We now find ourselves in the midst of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. At the date of writing this blog post (as of 02:00 am CEST, 6 April 2020); there are over 1,211,214 confirmed cases around the world with 67,666 confirmed deaths in 209 countries, areas or territories with cases, according to WHO. There is tremendous suffering around the world as this outbreak wreaks havoc wherever it spreads.
During this time of great suffering around the world, the likes of which we have never seen before, it is essential for us to perform Tonglen meditation. Tonglen is a Tibetan word which means sending and taking. This practice originated in India and came to Tibet in the eleventh century. With the practice of Tonglen, we work directly with our habitual tendency to avoid suffering and attach ourselves to pleasure.
Using this powerful and highly effective practice, we learn to embrace our life experiences (specifically those that are unpleasant and hurtful) with more openness, compassion, inclusiveness, and understanding; rather than denial, aversion, and resistance. When we encounter fear, pain, hurt, anger, jealousy, loneliness, or suffering; be it our own or others, we breathe in with the desire to completely embrace this experience; to feel it, accept it, and own it, free of any resistance. We breathe out to ourselves and to others and offer comfort, loving-kindness, happiness, peace of mind, well-being, healing and fulfillment.
In other words, Tonglen reverses our mind’s general habit pattern of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. During this process, we become liberated from our habit patterns around ego-centric and self-centered perspective of the world. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality.
Pema Chodron; an American Buddhist nun in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and a resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, teaches this practice and has written extensively about it. She has stated that Tonglen practice offers us “the opportunity to work with compassion, kindness, gentleness and generosity,” especially in a time of suffering and confusion.
She has outlined four stages of this practice when it is done in a formal manner. I have listed them below and have modified the fourth stage of this practice specifically to use for the COVID-19 situation.
Stage 1. We rest our mind briefly, for a second or two, in a state of openness or stillness. This stage is used to open ourselves up to basic spaciousness and clarity.
Stage 2. We work with texture. We breathe in feelings of hot, dark, and heavy that are associated with a sense of claustrophobia and breathe out feelings of cool, bright, and light that are associated with a sense of freshness. We breathe in completely, through all the pores of our body and breathe out, radiate out, completely, through all the pores of our body. We do this until this process feels synchronized with our in-breaths and out-breaths.
Stage 3. We work with a personal situation, any painful situation that is real to us. Traditionally we begin by doing Tonglen for someone we care about and wish to help. However; if we are stuck, we can do the practice for the pain we are feeling and simultaneously for all those just like us who feel that kind of suffering. For instance, if we are feeling inadequate, we breathe that in for ourselves and all the others in the same boat, and we send out confidence and adequacy or relief in any form we wish.
Stage 4. Finally, we make the taking in and sending out practice bigger. This is where we include as many people as we can in our practice. We can include caregivers from all over the world who are taking care of COVID-19 patients. We breathe in their pain, anguish, fear, insecurity and breathe out comfort, healing, peace and calm to them. We can include COVID-19 patients from all over the world who are going through these difficult times. We breathe in their pain, anguish, insecurity, loneliness, fear of death, fear of their loved ones left behind and breathe out comfort, healing, friendship, peace and calm to them. Finally, we can include all people living on this beautiful planet irrespective of their race, gender, religion, sexual preferences and breathe in their pain, anguish, insecurity, loneliness, confusion, fear and breathe out comfort, healing, peace, calm, happiness and joy to them.
Tonglen can extend infinitely. As we do the practice, gradually over time our compassion will naturally expand, as Pema Chodron has mentioned repeatedly. I have been trying to do this practice as many times as possible. Many times, I am simply not able to make the emotional / spiritual / energetic connection due to the sheer enormity of the suffering but there are times when I am able to make that connection. I have realized that I need to try to do this practice as many times as possible during this period to have some effect on myself and on others around me. This is the least I can do under these circumstances. Performing this practice in times like these will impart to us a sense of our shared humanity and shared experiences.
I urge you to check out this practice from these amazing teachers below: