helps us feel less lonely and cut off is the meditation on the four elements. In the Chinese version, there are six elements; in the Pali, there are four. Those elements are earth, water, fire, and air. (The Chinese version adds space and consciousness.) The Buddha says that all these elements are in your body; they are the basic constituents of your body. And you should meditate first to see those different elements supporting your body. Then, you meditate to see those four elements working to support life everywhere, not just your body. Gradually, you see the oneness of your own life and the life of everything around you, so that you are not afraid to die. You know that those elements which support this little body support all others' bodies and somehow, there isn't such a thing as death because the elements continue to support life anyway. This is a very beautiful meditation.

You begin by saying, "Breathing in, I see the earth element in me." Certain things in you are more solid than liquid—your bones, nails, tendons, excrement, flesh. Here you can see the earth element.

If you touch with your mindfulness everything in your body that is quite firm, then you are touching the earth element in you. And then, breathing out, "I smile to the earth element in me." Next, "Breathing in, I see the water element in me." And everything liquid in your body is the water element in you—your urine, your blood, your saliva, your perspiration. There is a lot of water in every part of your body. You are seventy percent water. And then, you see the water element outside of you—the rain, the sea—and you feel the oneness of all life.

You may decide, "Today I will just do the meditation on the earth element." And throughout the day, you are aware of the earth element in you and the earth element all around you. You base your concentration on the earth element for the whole day. Another day, you can meditate on the water element. When you're walking, you feel the water in your body and the water around you. Focusing on the air element, you see that the air in your body and the air outside are one. Of course the air is another thing which loves us and which is so essential for our lives. When we get caught up in worrying about unnecessary things, we can always look up and see that the air is there allowing us to breathe, and we know that there is nothing to worry about. Especially if we're in a beautiful place where the air is good, we can feel supported by the air outside of us as we feel it coming into our lungs.


If I were to write out of my experience the recipe for nourishing happiness, I should write:

To nourish happiness, smile often; walk and breathe in mindfulness many times every day in order to touch the present moment deeply; have a kind teacher and spiritual friends living with you or near you so that you can visit them often; read or listen to beautiful and meaningful teachings which you can put into practice straight away; and have the beauty of nature, its sights and sounds, penetrate you daily.

On October 4, 1999 Sister Annabel, True Virtue, was installed as Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma

PDF of this article

The Heart Pushup

By Peter Cutler mb56-TheHeart1

I’ve begun doing a practice to transform suffering. It’s been very effective for me. The practice involves a combination of three Buddhist practices—mindfulness of suffering, tonglen, and metta. I call it the Heart Pushup. I often do it lying down the first thing in the morning, just after I wake up. It’s a wonderful way to start the day.

Mindfulness

Take any pain or suffering, and bring your attention to it. If it’s strong and immediate, this isn’t much of a problem. Now open your heart wider to accept this pain fully. Stop resisting it or wishing it would go away. This will quickly reduce the intensity of it. It’s usually the resistance that creates the most pain.

As you open to the pain, you will find yourself becoming curious about it. If it’s physical pain, notice the quality and texture of the sensations. Where do they start? Where do they end? Is it dull and throbbing or sharp? Is there a color or shape to it? The more we embrace our pain, the less intense and frightening it becomes. This occurs because of love.

Now we’ve reduced the intensity of our pain and come to know it very intimately. We’ve embraced it into our heart. We now know a great deal about this pain and about ourselves.

Tonglen

Now we begin the Tibetan practice of tonglen. Because we are part of the human family, many other people have pain that is similar to ours. Begin to visualize one of these people. You might visualize their pain as a dark black cloud. On your in-breath, breathe in this dark cloud. Let it flow into your heart, where you transform it into a bright healing light that can heal all pain. On your out-breath, breathe all your healing light into this person. On your next in-breath, do the same with a different person. Eventually, breathe in the pain and suffering of many people at once and breathe out healing to all of them.

Most people unfamiliar with tonglen think it is contradictory to healing. After all, we are the ones with the pain. Why shouldn’t we send healing energy to ourselves instead of other folks? But if you try it, you will begin to notice that your heart expands and you feel filled with compassion. You feel connected to all humanity, all beings, the whole universe, and you seem to have forgotten about your pain.

Metta

Now that our hearts are filled with all beings, we send all of them unconditional love. This is metta, or loving kindness. We wish only for their greatest good and happiness. As we do this, we can feel our heart filling with unconditional love. This energy radiates out and fills our entire body. It fills the room, the house, the neighborhood, touching and healing each person. It expands further to encompass the city, the state. It touches and heals everyone we know as it continues growing. It radiates throughout the country and then encompasses the world. It only takes our intention to love this way.

mb56-TheHeart2

At this point we are filled with love. The sensation of pain may still be there a little, or it may be completely gone. But mostly we are love. The interesting thing is that without the pain and suffering, the intensity of this practice would not be as strong, nor would the wonderful results. Some people say love conquers all. I try not to indulge in blanket statements, but I am partial to that idea. I do know that this particular practice seems to work wonderfully for me. May it bring peace, love, and joy to you as well.

mb56-TheHeart3Peter Cutler, True Sangha Virtue, practices with Boston’s Old Path Sangha. His Zen brush paintings can be seen at www.zen-brush.com.

PDF of this article