I have to be real: even after a decade of practice, conjuring compassion or loving-kindness is not always my default response in the face of arising difficulty or suffering.
Anger, irritation, disappointment, fear — primal and deeply-programmed — seep to the surface when peace, stability, safety and simplicity are threatened. They are quelled with time and, most important, my faith, effort, concentration, mindfulness, and discernment (five spiritual faculties). To penetrate and dissolve those strong feelings first takes faith, or conviction, in practices that offer me a deep sense of refuge. I literally need to move through it by going for a walk or run. The effort of exertion generates a physical and energetic heat that helps me burn off tension and generate enough concentration and mindfulness to spark clear-seeing wisdom. As the body cools off, so too does the heart and mind. Emotions, though tempered by mindfulness, are not so easily released. I still have two hands to hold anger or frustration alongside this newly-stoked calm clarity.
The practice of tonglen speaks to me deeply because it allows space for the complexity of our human-ness, where both the suffering and the relief co-exist. It feels more accessible and authentic to me than the Metta Meditation, which seems to require superhuman leaps and bounds toward lovingkindness. Beautiful as it is, I find it reminiscent of the fake-it-til-you-make-it philosophy. It’s a worthy aspiration. Just not one that I can sustain in practice. Tonglen seems to honor the teeny-tiny baby steps and stumbles and the slow, tentative climb out of the pit back onto solid ground. Sometimes that’s all I can muster. I trust it to be enough.
More from Pema Chodron: The Practice of Tonglen [Shambala, 2007]