Tonglen: A Meditation Tool to Transform Suffering

Vis Companions Heidi and Bianca practice centering prayer

Vis Companions Heidi and Bianca practice

by Melissa Borgmann-KiemdeVisitation Companion

Heidi’s dad died this week. Margaret lost her daughter to a long battle with cancer. Karen endures chemo, fighting a malignancy in her breast. Serena showed up at our door, seeking cold-weather clothing. Our local priests and church leaders continue to discern a course of leadership and healing in the face of more sexual abuse accusations.  Khalilah recalls the passing of her mother; and Francois and I hold the memory of our son who lived for one hour. These struggles or sadnesses all inform our prayers this week.

As humans, we suffer. We wonder; we ache; we seek understanding in the face of our illnesses and all that we endure. And we lean into a loving God to show us the way.

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,
 and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed,
and after three days rise again.  -Mark 8:31
What is the role of prayer or meditation in easing our suffering? How does leaning into the holy, the divine, the mysteries of this universe and our alignment with all of creation, help us transform our ills, and make a way through our seasons of struggle?
He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, 
“Get behind me, Satan!
For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” –Mark 8:32-33
In session four of our “Following the Spirit” discernment series, we focus on the role of suffering in our vocations. As we prepare for this course, we consider different “tools” for helping our discerners navigate difficulty and find a way to hear God’s voice in their present circumstances and their larger life callings.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, 
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” 
-Mark 8:34-35 
Tonglen meditation is one tool we draw on to teach the transformation of struggle and suffering.
In this Buddhist-meditation practice, we find the intersecting Christian teachings of compassion and forgiveness and the Salesian virtue of gentleness. In the process of this practice, we may experience deep consolation and healing.We invite you to try it.

TONGLEN MEDITATION

Here are the abbreviated steps of this meditation practice. For a lengthier explanation and teaching, see American Zen Buddhist Joan Halifax’s “Meditation: Tonglen or Giving and Receiving: A Practice of Great Mercy”  

Find a comfortable posture, palms up, eyes closed, feet on the ground. This work takes great courage. Trust your ability to do it, as you align with your heart’s deepest wells of love and the mercy and kindness you possess.

1) Identify a source of suffering or struggle within your own life. How have you experienced hurt? Fear? Resistance? Doubt? Shame? Breathe in the experience, imagining it as hot, heavy air or smoke, including the feelings that accompany your hurt. Let them touch every part of your being. Exhale loving kindness and mercy. Imagine this as light, loving air.

2) Consider the suffering or hurt of a beloved friend or family member. Breathe in their pain, recognizing you are not alone in your struggle. See how they hurt in their circumstances and invite the mercy and kindness of your heart to transform this woe. Exhale loving kindness.

3) Recognize the hurt or pain in an acquaintance – someone you see on the street, driving in a car, in your place of work, or at the gym or grocery store. Breathe in their pain, and exhale loving kindness.

4) See your would-be enemy, and envision how they hurt. Let their struggle enter your imagination, and trust your heart’s ability to be softened and hold their pain. Inhale deeply and exhale loving kindness and mercy.

5) Consider your pain, that of your beloved, what ails the acquaintance or stranger, and that of your would-be enemy as one: inhale the collective hurt of all and exhale loving-kindness. Recognize how connected all suffering is, and your power to send love and light, joy and kindness to all.

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