Writing is My Meditation Practice
September started with rain; its sky the color of chalk dust smeared across a blackboard.
“The whole neighborhood is getting wet,” my three-year-old gasped as I strapped him into the car. “How are we ever going to get the streets dry?”
It seemed like a grand emergency, this thing we couldn’t control. This rain.
I dropped him off at my mom’s house and turned on a meditation from the SoundsTrue mobile app I’d downloaded last week. Pema Chodron’s voice overpowered the hiss of rain on my windshield.
“I’d like to speak on the subject of Tonglen,” Chodron said.
Tonglen from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Tonglen is Tibetan for 'giving and taking' (or sending and receiving), and refers to a meditation practice found in Tibetan Buddhism. In the practice, one visualizes taking in the suffering of oneself and of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving recognition, compassion, and succor to all sentient beings.
Have you heard of Tonglen before? I hadn’t. I’ve done guided relaxations since my teenage years, back when yoga and meditation were first becoming mainstream. But practices like this—like Tonglen—always seemed too new-agey for me. Too “kumbaya.”
I gave it a try anyway. I had a long commute ahead of me.
“I suggest people do Tonglen for their mother,” Chodron said.
“It goes like this: Breathing in, you take in from your mother anything that you feel used to cause her distress, or currently causes her distress. Breathing out, you send out relief in any form you wish.”
Distress. Relief. Distress. Relief. What a mental workout. I tried to experience the distress as fully as possible, but my brain was always too slow. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it before it was time to shift gears, and then shift gears again.
I wondered what this emotional elasticity might feel like. This ability to dissolve into suffering, then compassion, all in a single breath.
“If you breathe in the troubled feelings that you’re having and send out relief,” Chodron continued, “then you start breathing in for all the people who are in this kind of conflict and sending out relief to all of them. So that your very personal experience that you’re having right on the spot, which you might feel ashamed of, these feelings—instead of them being an obstacle—they become the basis for compassion.”
The world will always have problems that I can’t solve; problems I was never meant to solve: How are we ever going to get the streets dry?
But I’m far from helpless. I can cultivate this elasticity. I can breathe in distress, and breathe out relief.
The written word is my Tonglen. It’s helped me become more compassionate for myself and others, because it’s helped me recognize our shared experiences. Writing is my Tonglen. And I hope one day my writing will inspire the same compassion in others.
And today, Tonglen is my Tonglen. Maybe tomorrow, too. Pema Chodron’s voice makes a nice travel companion. With or without the rain.