This past sunday I spent the morning at my local Buddhist Center.  I set up the altar, put on a pot of coffee, arranged the meditation cushions and dug out the mugs and tea bags (and was then corrected for my mis-alignment of the seven bowls on the altar and the pathways around the zabutons!).  After we meditated we chatted and then spent about 45 minutes doing yard work, which was delicious since the sun was out and it was 65F.

The crew who turned up to meditate were not newbies, so after doing some simple, yet profound mindfulness of breathing meditation we moved on to Tonglen.  Tonglen is a practice of exchange, where you work to exchange the suffering of others for your peace, happiness & wellbeing.  I have written about it here & here.  You envision the suffering in the form of hot, dark, heavy smoke which you inhale through every pore of your being. The smoke is absorbed into the white, bright, clean, clear light at the heart center and then this white, bright, clean, clear light is exhaled out to the recipient of your practice.

When we first start learning Tonglen, we focus on someone we love – it is considered to be easier to do this for someone you love, in comparison to someone you find difficult or in fact have very strong negative feelings about.  I was taught to then do it for someone who is neutral – someone who was in front of you in the grocery store, or who just moved in to your neighborhood, for example. Then you move onto doing it for someone for whom you have strong negative feelings for, which can be quite tough.

From my experience, practicing Tonglen for someone you dislike intensely brings about a huge amount of self-healing, because that person and your fight/issues/problems start to take up less and less real estate in your mind.  This frees you to think about other things. Today we skipped all those Tonglen categories and went straight for the person who can be the toughest person to foster compassion for – oneself.

As Karen Armstrong articulates in the third of the twelve steps, in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life:

“In our target-driven capitalist Western societies, we are more inclined to castigate ourselves for our shortcomings and become inordinately cast down by any failure to achieve our objectives and potential.  It is a terrible irony that while many in the world are suffering from malnourishment and starvation, in the West an alarming number of women – and, increasingly, men – are afflicted with eating disorders that spring from a complex amalgam of self-hatred, fear, feelings of failure, inadequacy, helplessness, and yearning for control.” p76.

This Sunday, my teacher instructed us to close our eyes and to picture ourselves. We were asked to see ourselves clearly and, without ego, to consider our strengths – the things that make us capable and unique.  Then she told us to see our weaknesses – the traits that we forgive so easily in others, but struggle to forgive in ourselves.  “The Jungian psychologists speak of the “shadow,” a mechanism that enables us to disguise from our conscious, waking selves the less savory motives, desires, and inclinations that influence our thoughts and behaviors and sometimes surface in our dreams,” p79.  The difficulty – and what Jungian Analysts strive to help their analysands with – is to bring these shadows from the unconscious to the conscious mind.

So, we sat there, picturing ourselves and doing Tonglen for ourselves. I found my mind wandering.  I thought about the rest of the day, about my relationships, about lots of things, and then I’d cycle back to myself again.

This practice is difficult.  But, it is also so important because if we can’t be kind and compassionate towards ourselves, then there is no hope that we can be kind and compassionate to others.

Recently an op-ed in the NY Times by David Brooks, called “The Moral Bucket List” articulated the fact that there are certain people in the world who “radiate [s] an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.”

He goes on to observe that we can learn to be someone like this and then he frames the habits that we need to cultivate in order for this to come about.  He concludes that:

“This is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer assistance. Her friends are there for deep conversation, comfort and advice.

External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.

The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquillity. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.

Those are the people we want to be.”

Copyright Tamsin Astor, 2015