When we have to wait – tonglen practice

In her best-selling book When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron teaches the Tibetan Buddhist technique of tonglen.  The heart of the technique is to move from the ego – our own limited suffering – to connect with others who are suffering in similar ways.  It’s pretty challenging, deep practice, but can be very liberating – and can be practiced in a grocery store checkout line, or anywhere that we are waiting, or anywhere.

The source of much of our pain is isolation - being caught in the ego, in our solitary experience.  Expanding to include the pain of others may seem scary, but is paradoxically very liberating.

The source of much of our pain is isolation – being caught in the ego, in our solitary experience. Expanding to include the pain of others may seem scary, but is paradoxically very liberating.

Let’s say you are waiting in the grocery checkout out line.  You start by turning typical new age practice upside-down: instead of “breathe in the good stuff, breathe out the bad”, you open your heart and you breathe in any distress or pain you are experiencing.  And for a Buddhist, to the extent that you are not in touch with your inherent goodness and the goodness of creation, you are suffering.  So any impatience, discomfort, irritation, any judging of the situation, any separation from your natural state of oneness with all of life – breathe that all in and pay good attention to it.  Then breathe out a wish for your own healing – that you return to the experience of peace and oneness.

After spending some time on your own healing, you expand your gaze to focus on others who are experiencing similar distress.  When you inhale, along with your own pain, breathe in the waiting-in-line pain of the others waiting in your line – or if your line is very small, those in the line(s) next to you.  Feel the pain that all of you are holding about waiting in line, then breathe out a wish for healing for all of you.

Continue this practice in progressively widening waves.  Open your heart to:

  • all those who are waiting in line in this store
  • all those who are waiting in any store in this town
  • all those who are waiting in a store anywhere
  • those who are waiting for organ transplants or to get out of jail or prison, those who are waiting for loved ones to come out of surgery, etc.
We can join ourselves with people who wait in much longer lines, in the heat or cold, in situations where being in this line places them in political danger, etc. - all our people, all our suffering.

We can join ourselves with people who wait in much longer lines, in the heat or cold, in situations where being in this line places them in political danger, etc. – all our people, all our suffering.

We end the practice by blessing ourselves and all those we have included in our focus – all brothers and sisters of ours.  We offer gratitude to those who have developed and offered this practice.  See if it has shifted your experience of waiting in this line.  Let me know what you find.

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9 thoughts on “When we have to wait – tonglen practice

  1. My mind’s eye expands to those waiting in line for the only food they will have for the week dished out by a charitable organization, and no certainty that the food will still be there when their turn comes.

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  2. Well-expressed, Majo! I have been reading Buddhist literature lately, including a lot of Pema Chodron, and I too find the Buddhist teachings more helpful than the New Thought/New Age stuff I have been trying to apply for several years. Simply put, I would express it as–one MUST be fully and totally acceptingly at Point A, with all its baggage, before moving on to Point B or beyond. Some of the newer teachings encourage us to just deflect, or pretend that annoying or bad things aren’t happening. Deflections is a Buddhist practice, but one that becomes skillful only after learning to accept the “bad” things that happen, not take them personally, and realizing that since nothing is ultimately personal, we can own that our unhappiness comes strictly from our (usually unconscious) choice to “struggle” with the thing than is happening. This is easier said than done, especially if one is in either a high or low point of the bipolar wave. But daily practice does help bring us back to center, more readily and quickly, and that’s what I am getting from your posts. Thank you once again!

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  3. Tonglen has helped me in many situations by reminding me I am not alone. Thanks so much for bringing this beautiful practice up.

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