woman horizontal | tonglen in four parts

today, the exhale was the hardest.

a trust fall in giving and taking —precious tears and shadowed fears, irrupted hopes and radical imaginings — into a world that cannot hold them gently.

where supple lungs now resist the inhale, constricting to protect me from inviting in a swirl of noxious fumes (engineered to smother epiphanous dreams and embolden all manner of delusion).

i can only manage a sip of air: a shallow 4-count laced with doubt that queries for fulfillment.

then comes the subtle pause. a fleeting moment to contemplate beginning again.

i tentatively measure my next release: 6 counts, loosening and softening toward relief.

the next pause, extended, to steady my racing heart and test the limits of suspension.

but i cannot sustain emptiness for long and concede to the will of change.

quaking. inevitable. relentless. burning and swelling into an elastic 8 beats of oxygen.

palm pressed to heart, i yield to the sending, taking, giving, getting, sharing, receiving, filtering and transmuting of sorrow and despair into joy and wonder  —

a persistent rally for life-love-light.


#WholyHappyHour [12/20]: Continuing the Practice of Becoming Our Own Refuge

Throughout this new season, our study and practice will be devoted to learning to hold space for ourselves and others in order to build trust, safety, skillful understanding and compassion in our spiritual community and in all relationships.

Dec 20th | 11 AM – 12:30 PM
at Heartdance Studio, 1806 E. Michigan Avenue

Taking Refuge in the Island of the Self is a mindfulness practice of self-study that awakens clear comprehension and nurtures self-compassion. We take refuge in breath, relying on the visceral texture and sound of it coursing through body. The breath is here: a tangible, sensate experience. It feeds and cleanses every cell and fiber. It anchors and calms the brain. Resting in the breath, we come home. We remember the self in its wholeness — its nature to change in body, thoughts, emotions, sensations, perceptions. We touch the heart and mind of love [read more].

Make no mistake, becoming an island unto oneself is not about disconnecting from others. I visualize myself as being anchored in the center of a vast sea, with waves rippling away from me and returning to me, each concentric ring is a sacred circle of love, safety, and support:

The space I hold for myself –> The space being held for me in which I am enveloped by the full embrace of good spiritual friends (my sangha as well as my circle of family and friends) –> The space in which I hold others.

When I tend to myself with the energy of mindfulness and compassion, I remain solid, fresh, fueled and aflame” and continuously expand my capacity to “love from my center” (Romans 12:9-13, MSG). And, just as the Metta Bhavana meditation instructs, those ebbing tidewaters are then able to carry off the compassion, understanding, and loving-kindness I have generated to others. Soon the ripples rush back to flood me with energies that renew and sustain me. In moments of distress, I send out my suffering — in all its heavy, hot, sticky textures — with the practice of Tonglen.  That which no longer serves me is released and dispersed, its potency diminished. I become awash with relief — cool, clear and light. I take refuge in the island of the self so that my heart does not shut down, withhold from, and harden against the world. But stays open and free to experience the interstitial wave of connection to all around me. I am an island with welcoming shores.

Notes + Related Readings:



Dec 16th | 2:30  – 4:30 PM ~ Presenting “Criteria for Skillful Communication” at the Facilitators Guild.

Jan 10th | 11 AM – 12:30 PM ~ #WholyHappyHour: 5 Spiritual Faculties [Part 1]3 Jewels Yoga Sangha at Heartdance Studio.

Jan 17th | 1:00  – 3:00 PM ~ Conscious + Fit: Building Body Awareness at Heartdance Studio.

Jan 24th | 11 AM – 12:30 PM ~ #WholyHappyHour: 5 Spiritual Faculties [Part 2]3 Jewels Yoga Sangha at Heartdance Studio.

embodied practice: tonglen

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]